Ian McDonald

The Dervish House, Ian McDonald

The Dervish House, Ian McDonald

Pyr, 2010, 358 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-1-61614-204-9

I was about to begin this review by writing that I didn’t know when Ian McDonald went from “an uneven writer” to “buy-on-sight” in my reviewer’s mind, but that’s not true: I happened sometime in 2005 during my reading of River of Gods, a novel that has since gone on to become a minor SF classic of the last decade.  River of Gods took MacDonald’s interest for non-western cultures and combined it with a more disciplined reader-friendly approach than many of his more experimental novels.  Taking place in future India, the result was also billed as the first in a loose thematic “emerging superpowers” trilogy.  Brasyl followed in 2007 by doing justice to the South American country, and now The Dervish House takes on the growing importance of Turkey as a bridge between Europe and Asia.

From the novel’s first moments, we’re thrown into near-future Istanbul, during a torrid week in which six characters will see their entire lives change.  Through McDonald’s sure-footed narration (which begins with a literal bird’s eye view of the city), we’re introduced to the six characters and subplots that will form the strands of the novel’s plot.  It’s obvious from the get-go that MacDonald has done his research, and that he’s able to weave it into a compelling number of narratives.  Before long, we’re asked to care about emerging nanotechnology, corporate malfeasance, century-old legends, terrorism and everything else in the characters’ lives.  MacDonald seems equally at ease telling honey-infused fables or describing how a corporation can be shut down by the state.  The Dervish House is a novel that’s wider than it is deep, and it’s this variety of mood, styles, stories and characters that make up most of the book’s interest.

After the stylistic and subject matter pyrotechnics of Brasyl, The Dervish House feels quite a bit more grounded in reality.  Turkey, after all, is not Brazil, and MacDonald’s stylistic approach tries to be appropriate to the Turkish future he’s describing.  (The Dervish House isn’t about plot as much as it’s about setting.)  So it is that The Dervish House shows a country trying to embrace both a proud tradition and the possibilities offered by new technologies.  Istanbul not only bridges two continents, it acts as a passage from the past to the future.

This being said, my praise comes with a few slight caveats.  For one thing, the unconnected six-strand narrative means that not all sequences are equally interesting –a number of readers will find themselves flipping impatiently through some passages while they await the next one to interest them.  (More than once, I found myself waiting to go back to the art-dealer’s quest to find the possibly-mythical Mellified Man.)  I also wonder if the broad nature of the novel makes it more difficult to follow than one that focuses on a strong plot line.  Not every reader is going to react as positively to a novel that features a city more prominently than human characters, and some SF fans will be disappointed at the novel’s low-octane technological speculations.  By taking on a near-future world dealing with the first practical applications of nanotechnology, MacDonald reins in his extrapolations and tries to ground them to a believable reality: it does feels like a mild let-down after the strong-AI speculations of River of Gods and the wild parallel universes of Brasyl.

Yet the result in an impressive entry in a bibliography that only seems to become stronger with time.  MacDonald has, in-between River of Gods and this most recent novel, re-established himself as one of the most interesting SF writer currently working.  The Dervish House is a prototypical Big Science Fiction novel: Dense, well-researched, well-written and intellectually hefty.  It’s a good example of the kind of worldwide horizons the genre has taken on over the past decade, and not even its built-in flaws can distract pundits from affirming that it’s one of the best novels of the year.  It got a well-deserved Hugo Nomination and outclasses the other novels on the ballot.  Few “Best-SF books of 2010” lists won’t include this novel.

Desolation Road, Ian McDonald

Desolation Road, Ian McDonald

Pyr, 1988 (2009 reprint), 365 pages, US$15.98 pb, ISBN 978-1-59102-744-7 aug28

Desolation Road may have popped up in US bookstores in the summer of 2009 as a trade paperback edition featuring artwork by SF look-du-jour artist Stephan Martiniere, but it’s not a new book.  This is really Ian McDonald’s first novel, published in 1988 and repackaged by Pyr books following the success of River of Gods and Brasyl.  McDonald, sadly enough, has had a rough career in the US: While his early novels were published in America by Bantam Spectra from the late-eighties to the mid-nineties (back when Bantam Spectra was, you know, good), he went into UK-only eclipse shortly afterward, until the success of 2004’s River of Gods brought him renewed transatlantic attention and a happy coincidence of interests with then-new publisher Pyr.

