Some years back I took a university extension literature course, during which the instructor asked the question, “What is the number one thing you’re looking for when you read a novel?”
I raised my hand and answered, “To be transported.”
“Yes,” she said, “escapism is a perfectly valid reason to enjoy fiction.” (Imagine her turning and writing escapism on the board.)
But I didn’t mean escapism; that wasn’t it at all. Class went on; answers were flying, and until now, I have not taken the opportunity to clarify what I meant.
To be transported by a work of fiction is a bit like going on a really good vacation. Sure, I get to escape for a while, set aside my responsibilities. Someone else makes the bed, takes out the trash, cooks the meals. Maybe (not always) the weather is an improvement. But as I leave the here and now in a good, I am also going to somewhere new, experiencing something new, perhaps something I could not heretofore even have imagined. I will learn about another place, another society, and I will learn about myself.
I get to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste a new city. Unconcerned with where exactly I’m going, what exactly I need to do, or people I need to deal with, I can sit in a sidewalk cafe, and people-watch. Old people, working people, kids. I wonder about their lives. I see buildings that could not have been built where I live, but which are all but inevitable in this magical, different place. For a few weeks, I breathe different air, and when I come home, I am changed for my experience.
Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House transported me to the Istanbul of 2027 and brought me back again, thoroughly refreshed. It was a marvelous journey. In a sense, it seemed barely science fiction–the nanotech at the center of the interweaving plot lines is not that far in the future. It’s cool and all, but it’s not all that different from what we already have. We can easily grasp it, and McDonald integrates the tech into his characters’ lives seamlessly, so that it is almost, if not quite, in the background. Nonetheless, it is far advanced enough for us to marvel–I particularly like the cars that don’t have to be parked because they can drive themselves around and just come back to pick you up when you’re done at the restaurant or whatever.
Although the nano is critical to the plot, the characters take center stage. There is a boy who wants to be a hero, a yuppie-like couple (she’s an art dealer; he’s a commodities trader), a young woman from the provinces who loves her large traditional family but yearns for independence, an old man of Greek heritage who wants to heal his past, and a young, troubled man, who at first seems to be either mentally ill, an addict, or both. They are all good guys in the tale, although only the child is utterly pure of motive. Okay, the young girl from the provinces is pretty much without sin as well. The others have dark secrets, or have potentially dangerous ambitious.
The relationships in The Dervish House celebrate love of all types, exuberant married love, the love of friends, old loves, and the love we have for children. The themes include love, betrayal of love, and forgiveness. This is stuff that mainstream fiction is supposed to be good at, but this near-future SF nails those themes.
There are bad people in the book too, but we don’t spend much time with them. I don’t remember their names. They really aren’t that important. The good people are the ones who stay with you. And there are other good things, already mentioned by various reviewers–exciting action, a beautifully clear and intricate plot, and a mysterious treasure.
When I open a near-future book these days, I more than half expect to be transported into a dystopian society. This is not that. Yes, it is world with terrorism, violence, and betrayal, but in doses that the human soul can handle. Evil is alive and well in Istanbul circa 2027, but so is courage, love, ambition, responsibility, and idealism. I went there, and I came back, subtly changed. And that’s why I read novels.