Sunday, September 27, 2009

Desolation Road - Ian McDonald

The problem with discovering new authors is that it always adds so many new books to the to read list. I have a tendency to read everything I can get my hands on by authors I decided I like. Since reading Cyberabad Days in January I have read two of his more recent works and it quite convinced me to seek out the earlier books as well. Thankfully McDonald is not as prolific as some other authors in the genre, my bank account is grateful. Desolation Road is McDonald's first novel. It has recently been reissued by Pyr, with some wonderful artwork by Stephan Martiniere. For some reason this impossibly large locomotive reminded me of the illustrations by Don Lawrence in The Twisted World, one of his Storm comic albums. Desolation Road is quite something different from novels like River of Gods and Brasyl. It's one of those novels that make a precise definition of genres like fantasy and science fiction impossible.

The title of the book refers to the town of Desolation Road, which it follows from founding to its inevitable demise. It opens with the founder of the city, the somewhat reclusive Dr. Alimantando, travelling through the Martian dessert. The planet is in the process of being terraformed and a comfortable temperature and breathable atmosphere has been achieved. It is still largely uninhabited dessert however. Without realizing it Dr. Alimantando founds a town that is not supposed to be. According to the terraforming plans the first towns in the region should not be founded until years later. Desolation Road is a blank spot on the map. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the town still attracts people. A criminal on the run, a babooshka, a mechanical genius, a pilot without a plane, a set of identical triplets in love with the same woman, the list of strange people goes on for quite a wile. These people, their children and grandchildren will shape the history of Desolation Road and, as time progresses, that of the entire planet.

Desolation Road is a strange novel, science fiction with a distinct fantastic element. The setting very SF, a future Mars, with all manner of interesting and powerful technology available. In parts of the novel McDonald doesn't shy away from myth, religion and spirituality though. It give the whole an otherworldly feel. McDonald's Mars is a place where you expect weird thing to happen. With the town of Desolation Road as the centre of the novel, it does not have any real main characters. McDonald uses a lot of different characters to show us the different phases of the town's history. Especially early on this can be confusing to the reader. Personally I think he takes a bit too long introducing the lot of them. It takes quite a while before we leave the narrow focus on the town itself and have a look at the larger picture.

That large picture shows surprising parallels with my first fictional encounter with Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. A series published several years after Desolation Road. Cory Doctorow seems to think this book has almost everything Robinson put into the Mars trilogy and then some, packed in a book a third of the size. He has a point, although the approach to this subject is very different, the description of Mars and the social and political issues raised in the novel certainly reminded me of Robinson's work. I must admit I have been avoiding books set on a future Mars simply because I didn't think anyone could come up with something as impressive as Robinson's vision. McDonald certainly comes close.

The book does have a downside though. The huge number of characters McDonald employs in this relatively short novel makes any real development in most of them fairly minimal. It gives the whole book a bit of a soap opera feel not everybody will appreciate. The author also uses a number of technological tricks in a Deus ex Machina fashion to resolve certain story lines. The end of the novel, where Dr. Alimantando's time travelling brings us full circle, suffered from this. It's something I saw coming but I was still a bit disappointed by it.

Despite the ending Desolation Road is a very interesting novel. Especially once we reach the point where McDonald zooms out from the little town and Desolation Road's inhabitants start to make a name for themselves in the world. It is not the sprawling, technology fuelled, near future science fiction McDonald presents in his more recent work however. If I had to put a label on it I'd say it leans to magic realism. So depending on what you expect from this book it could be a terrific read or a bit of a disappointment. For me it was a bit of both. I loved the strange atmosphere and vivid image of Mars but on the other hand the ending of the book didn't impress me. Still, I can see why this book attracted so much attention when it was first published. Someone at Pyr seems to have a real talent for picking the stuff that is worthy of reprinting.

Book Details
Title: Desolation Road
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 365
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59102-744-7
First published: 1988

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