My own experience with McDonald’s work mirrors his overall success in North America: While I had generally positive feelings toward Evolution’s Shore/Chaga (albeit tempered by my ignorance that it was the first book in a series), Terminal Cafe/Necroville practically convinced me for five years that McDonald was writing SF that was too literary for my tastes.  It took the rave reviews for River of Gods to convince me (and how!) that I had to pay attention to McDonald again.

This being said, Desolation Road is nothing like McDonald’s latest books.  While River of Gods and Brasyl brought common SF themes to richly believable extrapolations of developing countries, Desolation Road takes on a half-phantasmagorical tone that owes more to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles than to the state of SF published in the mid-eighties.  It flows across genre boundaries –and not necessarily the ones you expect.  A three-decade-long tale of a city set deep in the Martian desert, Desolation Road often feels like a soap opera Western with wild SF tropes.  The prose doesn’t even attempt transparency: It’s an integral part of how the story is told.

The principal character being the city of Desolation Road itself, it’s no surprise if the (many) dozens of human characters have mere supporting roles.  People pop in and out of the story, sometimes bringing along their own storytelling mode and often making Desolation Road feel like a particularly well put-together collection of short stories.  The ever-shifting style contributes to this impression, as the novel will occasionally touch upon comedy, fantasy, horror or techno-SF.

The diversity of ways to tell the story often carries through to the tools used to advance the story.  McDonald is shameless in riffling through the entire roster of SF tropes to solve (or complicate) his characters’ problems.  Time travel, terrorism, robots, labour disputes, tangled lineages, snooker and corporate dystopian comedy all live one alongside others in this book, and it’s not nearly as confusing as it may sound.  In fact, this rich brew of elements is one of the best reasons why this novel feels just as fresh today as it did in 1988: It wasn’t trying to be part of the mainstream then, and contemporary readers have been trained to react well to genre-blending.  In fact, it wouldn’t take much to call Desolation Road an early example of SF-heavy New Weird given how it feels like a blend of well-known elements thrown in a genre-spanning framework.

It’s not a perfect novel (some segments are less interesting; the cast of characters gets a bit too large to manage effectively; the prose can occasionally feel too precious), but as a resurrected 1988 novel, it’s vivid enough to make me re-evaluate my top-five novels of that year.  While this re-edition has a number of issues (the typographic design of the book occasionally feels odd and there are numerous copy-editing mistakes), it’s an enlightened choice given how today’s readers are more likely to enjoy it as a cross-genre romp.  It’s a sobering reminder that McDonald’s has always been at the forefront of SF (even two decades ago) and that even his early work warrants a look.  Of course, I can’t help to wonder if the past ten years have made me a reader better-prepared to appreciate his work… and so begin the hunt for the rest of McDonald’s back-list.

Brasyl, Ian McDonald

Pyr, 2007, 357 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-59102-543-6

It’s hard to over-state the impact that River of Gods has had on Ian McDonald’s career. A solid, but generally under-appreciated veteran author, McDonald suddenly became one of Science-Fiction’s hottest authors: The book was nominated for the Hugo Awards, earned effusive critical praise and was snapped up by Pyr for republication in the United States, rejuvenating McDonald’s American career years after Bantam Spectra’s unsuccessful efforts. Pyr and McDonald benefited a great deal from each other, which may serve to explain why his follow-up Brasyl ended up published in the United States by Pyr, to significant critical expectations.

Like River of Gods, Brasyl is partly an attempt to recast familiar SF elements in new cultural environments. Surfing on the SF globalization wave first anticipated decades ago by Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net (and his own earlier books such as Evolution’s Shore), McDonald imagined a sprawling SF novel in India for River of Gods and now does the same for Brazil with his latest. In doing so, he takes conventional SF ideas and restates them in a setting that is different in time and culture. The impact is more profound that one could think: River of Gods felt fresh and invigorating because it looked at familiar SF clichés from a different angle of interest, a particularity that added to McDonald’s usually strong narrative and characterization skills.

