Tag Archives: Ian McDonald


Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Brasyl by Ian McDonald.

As with many of Ian McDonald’s other novels, there are parallel protagonists and plot strands that are brought together only at the end of Brasyl. The unusual thing in this case is that they run “parallel” in the first and fourth decades of the twenty-first century, and in the fourth decade of the eighteenth century. Their eventual interaction is neither on the plane of simple historical causality, nor is it a matter of “time travel” as usually understood.

Brasyl was the first novel I’d read in quite a long while that had a glossary at the back. And it was helpful, because of the frequent use of Portuguese in the story. In fact, I sometimes ended up looking for words that weren’t even in the glossary. I don’t feel like really gained a richer appreciation for Brazilian culture from this book, but the setting was densely presented and effective in framing the story.

There is a cinematic feel to the story, and despite an explicit homage to Terry Gilliam’s (“wrong”) Brazil (214), the ideal directors for this one would be the Wachowskis—the book is suffused with their most conspicuous themes, tropes, and concepts, from The Matrix to Cloud Atlas to Sense8.

I enjoyed Brasyl a lot, but it seemed to have only about half of the overall length and primary character populations found in River of Gods or The Dervish House, and I think I preferred the more sprawling feel and longer immersion that those others supplied. (Of those three “New World Order” books, The Dervish House is probably my favorite.) [via]

Terminal Café

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Terminal Cafe by Ian McDonald.

Ian McDonald Terminal Cafe

I think I prefer the American title Terminal Café for McDonald’s Necroville. It shares and supports the misdirection of the jacket copy and the opening chapter, to make the psychopharm/VR auteur Santiago Columbar the central character of this story. Like nearly all of McDonald’s novels that I’ve read, there is no sole central character. Instead, there is a dispersed ensemble, not united until the book’s ending. This one is unusual in that there is a clear prior relationship among the members of the ensemble from the outset: they are a former school cohort, now 27-year-olds (a “funny age”) who have been holding a reunion annually on the Day of the Dead at the Terminal Café in the necroville connected to Los Angeles.

This book was written prior to McDonald’s “New World Order” cycle of novels (River of Gods, Brasyl, The Dervish House, etc.), and it does not seem to share any narrative continuity with them. It is, however, much closer to them in its sensibility and narrative style than it is to Desolation Road. Necroville is set in the (former?) United States, but it seems that the dominant language is Spanish. Former civil governments seem to have been reduced to suppliers of law on the open market, where corporadas are the dominating players.

The future setting might be in the twenty-second century. It doesn’t have a date other than November 1-2—the whole story transpires over a single twenty-four-hour period. Transformative nanotechnology hasn’t supplied “deathless immortality,” but the dead can be durably reanimated through “Jesus Tanks” that analyze them and then reconstruct them out of “tectors.” The supposedly foggy life-memories of the dead are, however, no guarantee of a subjective continuity of consciousness, so people are really no more inclined to die. What’s more, the dead are not recognized as having full human entity or legal rights to property; they are relegated to necrovilles when not performing services for the living.

The revolutionary struggle of the dead against their subordination by the living is the largest backdrop (and often foreground) of the novel. McDonald does not balk at references implying comparison of the situation of the dead to that of Africans introduced by slavery to the Western hemisphere. The “Freedead” have spaceships with names like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, and the member of Santiago Columbar’s set who is most critical to the political events of the novel is named Toussaint.

In Desolation Road, McDonald had already established his ability to artfully advert to the prior canon of science fiction. In this book, the allusions seem predominantly Phildickian. The theme of epistemologically obscure resurrection connects Necroville with Dick’s UBIK. McDonald quietly name-drops at least two PKD novels, Man in the High Castle (177) and Galactic Pot Healer (214). And one of the major plot threads borrows more than a little from Blade Runner, the film based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In fact, the dead of Necroville are in many respects not much different than the replicants of Blade Runner. Even the tyrannical demiurge’s name Tesler is not so far from Tyrell.

After more than twenty years, this novel doesn’t feel dated at all. I wouldn’t quite class it among McDonald’s few best, but those are a terrifically high standard. It’s very worth reading. [via]

The Dervish House

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.

Ian McDonald The Dervish House

The Dervish House is a novel of the sort that Ian McDonald is best known for: science fiction set in the mid-21st century in a technologically developed metropolitan culture outside of the self-regarding “First World.” In this case, the setting is Istanbul: a city of both the East and the West, where the past and the future converge in terrorist espionage, nanotech-induced mysticism, quests for religious antiquities, and an Enron-style financial scandal, all over the course of a week at the climactic end of an oppressive summer heat.

As is typical for McDonald’s novels, five or more principal characters feature in their own narrative threads that coexist in a shared system of events, only very gradually coming to cross and tie with each other. There are mature nostalgia and regret, adult striving and passion, and the adventures of a Boy Detective.

