Book Review – “Desolation Road” by Ian McDonald

Several years ago, 2010 I believe, I stumbled on the book “River of Gods” by Ian McDonald. Honestly, I thought the cover art looked rather bland, but it came recommended and I was willing to give it a chance on the setting alone, India being an underutilized location in most sci-fi. I was totally caught up in the diversity of perspectives, the stunning future tech (A third, neuter gender! Killer robots shaped like Kali! Virtual reality soap operas run by artificial intelligences!) and above all in the awe-inspiring scope.

Not long after, I consumed “The Dervish House” at a feverish rate, amazed again at the sheer volume of ideas being thrown at me (Modular, self arranging robots! Cellular computing! Ancient mystics preserved in honey?). And again, the setting was the star, with near-future Istanbul providing just as stunning a backdrop as further-future India had before.

Ian McDonald’s first novel,”Desolation Road,” set in a terraformed Mars nearly 1000 years in the future, has all the strengths of his later works, with few of the typical weaknesses one associates with freshman works. And, like his later works, there is an astonishing array of creativity on display.

It all began thirty years ago on Mars, with a greenperson. But by the time it all finished, the town of Desolation Road had experienced every conceivable abnormality from Adam Black’s Wonderful Travelling Chautauqua and Educational ‘Stravaganza (complete with its very own captive angel) to the Astounding Tatterdemalion Air Bazaar. Its inhabitants ranged from Dr. Alimantando, the town’s founder and resident genius, to the Babooshka, a barren grandmother who just wants her own child-grown in a fruit jar; from Rajendra Das, mechanical hobo who has a mystical way with machines to the Gallacelli brothers, identical triplets who fell in love with-and married-the same woman.

As you can glimpse from that description, in “Desolation Road” Ian McDonald is less concerned with making sure that I clearly understand or comprehend all the elements at work, and more concerned with setting a tone and a sense of place that is infused with, well, magic. Most agree that “Desolation Road” is an amalgam of science fiction and magical realism, with it being compared, favorably, with Gael Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I can make no substantive remark on this, other than to say I intend to read that work as soon as possible, and that a comparison of the two would make for a very interesting future post. For now, suffice it to say that while most of the “magical” elements can be explained by far future technology (cellular computing, nanotechnology, uploadable consciousnesses) there are some that are still left in the realm of the unknowable. McDonald even goes so far as to say,

The science which doesn’t include that which it can’t explain is no science at all…what is so great about knowing only what can be know? (p. 354)

(This passage’s similarities to both the Tao Te Ching and the apophatic tradition of the Christian church are quite interesting, but that’s for another time/post)

As with so many great works (and make no mistake; this is an unqualified classic), it’s strengths mask it’s weaknesses; in this case the overabundance of characters, relationships, and ideas at play could have benefited from a stronger editorial presence, especially by the ends (of which it has six) simply to tie up all the diverse threads that McDonald laid down in the beginning. Add to this that the intertwined relationships of the denizens of the rail-side hamlet of Desolation Road become so intertwined and byzantine that discerning who is related to whom becomes a bit of a chore.But let me be frank.

I really don’t care.

There are times where it’s more fun to just sit back and let an author take you on a ride through his universe, pointing out all the cool things he’s made. And if Ian McDonald is the guide, you can count me in.


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