Brasyl is not River of Gods Part 2, but it’s definitely in the same vein. Here, somber quantum mechanics conspiracies unite three different sub-plots, taking place at three different eras in Brazil’s history. But whereas River of Gods was massive and sprawling, Brasyl is dynamic and sprightly. This is not the same country, this is not the same culture, and this is not even the same prose: Brasyl‘s McDonald is nervy, fast and not particularly concerned by good grammatical form: He gets away with fragmented sentences that mix Brazilian speech with hi-tech slang and dispenses with commas. Reading Brasyl is, at times, like being stuck in a whirlwind of cultural and technical references that all accumulate to give the prose a dense texture that has a unique quality of its own. Beautifully written, Brasyl is another one of those contemporary SF novels that proves without discussion that cool techno stuff isn’t necessarily incompatible with fantastic prose.

But even that prose style deliberately varies throughout the book: Divided in three temporal streams, Brasyl simultaneously takes place in Brazil’s past, present and future. The current subplot concerns a reality-TV show producer who comes to realize that a Doppelgänger is ruining her life. Meanwhile in the eighteenth century, a Jesuit operative must go up the Amazon to find a renegade priest. Finally, a small-time hustler in 2032 São Paulo gets romantically involved with a dangerous woman who meets a violent end… only to re-appear a short while later. All of this comes together thanks to the magic of quantum mechanics and parallel universes, but not before a wild ride of sword-fights, superhero fetish sex and a present-day plot that seems even stranger than either Brazil’s history or its possible future.

As a sustained narrative, Brasyl is not quite as successful as River of Gods for a few reasons: Not all three plot-lines are created equal, for instance: After the tornado-like intensity of the present and future segments, the historical subplot can seem like a lull in the action. And while the middle of the book is filled with intriguing mysteries, the resolution of the entire arc can feel like a more conventional let-down. McDonald’s usual knack for describing conventional scenes with unconventional prose can often feel like a distancing mechanism when the book’s action set-pieces occur.

But even with those slight flaws, Brasyl still ends up feeling like one of 2007’s most vital Science Fiction novels. It’s fresh, slick and exciting. It feels, simply put, like no other SF novel to date. When the pieces finally come together, the unusual nature of the plot and the prose lead readers straight to serious kick-ass coolness that wouldn’t feel out of place in a big Hollywood blockbuster film. McDonald takes a serious option on award nominations with this book, and proves that his career renaissance is well-founded: Everyone who discovered (or rediscovered) the McDonald oeuvre thanks to River of Gods now have something new to enjoy, and Brasyl easily satisfies expectations.

River of Gods, Ian McDonald

Simon & Schuster, 2004, 583 pages, C$27.00 tpb, ISBN 0-7432-5670-0

Wow. And to think that I didn’t want to read this book.

You have to understand that I’ve got a checkered history with Ian McDonald’s fiction. Liked Chaga/Evolution’s Shore. Couldn’t get into Necroville/Terminal Café. The thought of another door-stopper novel set on the eve of India’s centenary didn’t do much for me given all the other recent stuff I’ve got to read.

And yet, I should have known. Haven’t I been bleating about the need for world-aware near-future Science Fiction lately? Haven’t I been looking for writers whose understanding of the world goes beyond the usual SF clichés? I didn’t pay attention, but others certainly did: The blogoSFere raved about River of Gods immediately upon publication. Then it got nominated for the Hugo Award, making it jump immediately on my reading stack. As it turns out, McDonald’s latest easily ranks as one the best SF novels of 2004.

At first glance, it read like a kaleidoscopic vision of India, circa 2047, through the viewpoints of roughly a dozen characters. It’s a divided nation on the brink of war, haunted by ancient superstitions and future nightmares, where Ganesh co-exists alongside Artificial Intelligences and Shiva is incarnated by US-built killbots. McDonald vividly begins the novel by a scene in which a “Krishna Cop” tracks down an animal-grade Artificial Intelligence that has become slightly too smart for its own good.

