Monday, 25 July 2011

Thoughts on The Dervish House

This is a book that requires little introduction. Nominated for both the Hugo and Arthur C. Clarke Award, and winning John W Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel, it’s a benchmark of contemporary science fiction. The British Science Fiction Association also tipped its cap to McDonald, so what’s all the fuss about?

McDonald takes a selection of characters who have a connection the the titular property. At the beginning of the novel many of the characters don’t even know each other particularly well, but McDonald constructs a plot that weaves and intertwines the cast in a fascinating and unpredictable fashion. This really is a tour de force of plotting and planning and gives the novel an particularly satisfying conclusion.

And while I’m on the subject of characters (and there are quite few) it seems only fair to say McDonald really does sketch wonderful people to play the parts he needs. Georgios Ferentinou manages to steal much of the limelight. As an elderly Greek academic living in an increasingly hostile Istanbul, Georgios initially seems an odd choice but his story is both rewarding and unrequited. Similarly Can, a young boy with a heart defect, is another protagonist that is fair from an obvious choice, and yet much of the novel relies on his audacity and prodigious genius.

A good novel quite often makes a character of the setting itself, and The Dervish House is no exception in this regard. Istanbul of the future is every bit exotic, sultry and chaotic as the present day equivalent. More surprisingly perhaps is the fact that that McDonald’s Istanbul is so authentic and largely unchanged by the advent of wide scale Nanotech use and increasingly powerful computers. In this regard the novel is a kindred spirt of Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy and his city El Iskandria, which I’m a huge fan of.

And it doesn’t stop there. Just as McDonald weaves the seemingly unconnected lives of strangers together, so he binds together elements of technology, mysticism, radicalism and political and economic intrigue. The Dervish House really is breathtaking in breadth and depth, whilst telling very human stories in slick and unfussy prose. Impatient readers may wonder where they’re being led to during the middle of the book, but stick with it, this is one ending you’ll not want to miss.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Sketches 003

I spent a few weeks doing work experience for Gollancz, which was heaven for a geek like me. Whilst there I copied up a selection of back cover blurbs for old 70s and 80s science fiction and fantasy books. It's impossible to spend time doing that and it not kick off an idea or two. Here's an opening chapter for a book I'm unlikely to find the time to write for a few years. It currently has the working title Cold Caller.


A figure lost in crushing depths like darkest oceans. Arms held out in front, a blind man, legs loose and adrift. The visor of the helmet reflects a million million specks of silver light. All around abyssal yet free of any tidal interference, here there is only the frozen silence of the endless universe. Ridiculous of course, there is always some noise cluttering the fathomless background. Gamma or radio waves rumbling, drowsy song from immense behemoths of the pelagic void.

The figure stares out of long-dead eyes. The surfaces of those once perfect orbs clouded with ice, like rheum and age. Cataracts of fractured waters obscure the ocular, and an unseeing gaze takes in the endless panorama of night.

These are the low places, the gaps between star systems, between clusters of suns, between matter. Even now the low places stretch and yawn, becoming fractionally wider as the universe warps and drifts away from itself. Like a current pulling you out to sea, never returning you to shore, never releasing its subtle grip.

The figure has spent a cruel eternity making its trackless journey to the low places. Slowly, incrementally, the figure drifts onwards, away from even the memory of warm humanity. Away from press and stink of countless bodies. Away from a million million voices crying out into the night. No soul so wretched ever went to such lengths to escape his fellow man. Out here loneliness is total with no hope of reprieve or rescue, just inexhaustible introspection.

And yet the universe proves its own rule, providing the exception.

Impossible to discern at first, then later, much later, impossible to deny. Dimmer than the other myriad pin pricks of light that slide across the black curving surface, one pin prick of light dares to grow larger, like a cell dividing and multiplying. Suddenly the future is pregnant with potential and the cells continue to divide, clinging to each other, growing into possibilities that are in turn already pregnant with other fecund futures.

The figure continues on his endless traverse, and with each passing hour the visor is filled with the approaching maternal speck. The dead gaze of the figure slides over the construction, now visible to the naked eye.

A silver gauze stretches out across pylons like spider legs, all straight and stiff, chitin brown and mottled black. The light of a thousand suns has infused that shimmering surface, even here in the dark velvet of the low places. Behind that great argent sail is an ellipse, seemingly dragged through the firmament. The cells of possibility continue to divide, futurity becomes manifold.

By chance an intelligence in one of the many towers of the ellipse looks up from its musings. Instruments are checked, and re-checked and the pregnancy of the possible now enters its labour. The ellipse draws closer to the figure, as if by a powerful magnetism. Destiny, fates and fortunes all push their way through the birth canal, competing to become reality.

