Roundtable: Ian McDonald's Developing Economies Stories

Karen Burnham

Several folks here have used the ‘cyberpunk’ label when discussing McDonald. I’ve always found that surprising–the comparison never struck me when I was reading his stories. I think for me the disconnect is one of tone: while I can see that some of the subject matter is the same, I always read cyberpunk as being dark, gritty and depressing (rainy industrial wastelands, etc.) whereas I always find McDonald’s books to be almost exuberant and certainly more colorful. Does anyone want to delve a little deeper into the cyberpunk aspects of his books?

Lou Anders

I would never describe them as cyberpunk, and only River of Gods as post-cyberpunk. Brasyl is a multiple worlds novel, possibly a post singularity one, while The Dervish House is a near-future thriller that looks at (realistic) nano tech.

Paul Graham Raven

Perhaps post-cyber is a fairer term, though I think the cyberpunk legacies – near futures, fairly plausible extrapolation, people caught up in a world where technology and society are inseparably enmeshed – inform all three, even if in only two out of the three threads of Brasyl. But of course we’re deep into the dangerous world of genre taxonomy, which – as we discussed before – is a very subjective thing indeed. For instance, I find it very hard to draw a better line between technothriller and cyberpunk than Bruce Sterling’s quip about the technothriller generally featuring the president of a major country as a main character… which means The Dervish House could be either or both!

Moving away from generalities, though, all three stories look at the impact of new technologies on the lives of comparatively ordinary people, and that’s probably my back-of-the-envelope criteria for using the term cyberpunk. That’s partly because it’s been the default mode of UK science fiction (other than space opera) for the bulk of my career within the field, but also because I tend to think of it less as an aesthetic term (viz. the noirish bleakness of the first wave of the ‘punks which Karen referred to earlier) than one that defines themes and concerns.

But it’s worth suggesting, perhaps, that this very slipperiness that we’ve encountered here plays a big part in the appeal of McDonald’s writing, in that he can incorporate elements of multiple categories into books that have something to offer a wide range of readers. I wouldn’t put up much of a fight to someone who wanted to describe him as a literary sf writer, either, primarily because of the incredible control of his prose (the opening passage of The Dervish House is a great example, and was picked out as such by folk much smarter than me), but also because of the primacy of character.

Nodding back further to the Da Vinci Code question (I’ve not read Brown’s doorstopper either, unless you count the first few chapters, which were enough to convince me that continuing further was going to make me angry), it’s a comparison I’ve seen made in a number of places. There’s probably enough fuel for a handful of fascinating theses about TDH (and about Brasyl as well, for that matter), but what’s interesting is how such an unarguably fantastical/magical element embedded within a novel that’s very much about a plausible and detailed near-future world hasn’t “irked the purists” (to quote Half Man Half Biscuit). It just doesn’t feel at all jarring or out of place, though if you wanted me to say why that is, I’d need a few weeks to sit down and read it again while thinking very hard! Perhaps that’s it’s greatest triumph: it’s such a winning piece of writing that the urge to poke holes in it is hard to sustain when you’re up to the waist on the story itself. 🙂

Rachel Swirsky

Yes, the primacy of character is why I would feel (like you) comfortable calling this book literary SF. The prose is quite nice, but it’s not a primary showpiece.

I think the mellified man passes science fiction muster because it’s treated in a materialist fashion. The facts are presented confidently as facts. There’s just enough real historical account (the paragraph from the Chinese author) to lend it an air of authority.

There may also be a bit of sleight-of-hand going on–there’s a lot of emphasis on the supposed magical properties of the honey and the text doesn’t ask one to believe in that. The other fantastical claim that he is asking the reader to credit–that bodies would react this way to honey–passes underneath the first.

Also, I think the passage where he deviates into the perspective of the man who becomes mellified eases the transition. The second person perspective probably increases reader investment in believing what’s being told, at least once the reader jumps the initial disjunctive hurdle posed by any second person passage. And the passage is so detailed, so confidently told in its particulars… McDonald introduces the anatomical improbabilities slowly, allowing the reader to adjust to each one before introducing the next.

I don’t know if this affected other readers, but it also seems to me that part of the reason I was willing to go with it is that the idea of a mellified man is just really cool. If we’re going to go with the cyberpunk analogy, then maybe it’s an eyeball kick. It’s interesting and odd and disturbing, and also a little beautiful and a little disgusting, and all those traits combine to make me want to go where McDonald is leading.

On the cyberpunk discussion–I’d say the book did not strike me as cyberpunk at all. The closest thing would be the sections about the blind child’s robots, but it still didn’t feel like cyberpunk. I agree with what people are saying about cyberpunk often encapsulating certain themes and moods which aren’t presented here; the text is generous, not alienated.

Another difference, for me, is that most cyberpunk I’ve read gives technology center stage, it’s weird and wonderful and the object of the story’s obsession. The technology in Dervish House, at least, blends almost seamlessly into the text. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the novel is describing a near future at all.

If I had to pick something, the book most reminded me of Tad Williams’ Otherlands, which has always felt like fantasy to me, although it isn’t strictly. I wouldn’t mark Dervish House as fantasy, but I suppose the books remind me of each other because of the main characters located in frequently unrepresented non-western settings and the ensemble casts.

5 thoughts on “Roundtable: Ian McDonald's Developing Economies Stories

  • March 9, 2011 at 11:07 am

    (I do think some of the arguments are based on uncharitable [and in my view, unsupported] readings of this essay.)

    Thanks for saying that, Rachel. I totally agree – although as to the gender politics (and I haven’t read The Windup Girl yet, just a lot of his short fiction), I’m not sure they still aren’t troubling.

    And thanks to all for an interesting discussion of one of my favourite authors!

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  • March 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Very interesting discussion. I wish there’d have been time to explore this theme of “exoticism” (particularly from Fabio’s novella description of “the city is not much of a character in the story” and that the setting is more or less a more generic near future city rather than an attempt to confront the reader with “exotic” Sao Paolo). On the theme of “getting some non-fiction in my literary fiction” — I like this idea. Thanks for a good roundtable!

  • March 9, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    “Chaga” (aka “Evolution’s Shore”) is another, and earlier, Mcdonald novel, set mainly in Kenya. It’s really good, although perhaps the author’s style shows less streamlining than in “River of Gods”, and with a well-rounded main character.

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