But there’s more. In fact, one of the wonders of the novel’s first hundred pages is in seeing how many elements in SF’s traditional bag of tricks are re-used in this complex vision of India’s future. AIs, military robots, environmental problems, genegineered humans, trans-gender neuters, high-tech street criminals, spaceships, virtual pop-stars, high-energy physics are all used here in a kaleidoscope that feels, yes, far more credible than many other recent SF near-future extrapolations.

Slowly, as characters intersect and mysteries are gradually revealed, a plot emerges. But the plot isn’t so nearly as fascinating as its components, and especially the environment in which it evolves. I’d love to read what Indian readers will think of the novel, but it’s instantly fascinating to American readers. To Western eyes, India stands as an accessible alien society: Substantially different, yet sufficiently Anglicized during the British occupation that it’s not completely incomprehensible. But there’s a lot more to it: India’s mix of traditional and modern values is endlessly intriguing, showing a society with deep historical roots, yet open to technology like few others. Most futurists point to China as the emerging superpower of the twenty-first century, but my money is on India.

Geopolitical speculation aside, Rivers of Gods is a technical tour-de-force backed with plenty of stylistic flair. McDonald juggles a dozen characters with apparent smoothness, and cleverly layers the elements of his plot through separate plot threads. If you do the math, each characters gets around fifty pages of plot (the equivalent of a novelette), and yet most of them emerges as complex and fascinating characters. I was especially fond of Vishram Ray and Mr. Nandha, but there’s probably a favourite for everyone in this book. In fact, my only significant problem with the book (apart from a few passages that seemed for perfunctory than interesting) is that the book ends with a spectacular revelation, without an epilogue letting go of the fascinating characters we’ve just met. There is resolution, but not satisfaction.

But that mild annoyance seems trivial when considering what River of Gods does best: it feels like a real future stemming from today’s reality. There is nothing small, simple or old-fashioned in this novel: It embraces the complexity of the world, spins hard-SF speculation like the best of them and adds so much texture that it’s impossible to remain unenthusiastic about it. It is, in many way, exactly what I want from contemporary SF: Something that uses the tools of traditional SF to make sense of today’s world and deliver an engrossing story. Heck, it even has a good grasp of politics, which is more than I can say for most of American SF.

River of Gods was judiciously nominated for the “Best Novel” Hugo Award for 2004. If the other books are as good as this one, I’m going to be overwhelmed with SF goodness. At this point, I can’t imagine anything beating it out of the first spot of my voting ballot.

Terminal Cafe, Ian McDonald

Bantam Spectra, 1994, 277 pages, US$12.95 tpb, ISBN 0-553-37416-8

It takes more than great ideas to write great SF; you have to know how to string them together. Countless pro writers have tried to instil this notion in the heads of even more numerous aspiring authors, but it doesn’t always stick. The shocking thing is that some professional authors themselves do actually forget about it. Results vary, ranging from excellent if nearly unreadable hard-SF to mishmashes of amateurish slush pile bricks.

Terminal Cafe‘s problems are slightly different. No one will be able to say that Ian McDonald isn’t a phenomenally talented writer. No one will ever accuse him of writing bad prose. Better yet; he’s got great ideas, stuff that most frequent SF readers will gobble up with glee.

No, McDonald’s problems lie in a different direction. In a certain sense, one could say he writes too well. Or that he writes with ambitions that exceed what should be put in a novel. To put it simply; Terminal Cafe doesn’t cohere and approaches unreadability because McDonald can’t string up his great ideas with an interesting plot that’s written in such a way that’s accessible to most readers.

On the cover blurb, it reads like a classic-in-the-making: “revolutionary technology has given humans the ability to resurrect the dead. But the even-increasing population of the rise dead is segregated. They have created a wild culture untouched by restrictions of the law. Dead cannot stray in the realm of the living, nor the living into the teeming necrovilles after nightfall.” Now, one artist wants to do exactly that—cross in Necroville after nightfall. Great premise. Horror crossed with SF, a few mind-boggling sights, a thriller structure and -boom- instant SF bestseller. Insert great ideas, stir as necessary. And don’t forget to explain exactly how the dead are so different from the living.

