Book Review: ‘Desolation Road’ by Ian McDonald

Desolation Road was Ian McDonald‘s first novel, winning ‘Best Novel by a New Author’ in a 1988 poll of ‘Locus’ readers. The story begins with one Doctor Alimantando, an exiled scientist, who is trekking across the deserts of Mars. He is following a mysterious ‘greenperson’ that leads him on to an isolated oasis beside a long and lonely stretch of railway track. Abandoned there by fate, Alimantando accidentally founds the little town of Desolation Road; the book is the story of the town’s 30-year lifespan.

Even now, nearly twenty years on from its publication, Desolation Road has a unique feel to it that has been strengthened in McDonald’s following books. Blending hard-SF elements with the ‘magic realism’ styles that you might encounter in the works of Rushdie or Garcia-Marquez, it has a mythical, almost fairytale quality that makes it stand out from other genre novels. It comes loaded with little throwaway jokes and references, frequent morality-plays both subtle and blunt, and moments of great emotion, low and high. The book burgeons with memorable scenes and set-pieces, as well as pastiches and commentaries on many aspects of the world we live in today, like capitalism, fame and religion.

The characters are spectacularly diverse and sympathetically written – you even get a sense of pathos for the baddies, as well as for the hapless heroes who more often than not only reach their goals by happy accident. There are a trio of identical clones who all marry the same woman, a travelling sideshow circus in an Artificially Intelligent train, a hobo with an affinity for technology, a guitar-wielding post-human who brings the rain back to Desolation Road, and many more. They all breathe with life, despite their bizarre and sometimes sketchy outlines.

Overall, the story balances the science and the fiction admirably, and brings an element of fun to the genre that few can pull off at such constant levels. SF often makes the reader smile, and so indeed it should. But McDonald’s debut elicits grins from the first page to the last, with a few laugh-out-louds for good measure. An enjoyable and entertaining read, and an excellent introduction to an author who is properly getting into his stride at the present time.

ISBN: 0671037536

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