I had expected a lot from this book, having previously enjoyed other work by the author, and knowing that this was a recent and well-regarded accomplishment. I was not disappointed. [via]


Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Accelerando (Singularity) by Charles Stross:

Charles Stross' Accelerando


I’ve read all of Charles Stross’s Laundry novels, which are humorous neo-Lovecraftian espionage adventures. Those involve extensive homages to various earlier writers, with some consequent inflections of writing style. Accelerando is the first of Stross’s straight-ahead science fiction books I’ve digested, and I presume it represents a more direct delivery of his authorial voice. (There’s a simulated Lovecraft cameo at page 337, though.)

In subject matter, this book seemed most comparable to the excellent work of Ian McDonald, with an ambitious 21st-century futurology involving radical technologies of simulation, artificial intelligence, and enhancement of human capability. But true to his title, Stross imposes a pace of change far in excess of what I’ve seen in McDonald’s books. He has evidently taken Moore’s Law of integrated circuit development and its extrapolation in Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns as the axioms of his story about what might become of our species and our planet. Not only does Stross have the intellectual fortitude to narratively stare down the “technological singularity” but he also confronts Fermi’s Paradox. He enlists Ray Bradbury’s notion of the matrioshka brain, Robert L. Forward’s starwisp, and other inventions that seem inevitable in the face of unchecked technological development.

Given some of the topical focus, I was prepared for the futurological flavor of this book to have something in common with Olav Stapledon’s Star Maker. Instead, I was surprised to sense a certain kinship to 1970s-era Robert Heinlein novels. Perhaps Heinlein’s orientation to the aerospace research of his day has its analog in Stross’s own background in software engineering. Moreover, the characters and their motivations are sketched in the manner that reminds me much more of Heinlein than, say, McDonald.

The novel has a triple-triadic structure, with the nine chapters having seen individual publication as short stories prior to their assembly here. As a consequence, there is something of an expositional “reset” at the start of each part, with a little redundancy and narrative hand-holding. But in light of the huge changes in context imposed by each transition from one part to the next, the effect is barely noticeable, and actually somewhat comforting. Another effect of this compositional process is that each chapter seems to have roughly the same dramatic weight as the others. The last of them could be read equally as climax or denouement, depending on the reader’s inclination. Each of the three larger sections is focused on a successive generation of a single family moving deeper into the trans-human condition.

While not as overtly comedic as the Laundry books, Accelerando definitely has its share of laughs, many of them with a black sense of humor, such as the throwaway mention of cannibalistic cuisine on page 262. The characters are strong enough to keep the narrative rolling, despite its frequent interruption with bulletin-style text bringing the reader up to date on the state of (post-)human affairs for the decade in question. The entire book — excepting the occasional retrospective glance — is written in the present tense, and it is a mark of Stross’s artistry in using this unconventional technique for novel-length fiction in English that I didn’t even notice until I had read most of the way through the first large chapter. In the seven years since it has been collected into a novel, history has of course provided some contradictions to point up the status of Accelerando as a fiction, but the sort of events it proposes could still credibly be in our future. [via]



The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Cyberabad Days

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald from Pyr:

Ian McDonald's Cyberabad Days from Pyr


It took me a bit longer to read Cyberabad Days than it did River of Gods, Ian McDonald’s novel that established the mid-21st-century Indian setting used in all of the stories in Cyberabad Days — despite the fact that the novel is more than twice the length of the entire short story collection. Despite the multiple plot strands of River, it has an continuous (multiple) forward drive of events. By contrast, Days is made up of independent self-contained stories, which allow the reader to come up for air in between them.

Many of the stories in the collection have children for protagonists, or at least begin during the childhood of their protagonists. Also, most especially with the novella “Vishnu and the Cat Circus” which closes the volume, the future history of the setting is made more explicit and set into a wider framework. In these respects, the book’s status as a sequel reminded me of that of Ares Express, McDonald’s novel continuing the far future Mars of his debut Desolation Road.

I had wondered and seen some discussion about whether this book could be profitably read before River of Gods. My tentative verdict is: about half. The first few stories could certainly be read without having read the novel, and “The Little Goddess” would actually make an interesting prologue to it. Among the later (and longer) stories, however, “An Eligible Boy,” “The Djinn’s Wife,” and “Vishnu’s Cat Circus” increasingly involve potential spoilering of some of the most surprising turns of the River. At the same time, these were some of the most satisfying to read after the novel, enlarging on themes and ideas that were introduced there.

The Cyberabad future is not one that leans on pre-fabricated tropes or genre cliches. McDonald’s stories are full of fresh, big ideas about technology, social and cultural change, and human destiny. But the foreground is always taken up with interesting, compelling characters: their ambitions, cares, affections, and trials. [via]



The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.