First mistake: We never learn what/why/how the dead are -including the differences- until nearly the end of the book. And no, it’s not a shocking surprise that twists things around. As a result, a large part of the book isn’t very compelling, because or first reaction is to ask why everyone can’t get along rather than understand the dynamics at play.

What makes Terminal Cafe so damnably difficult to read is that McDonald aims for the literary crowd and never sustains the interest. the quasi-experimental writing allows for pages of exasperating soul-searching by the characters, but not a lot of plot development. Many of the dynamics between the central characters are never made too clear.

And yet… once in a while, a fragment of clearly-written, utterly fascinating passage is to be found. The description of a new multinational justice system driven by rented computer time. Original speculations on nanotechnology. Space battles. Future arts. Political shenanigans. These gems of clear diamond in the murk both enhance the book’s overall impression, and darken it—because if McDonald could write these passages, then why the heck could he have made the whole book more interesting?

It might have been the British origins of the book. It might have been a busy few days where your reviewer didn’t have the patience to try out a complex piece of writing. It might be drugs, extraterrestrials or phases of the moon. But the result is the same; Terminal Cafe is a very mixed bag of fascinating vignettes drowned in oodles of boring passages.

Proceed at your risks and perils. And if ever you’re writing a SF novel of your own, please please remember that great ideas aren’t all that’s required for a great novel; you have to be able to string them together.

Evolution’s Shore, Ian McDonald

Bantam Spectra, 1995, 401 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57309-8

Once upon a time, in a country far away, a few happy people were sitting somewhere. Then, suddenly, a man came to them and said “It’s coming!”. They looked at him. “It’s coming!” he said again. “What is coming?” they asked. “IT’s coming!” the man said. Then he left.

The people, now less happy, wondered what was coming. So they waited, and they wondered. Then they waited some more and wondered some more.

And then IT came.

End of story.

Quoting from the back cover:

“It began with strange activities on one of Saturn’s moons. Then came the meteor strike on Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, followed by an alien infestation by a strange vegetative life-form. For Gaby McAslan and her SkyNet news team, this is the story of a lifetime. As the Dark Continent becomes a frenzied backdrop of apocalyptic anticipation, Gaby fights to be the first to get to the truth.

It the alien infestation an invasion or a gift? Does it mean destruction or evolution? Does it spell the final chapter for humanity… or just the beginning?”

Bad news: You will never get the answers to these questions.

Good news: Evolution’s Shore is good enough that you might never notice.

Evolution’s Shore follows the adventures of Gaby McAslan, (a Slan?) a video-journalist covering the ceaseless expansion of an alien life-form in Africa. It’s an enjoyable ride: McDonald writes well, and maintains an effective level of intellectual tension throughout.

Characterisation is okay, although the members of Gaby’s news teams remain a bit out of focus, which is unfortunate when bad things begin happening to them. As for the protagonist… since this is a “serious” science-fiction novel, Gaby’s psyche is thoroughly examined and explored. Her sexual hang-ups are described in detail and her mental anguish often takes precedence over plot development.

One shining aspect of the novel is are the vivid images written by McDonald. Evolution’s Shore contains several memorable scenes, which help make the book stick in memory some time after you’ve turned the final page. The author’s imagination shines through.

However, it is unfortunate that this imagination stops before the ending: Evolution’s Shore teases but does not deliver. The novel breaks off at the moment of ultimate revelation and we are left wondering at the outcome of it all. Maybe McDonald is preparing a sequel, but as such, Evolution’s Shore is a disappointment as a self-contained novel.

Nevertheless, given the well-written prose, mesmerizing scenes, overall interest and original premise, Evolution’s Shore is well worth a read. Far too few novels deal with Africa, evolution-beyond-humans or original alien concepts… It’s a shame that it brings back memories of Waiting for Godot, but then again, Waiting for Godot wasn’t entirely bad.