Fiction Reviews

Desolation Road

(1989/2009) Ian McDonald, Pyr, US$15.98, trdpbk, 384 pp, ISBN 978-1-591-02744-7


It is 20 years since Ian McDonald's debut novel burst on us and back then we knew it was something a little special: indeed, I know we knew as I reviewed Desolation Road back then when it first came out from Britain's Bantam and when, back then, Concatenation was a print semi-prozine distributed simultaneously at the then two UK Eastercons (the largely books and cinematic one and the largely media SF one). 20 years on and now Pyr is bringing it to a N. American readership and what a joy awaits you, you lucky, lucky souls: what a treat! This is literary SF that is simply a wordsmiths' delight: a veritable nugget of wonder wrapped up as a humble paperback and so demonstrating that, if not the pen, the typewriter - well it was conceived in 1988 - is truly mighty.

Desolation Road is set on Mars; a terra-formed Mars of the not-so-distant future. Specifically it is set on a marginal clutch of buildings in the middle of nowhere called, appropriately enough, 'Desolation Road'. Yet as unremarkable as this settlement is, it nonetheless witnessed many comings and goings and its citizens included some of the most colourful folk to walk the Red Planet. Witness the game of the Greatest Snooker Player the world has ever known. Catch, as it passes through the hamlet, Adam Black's wonderful Travelling Chautauqua and Educational 'Stravagana. Fear the Amazing Scorn-mutant Master of Scintillating Sarcasm and Repartee...

Of course Desolation Road was not always an insignificant backwater. For a while it was the focus of ROTECH and the Bethlehem Ares Corporation's industrial might.

Through out all this there is the ever absent settlement founder, Dr Alimantando, who skips time and realities around these tales.

Ian Mc Donald has crafted a rich tapestry (just as one of Desolation Road's citizens, Eva Mandella wove) charting the town's history through captivating tales. The threads he weaves are both of hard SF and fantasy, often skilfully exchanging such tropes without warning but not so as to confuse but to enchant the reader. There is humour too, sharp and dry, that lubricates this very colourful work.

Now I have dug out my 1989 print review and see that I posed the question 'will this new British Author maintain such a high standard?' Well in one sense we now know. In 2005 with the Hugo nomination of River of Gods and of course in 2007 we had Brasyl which also in 2008 was nominated for a Hugo (that it should have won is another story). However in between we had a bit of a slog. You see first novels are often quite good. The debut author writes using his or her best ideas and there are no editorial deadlines. Therefore, all too frequently, their next novels are simply not so good. This was - in my opinion - also true of McDonald. You see, yes, the man could write captivating descriptive prose depicting outlandish and surreal images, landscapes and such. All this was suited to Desolation Road that had the settlement as an anchor on which to hang the novel and charting the settlement's history provided the narrative drive. He then for a couple of books tried a travelogue-for-his-protagonist type novel that really was 'that was that place and this is this place coming up' type of story. Yet as good as these books were in terms of images and prose, the actual stories being told were fairly non-existent: the reader spent time wrapped up in the words. In more recent years McDonald has discovered the importance of plot, plot development and narrative flow driving the same, yet he has retained the descriptive elements he does so well through foreign settings. And so he has excelled with more recent novels like River of Gods (2004) and Brasyl (2007). However Desolation Road was where it started and what a great start it was.

Jonathan Cowie

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