Numerous are the science fiction novels I have read, and numerous are the adjectives I’ve encountered describing them: epic, imaginative, technically detailed, futuristic, visionary, even breathtaking and humorous. But ‘gorgeously dynamic’ is not one of them. Yet that is precisely the phrase which comes to mind thinking upon Ian McDonald’s debut novel, 1988’s Desolation Road. Unable to be anything but science fiction, the novel is a beautiful imagined history of an outback Martian town that springs slowly to life with each eccentric who comes to call the quaint hamlet in the dunes home. Occupying a most unique position in the genre, if anyone is looking for something vastly different in science fiction, this is it.
Though undoubtedly influenced by The Martian Chronicles, the lines between reality, science fiction and fantasy are rarely clear in Desolation Road. Following in the footsteps of Bradbury’s collection, religious passion, personal crises, family feuds, government interference, love, the intrusion of newer technology with time, social bonds, commercial exploitation, and strife are inherent to the lives of the people of the lonely railstop. The founding of Desolation Road, its golden years, and the town’s eventual fade into the sands of the desert could be anywhere-civilized-Western World. Each author’s novel touching in its own way, McDonald’s is just more bombastic.
The story opens with one Dr. Alimintando roaming the Martian desert following a green man who mysteriously appears and reappears beside his campfire each night. Eventually lead to a tiny desert oasis beside a lonely stretch of railroad tracks, the doctor decides to start a new life, thinking the seclusion will allow him to make sense of the theorems and hypotheses ricocheting around in his mind. It isn’t long, however, before a man on the run from assassins, Mr. Jericho, arrives on a pushcart and in need of anonymous shelter. Thinking nobody will ever find him at such a remote place, he too takes up residence. Kicked off a passing train for vagrancy, Ranjan Das, a transient who has the Midas touch with machinery, likewise desires nothing more in life and settles into the town. And it isn’t long before two warring families, a grandmother and grandson, a downed pilot, triplets, and a handful of others fall upon the burgeoning locale to call it home. But what these people become in time, individually and as a whole, is what imbues the story with beauty.
Utilizing the link between science fiction and magic realism (perhaps the only author to locate and unearth this territory), the narrative McDonald produces is, as stated, gorgeously dynamic. The fascinating turns of event, the flights of imagination, the daring stylistics, and most importantly, the poignant relation of it all to humanity, slip and slide mercurially, setting Desolation Road apart from the genre crowd. And an eccentric existence it is. Mars an amalgam of life, little is recognizable in appearance, yet all remains familiar in structure—a testament to McDonald’s insight into society. Adam Black’s Traveling Chautauqua and Educational ‘Stravaganza, the Heart of Lothiani Anael, Total Mortification, the mechanical angel, The Hand, industrial feudalism, and all the other wild ideas burst like exotic flowers in the open fields of the Martian mind.
Told in short viewpoint episodes of evolving nature, Desolation Road is not a standard A-B-C narrative. Two generations of settlers eventually born and raised in the little town, the story describes the tragedies and comedies and everything between of the parents, children, and grandchildren who call Desolation Road home. There are a couple moments of excess, but it is impossible to deny that the characters are drawn from familiar places in society and touch real places in the heart. The coming to awareness of Rael Jr., Limaal’s duel with the devil, Babooshka’s quilt, the immaculate contraption, Ms. Tatterdemalion’s sons, even M’bote’s single-minded desires have been plucked from the tapestry we call life. The heavens are called upon for rain, wars are fought, vengeance is sought, solitude is explored, and, perhaps most importantly, some very fundamental aspects of being human are exposited in poignant fashion.
Throwing a handful of cherries on top of these imaginative elements is McDonald’s ability to use what seems an esoteric and obtuse narrative to present a relevant version of reality. The set pieces and plot devices may be wildly creative, but beneath it all, following the story arc every step of the way, is an analogy to the developments of humanity throughout history—not an analogy of any specific time period of the past, rather a amalgamated overview. Granulizing the major events and presenting them in all their beauty and ugliness, sci-fi is rarely so affecting. In the opening chapter, Dr. Alimantando celebrates the founding of his new town: “Desolation Road,” he slurred, drinking down the final glass of peapod wine. “You are Desolation Road.” And Desolation Road it remained, even though Dr. Alimantando realized when he sobered up that he had not meant Desolation Road at all, but Destination Road.” All so often it is the little, unpredictable things of life that creep in and add up to take larger-than-life effect, leaving us unsure in hindsight whether to be regretful or thankful.
In the end, Desolation Road is a rich, rewarding novel that occupies territory of its own in science fiction. Like Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, it utilizes untamed creativity for literary purpose, wholly succeeding in telling an imagined history that directly comments on the real world with characters as genuine and colorful as those we meet in our daily lives. The fact the story takes place on a Mars where machines come to life, time can be twisted, and the air can crackle with purple and blue static makes no difference; the realism is all there beneath the sparkling surface. Desolation Road won’t be a novel for everybody, I will only say that if you are looking for the literary side or something wildly unique in the genre, this is it.