July 21, 2010

Book review: "Desolation Road," by Ian McDonald (reprint)

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Desolation Road, by Ian McDonald

Desolation Road
By Ian McDonald
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-744-7

(Originally published at the website in October 2009, and being reprinted today in honor of "Ian McDonald Week" at CCLaP. For an overview of all the content regarding McDonald being posted here this week, you can click here.)

Regular readers know that in the last year, I've ended up becoming a huge salivating fanboy of science-fiction author Ian McDonald, and that I have no problem with people knowing this; that's part of what being a book lover is all about, after all, is finding certain writers that we can go all nutso crazy for. So ask me how excited I was when our friends at SF publisher Pyr recently sent me a copy of McDonald's very first novel, 1988's Desolation Road, re-released last year on its twentieth anniversary with an all-new layout and a stunning new cover by in-house wunderkind Stephan Martiniere; because this is why I started the "Tales From the Completist" series here at CCLaP to begin with, because sometimes it's simply fun to attempt to go back and read every single thing an author has ever done, although admittedly in McDonald's case I still have a long way to go (his 19th book, the Turkey-set day-after-tomorrow tale The Dervish House, comes out next summer).

And in fact Desolation Road is quite the intriguing title to start with if you've never read any of McDonald's work before, and it's easy to see why it made such a big splash twenty years ago to begin with; because instead of the usual Blade Runneresque cyberpunk tale that was so popular at the time, this is a rather literal ripoff of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 1967 postmodernist classic One Hundred Years of Solitude, only in this case set entirely on a semi-terraformed Mars thousands of years in the future. (And just to make it clear, I myself have not yet read Solitude, although it's scheduled to be reviewed next year as part of the CCLaP 100 series of classics essays; I have, however, already read and reviewed yet another Solitude ripoff from these same exact years, Gilbert Hernandez's Palomar stories from the old seminal comic book Love & Rockets, which is why I feel qualified enough to at least make the comparison.)

See, like Solitude, Desolation Road is essentially the story of an isolated village out in the middle of the Martian desert, literally forgotten by the rest of society because of it technically not even supposed to exist (turns out that an artificially intelligent terraforming machine, bored with the ennui of life, secretly created the town's infrastructure one day without telling anyone, then committed suicide); the story itself, then, is a multi-generational look at the stragglers who all end up at this forgotten village in the middle of nowhere (through getting lost, being exiled from other towns, running from the law, etc), and how the dramas of these families pass from parents to children as time passes and the village takes on a life and history of its own. And hey, it turns out that McDonald even incorporates the Latin-flavored magic-realism that made Solitude such a stunner when it first came out (in fact, it can be argued that the original Solitude single-handedly started the now way overused trend of magic-realism within postmodernist novels); it's just that McDonald very cleverly filters his magic-realism through the prism of hard science, so that for example there are "angels" in his story made up of semi-forgotten biomecha drone workers from long before the planet was habitable to humans, and "ghosts" who in reality are an alien species who have mastered the art of quantum-mechanical time travel.

And all of this is indeed very very clever, and as a result Desolation Road reads like no other SF novel you've ever seen -- more like a densely poetic folktale than the usual robots-n-lasers stuff, albeit with lots of actual robots and lasers and stuff, a bewitching combination of scientific conceits and third-world superstition, which in its incidental passages just happens to also lay out the ultra-complex thousand-year history of Mars' transformation into a habitable planet in the first place, a virtual wet dream for fans of world-building stories like me. (And yes, just like both Solitude and Hernandez's Palomar stories, certain young characters within Desolation Road end up sick of the provincial life and moving to one of several huge cities, giving McDonald a chance to greatly expand the scope of this novel; in fact, this is how most of the population of Mars lives, within a small series of giant, packed megapolises, usually founded by one particular Earth nation or another, and thus each of them taking on the flavor of, say, an Indian city or a Mexican city or whatnot, separated by thousands of miles of barren desert and connected by an impossibly long railroad track that circles the planet.)

But of course there's a problem with Desolation Road as well, albeit in this case a welcome problem; that just like it is with any brilliant mature author, McDonald has ended up becoming a much better writer in the twenty years since this first came out. And so that's bound to make any current fan of his a little disappointed with this early classic, when compared to such contemporary masterpieces as Brasyl and River of Gods; because just to cite one example, the flip-side of all the poetic magical-realist writing seen here is that it often tips into overwritten purplish fussiness, the kind of Victorianesque finery that will make many modern audience members roll their eyes in exasperation. If there's any legitimate criticism to be made of this book, it's that McDonald at the beginning of his career leaned a little too heavily on writers like Marquez, and had not yet found that strikingly original voice that has made him now so loved; to get technical about it, in fact, there are huge sections of Desolation Road that contain no scientific or futuristic elements at all, entire chapters that could literally be reset in a small village in Mexico without anyone telling the difference, which is bound to make many SF fans frustrated indeed.

But still, just like any early novel by a mature author who has since acquired a strong following, Desolation Road is more than worth your time; and in fact, this may be one of those cases where those not yet familiar with McDonald may end up liking it even more than existing fans of his, a fantastic place to start before moving on to his mature works that will literally blow your head clean off your neck. Especially now that it's available in such a gorgeous new edition (and seriously, designer Jacqueline Cooke, you should be commended for a book design that is both stylish and non-distracting, a hard balance to find with full-length novels), it is more than deserving of your money and attention. As with all of the books by McDonald I've now read, it comes highly recommended.

Read even more about Desolation Road: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:20 AM, July 21, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |