Sunday, 5 August 2012

Ian McDonald

I'm not sure how I've managed to get through more than 250 posts on this blog without raving about Ian McDonald.  McDonald is a British science fiction writer based in Belfast in Northern Ireland, but his writing reveals a true world citizen.

I've previously commented how much better current speculative fiction writers are than their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s.  Of course there's still plenty of trash, but the sprawling space operas of Iain M Banks and the taut, adventurous cyberpunk of William Gibson are as good as any literary writing you will read. 
McDonald is the equal of these and perhaps even superior to them.  He has a lot more in common with Gibson than Banks, his writing set in the near future, and his settings defined by where our current technologies might take us within our own lifetimes.  Yet where Gibson's novels are almost claustrophobic with their small casts of characters, secret rooms and secretive plots, McDonald's palette is as broad as Banks', with his diverse casts of characters and complex tapestry of plots and sub-plots.  He also goes way beyond the cyberpunks in his technological imagination.

What really sets McDonald apart, though, is his cross-cultural focus and his global outlook.  2004's River of Gods is set primarily in India, broken into rival nations and beset by a failed monsoon and the danger of water wars.  Regulators fight a losing battle against advanced artificial intelligences, surgery and hormones have created a new gender, and CGI actors acquire ther own personalities, contract virtual marriages and give interviews.  Meanwhile a mysterious entity in orbit around the earth generates pictures of two American scientists, who travel to India to find out why.

2007's Brasyl traverses three different periods in Brazil's history and an infinite number of universes. Reality TV comes up against genuine criminal reality, faith battles rogue imperialism, and ordinary people struggle for day to day survival.  His most recent, The Dervish House, published in 2009, is set in Instanbul, in the grip of a heatwave.  It features cowboy gas traders, a hunt for a mythical historical artefact, a deaf boy hunting terrorists with his toy robots, street shariat, a retired economics professor and a man who sees djinn.  The artificial intelligences that are front and centre in River of Gods are taken for granted here while the possibilities of nanotechnology loom large.  What if all human knowledge could be encoded in your DNA for future reference, nanotech could enable telepathic communication.  What would it cost and who would profit?

His combination of cultures we barely know, with their own deep religious and political histories, and futures we can barely imagine produces a dizzying imaginative landscape.   Yet as in any fiction, you only keep reading if you care about the characters.  It's hard when there's so much going on to keep the focus on characterisation, but he manages to create real people with real problems, and you want to see them solved.  Sometimes they are not, sometimes they are in surprising ways.  Like the best novels, he always leaves you wanting more.

Just to give you a taster, here's my favourite quote from The Dervish House.  Economist Georgios Ferentinou is discussing crows with an expert in bird behaviour during a break in a high-level think tank they both sit on.

Georgios Ferentinou cocks his head, intrigued, an unconscious mirror of the stalking jackdaw outside.

"You seem disenamoured with the objects of your study."

"You don't love crows, you admire them.  They exploit our capacity for chaos.  Forget polar bears or whatever kind of tuna we're supposed to care about this month; crows are the bellwethers of what we're doing to the planet.  The bigger the mess we make, the better they like it.  New behaviours are spreading through crow populations like wildfire.  Ten years ago Japanese crows learned to drop hard nuts at road intersections for cars to crack with their tyres.  And not just that, they'd wait for a red light before picking them up again.  Now crows in London are doing that.  Ten years to cross Eurasia.  There's an evolutionary pressure, and if it's working on crows, it's working on us, we just haven't seen it yet.  Now those same Japanese crow populations are showing behaviours that simply could not have had time to evolve.  They can count up to ten.  They're making marks in mud on roosts.  Rows of mud dots.  Now if that doesn't scare you...Do you want to hear the theory?  It scares the shit out of me: they're picking up waste nano from the environment and it's rewiring their brains."

"God save us," says Georgios Ferentinou and in the coffee queue he feels the clutch of intellectual excitement and fear that comes from the realization that the universe needs nothing from humans.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The boy was not deaf. He had a heart condition.