Review: "Desolation Road" by Ian McDonald
By Ian McDonald
For three days Dr. Alimantando had followed the greenperson across the desert. Beckoned by a finger made of articulated runner beans, he had sailed over the desert of red grit, the desert of red stone, and the desert of red sand in pursuit of it. And each night, as he sat by his fire built from scraps of mummified wood, writing in his journals, the moonring would rise, that tumbling jewel-stream of artificial satellites, and it would draw the green person out of the deep places of the desert.
That's the opening paragraph of Ian McDonald's 1988 debut novel Desolation Road, which I've just finished reading for the first time. It grabbed me when I read it in the bookstore. Red sand? So it's set on Mars. Greenperson made of articulated runner beans? So it's a plant person. Sailed over the desert? So it's some unconventional technology. That's more information than you usually get in one paragraph, particularly the opening paragraph.
The downside of so much information is that it takes longer to read. It's taken me three weeks to read its 363 pages, and at times I considered just stopping and reading something less difficult. I'm glad I didn't.
It's a very dense novel, and a more conventional writer might have cut out some of the details and characters, or made the book a trilogy. It takes place on a terraformed Mars, and details the founding, developmenft and ultimate demise of the community of Desolation Road over a 23-year period.
Most of the chapters are quite short and concern one character or family as they arrive at, settle in or disrupt Desolation Road. I was reminded of Ray Bradbury's episodic Martian Chronicles, Kurt Vonnegut's mini-chaptered Cat's Cradle and the "condensed novels" of J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition. Like the latter, the brief chapters tended to slow down my reading. Still, there was so much going on, so much exposition hidden in throwaway lines that I felt compelled to read on, though not always immediately. Sometimes I needed a break between even brief chapters.
You do need to read carefully. McDonald doesn't feel the need to coddle his readers. For instance, it is mentioned several times that age 10 is when young people become adults on Mars, which might seem extremely young unless you stop to consider that the Martian year is 1.8 times as long as an Earth year.
Although Desolation Road is clearly science fiction, it has enough fantasy elements that many have compared it to the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American authors. it also has some science fictional elements that some fans don't consider hard science, such as time travel.
There is also a lot of politics, but mostly of a plague-on-all-their-houses sort. Big business practices are hard on workers and the environment. Workers are exploited by so-called informers. Religions based around sincere "messiahs" are co-opted by power-hungry churches. Privatizing government services, such as courts, leads to abuses. And the little guy gets stepped on by all of the above and can't do much about it.
Still, there are heartwarming personal stories, love stories, tragedies, miracles and all kinds of wonder.
(The title, if I'm not mistaken, was inspired by Bob Dylan's song "Desolation Row.")
One depressing thing about this edition of the book is the number of typos. As a copy editor and proofreader, I'm disappointed when a book, a reprint of a book no less, goes through the whole production process and a reference to Steeltown becomes Seeltown with no one catching it or, if it was caught, no one fixing it. That's the state of the industry now; I caught an error in the Sunday New York Times, too. I do expect better of books than even a prestigious newspaper, however. (Now laugh at any mistakes you find in this blog post.)