Desolation Road, Ian McDonald

I was looking for McDonald’s more recent books at the used book store, when I found this. I wasn’t even sure this was the same Ian McDonald, given the book is more than 20 years old. But, it turns out Desolation Road was the much-acclaimed first novel of the same Ian McDonald who’s recently made waves with Brasyl and the story collection Cyberabad Days.

The book at hand is an episodic novel, told in a magical-realist style, about the development of a tiny outpost in the Martian desert into an industrial city where events change the world, and which is finally destroyed by threads woven into its fabric at its founding.

Wikepedia seems to think that any comparison to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles is unrelated to style, but I don’t think a comparison can be avoided. The first half, at least, of Desolation Road, is episodic in structure, much like Bradbury’s book, which was a stitch-up of a series of short stories. Both bring a literary sensibility (Bradbury being maybe most heavily influenced by Ring Lardner,  McDonald by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) to a science fiction story. Most importantly, both present characters as people, with much the same motivations and flaws as people on Earth today, living in a science fiction setting — which in both cases happens to be Mars.

Of course, the comparison has to end somewhere. McDonald didn’t have the chance to rework material he’d been away from for a while, and a few unpolished edges show — spots where a roughly chosen word sticks out and breaks the flow of the story. These rough edges are not the same as the places where McDonald occasionally, deliberately and effectively, I think, uses a crude word or brutal event to make a jarring (or eye-opening) departure from the overall elegiac tone. Finally, after its episodic beginning, McDonald’s novel follows more direct plot threads than Bradbury’s, and eventually builds up to a climactic battle scene more in the mode of off-the-rack SF.

I haven’t read any of Garcia Marquez’s works, so I can’t say whether McDonald was influenced by the magical realist style leader, or simply reproduced his style wholesale. In any case, its said that true art is made by stealing from the best. With that in mind, the story might well be compared with Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, often described as a pastiche of John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy. However strong their influences, both novels bring fresh literary currents into the science fiction genre.

With only minor flaws, and with a lot of new ideas to ponder, Desolation Road is a fantastic story that deserves a place in the highest reaches of the SF firmament.


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