There is discussion in the lofty towers and graceful domes of the city, this city with a silver sail. A selection of futures thrive and prosper, others becoming stillborn in their wake. And now the city, the behemoth of the pelagic void, is bearing down on the figure, becoming his vista, becoming his locale, becoming his reality.

The figure is consumed. The city welcomes a newborn.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Gear Up

Imagine the scene: you’ve got to go on mission. Get the girl (or boy), kill the bad guys and save the entire planet. But what do you take? What sidearm? What’s you weapon of choice? How are you going to get around? And what spiffy duds are you going to wear whilst you’re kicking ass? Here are my answers, be sure to leave yours in the comments section.

Sidearm:Deckard’s pistol from Blade Runner has it all: the bulky outline, the tiny red LEDs and that distinctive noise. The only downside seems to be that it’s a revolver with only six shots. Better make ‘em count.

‘You wanna know what I think about parking tickets?’

Main weapon: The M41A pulse rifle is carried by the USCM corps (United States Colonial Marines) from James Cameron’s Aliens. It’s a brutish looking thing that fires 10mm caseless ammo, and if the light armour piercing rounds aren’t doing it for you then there’s always the pump action grenade launcher. Just watch out for the acid splash from those Xenomorphs.

– ‘And the red numbers tell you what temperature it is.’
– ‘Really?’
– ‘No.’

Around town: The Tumbler from Batman Begins is a tad conspicuous, so instead I’ll opt for Kaneda’s bike from Akira. Probably one of the most fetishized objects in all of anime. Weirdly almost nothing is known about the bike except that it has "ceramic, double-rotor two-wheel drive, computer-controlled anti-lock brakes,” and churns out “12,000 rpms". Honourable mention to the new Light Cyles from Tron: Legacy, which are beautiful.

‘You’re not bringing that sidecar anywhere near my ride, man.’

Wardrobe: One of the many fun aspects of Halo: Reach (on the Xbox 360), was customizing your Spartan armour and buying upgrades. I was always a big fan of the more streamlined ODST (orbital drop shock troopers) armour. Beautifully designed, the ODST armour looks like an outfit we could see real life soldiers wearing in a decade or two. The heads up display in the faceplate is a neat feature and has the benefit of infra green night vision.

‘No, wait. I’ve steamed up again guys. Sorry.’

Up in the air: Do you remember that moment in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace where you were filled with hope and wonder. Sure you do, it was before Anakin or Jar-jar turned up. In fact, it was the moment the Republic Cruiser blazed across the screen, making ready to dock with the Trade Federation. And it comes in my favourite colour too. What’s not to like?


What would you take? Is the Millennium Falcon more your speed? Are the Elven cloaks from LOTR your ideal attire? Your imagination (and the depths of your Geek knowledge) are the limit.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Gentleman Geek – The Dating Geek

After writing the Gentleman Geek – Geek About Town post I was left with a few points. Here in furtherance of Geek-kind, I present the Dating Geek. As ever; never rules, merely guides.

The Dating Geek

1. When on a date, have a back-up venue in mind in case your original choice is full or unsuitable. Table reservations show planning and initiative (see Shaun of the Dead).

'It's never this bad in Wagamama.'

2. A stroll is hard to beat when planning an afternoon date. It gives you a chance to chat, work up an appetite, see some local landmarks and stop in at coffee shops. If your date arrives in unsuitable clothing have a back-up plan ready.

3. Listening is sexy. Ask questions to encourage the object of your affection to open up. Then remember the answers; you can then work these points back into the conversation.

4. Holding doors open is still classy. Period.

'No, you open the door, that's what I f*cking pay you for.'

5. Likewise, offering to hold hats, bags and coats of your date shows attentiveness. Do this willingly, never with resignation.

6. Never check your text messages in front of your date. Excuse yourself and text from the privacy of the bathroom. Make your date believe they have your undivided attention.

7. If unsure of how to act in the presence of gorgeous burlesque performers or Suicide Girls, or cute authors, simply smile, be quiet and do not stare. Try to bear in mind that men are falling over themselves to impress. Some reservation and mystery might serve you better.

8. One should always direct enquiries to a lady’s face. If your anatomy is poor then simply remember her face is the part above the shoulders.

9. A Gentleman of the old school walks on the outside of the pavement, between his dearest and the curb.

10. Ladies who wear high heels might enjoyed the added stability of walking arm-in-arm. Bear in mind cobbled streets are especially treacherous for the high-heeled woman, so offer an arm and reduce your walking pace.

11. If unable to escort the lady to her front door at the end of the evening, suggest she send a text to let you know she arrived home safely. You then have opportunity to thank her for the date upon receipt of said text.

'I got home fine, but some dick blew up my planet.'

I don’t profess to have adhered to these guides. In fact many of them are a direct response of my very own Geek Failures (sometimes Epic). I include them so others may learn from my mistakes.