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the daily review, wed., sep. 1

Ian McDonald

The teeming chaos of Istanbul, a sparkling presence for 27 centuries bridging Europe and Asia, is captured brilliantly in this tale from prolific science-fiction writer Ian McDonald. His opening descriptions of the Queen of Cities, its streets and glorious monuments co-existing with the relentless noise from cars, trams, trains, ferries, mighty ship flotillas and the throngs of millions newly swelled by immigrants would warm a travel editor's cold heart.

McDonald's portrayals of urban life apply right now (minus the technological gizmos suffusing his plots) and he doesn't write travel stories. The florid descriptions that regularly course through his novels are merely colourful bonuses decorating detailed examination of what might just come to pass and even denser prose fuelling narrative journeys.

Here the action percolates - you can't say swirls - around a dervish house in Adem Dede Square in central Istanbul, where once upon a time whirling dancers sought spiritual ecstasy.

Six main characters have connections to the house: petty crook Necdet Hasguler; retired Greek economics professor Georgios Ferentinou; stock market trader Adnan Surioglu; his art-dealer wife Ayse Erkoc; young technology entrepreneur Yasar Ceylan; and nine-year-old Can Durukan, who has a dangerous heart condition and endless curiosity. Their lives eventually bump together despite their parallel stories.

The year is heat-wave-hot 2027, with Turkey now a European Union member. The first new gizmos sighted are swarmbots, clouds of tiny robots configured and directed by oppressive police agencies. They appear after a suicide bomber targets an inner-city tram, killing herself. Necdet survives but is tracked by bots especially after he begins to see djinn (spirits) and, eventually, their ghostly leader.

Young Can has toy bots, but they have been reprogrammed by the Greek to change shapes into snake, bird, monkey or rat.

Besides numerous other bots with various functions, portable cepteps give instant magnified videos of information about anything, financial info is sent directly to eyeballs, deal details are transferred in a handshake, cars in autodrive do just that, drive themselves (though drivers can take over manually), gigantic kites help monster ships navigate the Bosphorus, and nanosubstances can be inhaled to improve concentration and alertness. There's much more.

That still leaves plenty of space for a heap of new characters as well as fleshing out the main players, whose thoughts get more attention than in regular SF novels. The boy's struggle for independence is documented well, as is the Greek prof's loneliness after an early life of protest followed by banishment from academic power. He's trying to make his discipline a real science of need, value and cost, and gets recruited to a secret government think-tank with strange results.

Adnan and friends plan a mighty money coup involving getting gas from a bombed Iranian gas field whose product can't be sold, but the author's excursion into big finance defeated me with its labyrinthine explanations about derivatives and arbitrage and an entire vocabulary of words in English that nonetheless read like Etruscan.

Meanwhile, stories develop slowly elsewhere with vivid characters like ambitious country girl Leyla, cynical ancient Greeks, witches and radical Islamists, yet torrid prose and fascinating asides are everywhere. Ayse is offered €1-million to find a "mellefied man," a human mummified in honey, who legend says was a wealthy 17th-century businessman in Anatolia. Her vigorous pursuit of one of the last wonders of the world comes across like an exotic version of The DaVinci Code, but Can eventually pulls off a detection coup of his own.

McDonald, who is authentic on proper names, food, customs and streets, sometimes comes a cropper when elucidating city journeys and when he slips away from science fiction to wind up the action. The entire book covers just five days, culminating in a huge financial crisis, a technology project involving DNA that would change the world, and a grotesque plot by terrorists.

You may need more than a snort of nano to keep reading - but it's worth it.

Geoff Chapman is a huge fan of Istanbul, which he visits whenever possible.

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