I went to the library and saw two books by Ian McDonald side by side. I borrowed them and started to read The Dervish House. I suspect I’ll write more on this novel in the future, but I will say that I found it very enjoyable: confident clean prose and engaging characters whose lives intersect in a well realised not-too-distant future that emerges sensibly from present day politics, culture, and geography.
But then, after reading the first 100 pages, I was unable to renew it. I had to bring it back to the library to let whoever had put a claim on it read their fill…I guess there are some downsides to not owning books. So, I started the other McDonald book: Necroville.
This one starts off dense and purple. Lingo is packed on lingo, and grimy hyperbolic image and metaphor is the order of the day.
In the morning there was a dead man melted into the street wall of Santiago’s house. Wakened by the first spasms of the skysign [(a tortured writhe of crimson fire)] 50 km above the city, the bodyglove spat Santiago out into crash, loathing and the dawn’s early light. […] The chemical fire that had burned through his bloodstream all night settled in flakes of narcotic ash in the bottom of his veins.
This is the first few lines of the novel and this feverish pitch of prose doesn’t ever really let up. I’m a big fan of this kind of stuff: authors giving themselves free reign — painting vivid worlds in bold colourful strokes. Here, though, there’s just too much. In his doomed quest to continually outdo his own acts of verbal acrobatics, readability, and even comprehension, must take a definite back seat. Adding to the awkwardness, his dialogue is generously sprinkled with Spanish. If his prose didn’t have the characteristics already described this would not be a problem. As it is, though, each gambit and gimmick piles on top of each other making things…messy.
This messiness is not confined to the prose. It’s a messy book all ’round. Messy plot, messy world. Just…messy.
In the somewhat-distant future, the dead walk the earth. Nanotechnology has allowed people’s consciousnesses to live on in mutable bodies after their death. For reasons that aren’t entirely well explained, these dead (who can be stronger, faster, and cleverer than the pre-dead) must live an indentured and disenfranchised life in Necroville – the ghetto of the dead. There’s lots of transgressive stuff (particularly around bodies — there’s a rather nasty future-AIDS that results in the proliferation of grotesque growths), space warfare, and…dinosaurs. It’s all just too much. This is obviously the novel of a writer who is brimming with ideas, but who hasn’t quite yet developed the confidence to not use all of them.
The plot follows the lives of five friends over the course of a day — the day before they are supposed to meet up for their once a year reunion. A couple of these strands are engaging. There’s a nice one in a fairly standard noir cyberpunk vein, in which a lawyer must uncover the mystery of a dead woman who wakes up with no memory and a (sci-fi) bag full of cash. There’s another in which a dying man communes with a post-dead tart with heart. There are another two that are less interesting (a prodigal son wrestles with father issues; and a drug designer with hedonic burnout searches for the ultimate high), and another that was just a bit confusing and uninspired.
Each story is almost entirely unconnected, and very little cohesion would have been lost (in fact much might have been gained) if one or two of these had been sacrificed. This would have given the others more room to breath, and, if the prose had been turned down a notch or two, might have led to me very much enjoying this novel.
As it is, though, I think that if I had not first encountered The Dervish House, I would not be returning to McDonald any time soon.