Daily Archives: January 21st, 2011

Dervish House

I have long been enamoured of Turkey. Actually, strictly speaking I have long been enamoured of the idea of Turkey: the decadence, the luxury, the it’s very different there. Over the last number of years I have come to the realisation that this idea, or dream, of the country is a very European one, and a very colonial one in many regards – it’s a view of “the East” that has existed in “the West” at least since the Romans had their snooty ideas about Egypt and Persia. Despite being well aware of its source, and feeling uncomfortable about that, there is still an allure in those incredibly not-politically-correct views. And that’s the point, of course: the allure comes from the (alleged) exotic nature of somewhere very ‘different’ (from Western Europe), and difference is always attractive. (The point, too, was that by identifying certain things like decadence as traits from over there, the viewer could take the prim moral stance and still enjoy it. But I digress….)

I got to thinking about these sorts of things in reading The Dervish House because it is set in near-future Istanbul: a city in many ways very similar to those of Western Europe, America, and Australia that I am familiar with, but with enough differences – real differences – that it retains an aura of the exotic. The story could, with some changes of course, be set in any city really. But setting it in Istanbul allows McDonald to do many things, not least of which is imbuing his setting with a deep sense of history that the relatively new cities of America and Australia just don’t have. Istanbul is very much a character in this novel; the complexity of the city itself – geographically, historically – is deeply important to the plot and the characters. There is even a character whose main interest in life is mapping the social history of the city, an idea I find very attractive.

The Dervish House is a simultaneously dense and frantic novel. In 472 pages McDonald covers five days in the life of the city, from the point of view of six main characters. An old Greek man, a young Turkish invalid, a successful businesswoman, an ambitious businesswoman, a no-hoper and a stockmarket player: with this cast, McDonald creates a vibrant city. Some of their stories interweave with one another, at one point or another, while others appear tangential; all combine to give a rich, rich view of the near future. Their plots are wonderfully varied: there’s romance, there’s adventure, there’s corporate espionage and shady deals and antiquarian detective work; religious fanaticism, world-weariness, wild success and disappointments. At times the writing is so dense that I had a little trouble following it, but the sheer beauty of it – along with the compelling sense that I needed to know what was going to happen – meant that wasn’t too much of a hassle.

One of the things that fascinated me about this book is that reading it as an SF reader, it’s clearly SF; there are enough references to nanotechnology and other futuristic things to ensure that. However, the date isn’t made clear until about two-thirds of the way through the book, and the technology isn’t really central, so it ought to have broader mainstream appeal, too.

BSG: I still won’t watch the opening credits

You know, where they do the “on this episode” flashes? Doesn’t matter that I’ve seen it all before; I still Will. Not. Watch. I hide my eyes and everything. Also, it annoys me a lot that they included that on the DVD versions.

1.3: Bastille Day

I don’t think I realised what the title of this episode was when I first watched it. It’s incredibly resonant, of course, and for me at the moment even more so – I’m teaching the French Rev this year, again, and I’ve been furiously reading books about it. Bastille Day, for those vague on the details, is popularly seen as the ‘official’ beginning of the French Revolution: a crowd of people in Paris stormed the Bastille, a prison regarded as a symbol of the king’s oppression in the middle of Paris. The irony, of course, is that when they got in there were only about 7 inmates – and none of them were in for political reasons. (If you follow Schama, it’s also indicative of the violence that escalated basically until Napoleon took control). Here, of course, although there are 1500 prisoners who have presumably committed a variety of crimes, the focus is entirely on one: Tom Zarek. (And when I discovered that he was Apollo in the original series, my mind nearly exploded.) Freedom fighter or terrorist, Zarek manages to capture (our) Apollo and friends when they come to ask the prisoners to do hard labour to get water for the fleet. And what he demands is elections across the fleet. The very fact that it was called Bastille Day is indicative, I think, of where the sympathies of the show’s creators lie; most people regard the day as a good thing in the progression towards democracy. And so, when this possibly evil man is demanding exactly the sorts of things that reasonable people have been demanding in Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma the last few years… well. The writers are not making this an easy show to watch.

Also, I love the ending, where Apollo has to face up to his father and the President and announce he has committed them to elections. It’s exactly like a kid being hauled up before his parents.

1.4: Act of Contrition

It’s all about Starbuck. She may get a bit annoying in places, over four seasons, but this show is just all about Starbuck here.

To start the episode with a flash of Starbuck falling through atmosphere is very clever – the fact that they don’t make it clear whether this is a flashback, or a dream, or what adds significantly to the tension. The further flashbacks to her with Zac, and then her first meeting with the Commanders – when we the viewers already know what she did and how guilty she feels – are superb and very effective. I really appreciate how conflicted they make Starbuck; it’s not overdone, and it doesn’t come out in every single action, but it’s clearly always there. As it would be. It also tells you something about the show that in the fourth episode they have one of the main characters possibly die. No punches pulled.

This episode also has Roslin chatting to the fleet doctor about her breast cancer. I’m still not entirely sure what I make of that particular plot point. Of course it leads to the whole ‘dying leader’ thing, and it has a slight side discussion of ‘alternative’ vs mainstream medicine, plus the whole ‘how to deal with terminal illness’ thing. It also makes her more vulnerable and human, which I like; it matches, I guess, with Adama’s grief over Zac.

So this one finishes as a cliffhanger; Starbuck has fallen on to the planet, oh nooo!! We had only planned to watch two episodes… but we couldn’t just LEAVE her there.

1.5: You Can’t go Home Again

Ah, the rescue of Starbuck. Which is awesome because she rescues herself; that’s my girl. I love, love, love that the Cylon raider is a genuine cyborg, and I am willing to overlook all of the issues of how Starbuck learns to control the thing for the very fact that she does, and it’s so very awesome.

The other fascinating aspect is how Starbuck’s absence affects both Adama men – they can’t handle it. Roslin suggests it’s because she’s their last connection to Zac; I think it’s also guilt, especially from Adama Sr, that he drove her to the point of having to be (more) rash. And for Apollo… yes well, we know where that particular relationship goes (if you’ve seen it that is. If you haven’t, why are you reading this?). Roslin also highlights the military vs civilian issue that is going to continue plaguing the fleet: the military (well, Adama) making decisions that affect everyone, but aren’t necessarily the right ones to make for everyone.

Finally, it totally freaks me out that they smoke onboard a spaceship. WTH??