Corvus, £16.99, 339pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Gollancz, £18.99, 576pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Finch, By Jeff Vandermeer
The Dervish House, By Ian McDonald

We don't know much about the future of humanity, but we can be pretty sure that cities, ever larger and more complex cities, will form an important part of it. This is why - in spite of its neo-pastoralist, apocalyptic strain in which people go back to the land – most of the Anglo-American tradition in science fiction has been obsessed with cities. Vast metal hives dominate whole planets, or urban slums run up the Atlantic seaboard of the US; cities float in space or shelter under domes beneath the sea. Cities provide rich seams of narrative; they are full of the mean streets where people make moral choices; and tend to be where the future happens, almost before you notice it.

Many such cities are entirely made up: Jeff Vandermeer has been writing about the city of Ambergris for years, in short stories and two earlier novels. Like many cities, real and imagined, its foundation stones are soaked in blood – one earlier colony disappeared entirely, and the fungoid people blamed for that disappearance, and massacred, were themselves colonists. It is a city riven by the consequences of foreign adventures and civil war between great industrial houses. Now the mushroom folk have risen and become an army of conquest.

Finch is an ordinary decent homicide cop working for the new regime because the alternative is to be shipped off to work camps. Investigating a double murder – a fungoid "grey cap" cut neatly in half and a human companion who appears to have fallen from a great height – he finds himself caught up in politics. We watch him with his untrustworthy lover, his various informants, his partner detective (who is turning to mould) and come to like this compromised intelligent man with the past he does not talk about.

Of course, Finch himself is a colossal noir cliché and the mystery has one of those transcendent SF solutions which is more awesome than satisfying; but the whole thing is extraordinarily well done. Not least because one of its main characters is Ambergris itself, which has colonised the author's imagination and feels like a place with streets, markets and hinterland.

However, it cannot quite compete with Istanbul, the Queen of Cities, and the setting for Ian McDonald's near-future story of terrorism, nanotechnology and change rushing over us like a tidal wave of strangeness. Like his novels about the future of Indian, African and Brazilian society, McDonald's new book is a conscientious attempt to write the Other from the inside and accept the possibility that the Anglo world may be a sideline. Like those books, it is also a horrendously busy kaleidoscopic narrative in which we never settle on one point of view and story-line quite long enough to be as emotionally involved as we ought. We remain tourists in these lives.

The Dervish House is no longer a religious establishment – though there is a street Islamist in the basement who would like to make it so. There is an art gallery whose proprietor is searching for a man mummified in honey; an ambitious young woman trying to raise money for a nanotech start-up; a sick child using robot toys to spy on a suicide bombing and its aftermath. This is a brilliant, jewelled machine of a novel in which lives trigger events in other lives, in a sequence that skirts chaos and disaster, but ends with gorgeous order.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk