Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Istanbul and The Dervish House

My book club usually reads conventional novels, memoirs, and nonfiction. This year, we decided to choose a science-fiction book, based on the recommendations of friends of some of the members. We picked the highly respected 2010 book The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.*

I volunteered to lead the discussion next Monday -- my discussion questions:

  1. The Dervish House takes place in Istanbul 2027, and involves many futuristic technology innovations, like nanotech pills that change one’s brain and flying transformer robots that can be operated by a child as well as by police spies. McDonald also does a lot with character development and local color.
    How would you compare the characters and atmosphere to those in the novels we more commonly read? Were they convincing/appealing/memorable?

    Local color: view of the Bosphorous from our hotel balcony, 2006.
  2. The novel is structured into five chapters titled MONDAY though FRIDAY. In each chapter is a series of quick events with constantly changing characters. (Characters featured in the sketches include Necdet, Can Durukan, Georgios Ferentinou, Adnan, Ayse, Leyla; also at least 20 minor characters.) Sketches of historic events and flashbacks to the characters’ lives are interspersed. Also, background on the varied ethnic identities, the city, and lots of deal-making.
    Did you find this kaleidoscope of impressions and personalities challenging or enjoyable to read?
    Note: I conclude that this presentation is really complicated since several reviewers I checked got details wrong!
  3. Each character seems to have his or her own trajectory. Ayse’s search for the “Mellified Man” seems to be most central at first, but she achieves her goal around 2/3 of the way through and it turns out to be secondary. Suspense increases a lot after this plot element is finished, as Necdet is kidnapped and the boy Can Durukan and his friend the economist Georgios Ferentinou hone in on what’s really going on.
    Did you find this effective? Did the ending seem well supported by the buildup to it? Or too surprising?
  4. McDonald used a lot of trendy science – nanotech, robotics, neuroscience, non-linear science, economic modeling, statistics, etc. Also politics, religious fanaticism, nationalism, etc.
    Did it intrigue you/get your interest/impress you or did you find it unappealing in some way?
  5. The unifying theme of the book is that every important character lives or works in a 19th century building called the Dervish House.
    How did the author use this, and was it enough to bring together all the disparate elements?

* The Dervish House was nominated for two major SF awards (a Hugo and an Arthur C. Clarke award), and won two other awards (British Science Fiction Award and Campbell award). We usually use prepared questions but I did not find any on the web.

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