Magical Realist Mars: Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road

Desolation Road is a magic realist science fiction novel. Everything in it makes literal science fictional and technological sense, but everything feels like magical realism and makes sense on an emotional and mystical level. There’s a fair bit of science fiction that feels like fantasy, and vice versa, but Desolation Road is the only book I know that holds this particular balance. (There’s also a sequel, Ares Express, but I’m considering it to be part of the same thing as far as that goes.) It was McDonald’s first novel, it absolutely bowled me over when it came out, and while I have read everything he’s published since, and admire all of it and like most of it, this remains my favourite of his books because it’s so unusual. It’s also some of the most beautiful prose imaginable.

Rajendra Das had been given the power of charming machinery. There was nothing mechanical, electrical, electronic, or submolecular that would not work for Rajendra Das. He loved machines, he loved to take them apart, tinker with them, put them back together again and make them feel better than before, and the machines loved the feel of his long dexterous fingers stroking their insides and tweaking their dexterous components. Machines would sing for him, machines would purr for him, machines would do anything for him. Machines loved him madly. Whenever any device went wrong in the holes under Meridian Main Station, it went straight to Rajendra Das who would hum and haw and stroke his neat brown beard. Then he would produce screwdrivers from his jacket of many pockets, take the device apart and within five minutes have it fixed and running better than before. He could coax two years out of four month lightbulbs. He could tune wirelesses so fine they could pick up the cosmic chitchat between ROTECH habitats in high orbit. He could rewire prosthetic arms and legs (of which there were no shortage in Meridian Main Station) to be better than the fleshly parts they replaced.

The thing you have to remember reading this is that it isn’t metaphor. McDonald’s doing a thing that science fiction does of literalising metaphor, and he’s doing it at deeper levels than you usually see it done, so it’s like a direct transfusion of metaphor. And there are no actual metaphors in the book at all—lots of similes, and some of the best similes ever (“The triplets were as alike as peas in a pod or days in a prison”) but everything that looks like a metaphor or a way of saying things is actually and literally true within the story. It’s as if McDonald read Delany talking about how “she turned on her side” and “his world exploded” could be literal in SF and decided to do this for a whole novel, and then, even more astonishingly, made it work. It’s easy to make it sound too weird for people to want to read, but this is a very good book.

Desolation Road is a tiny community in an oasis along a railway line in the Martian desert. The novel takes it from the founding of the community by Dr Alimantando, through the accretion of other settlers, individually or in families, and on through the history of the community. This is a small scale story of love and betrayal, siblings and neighbours and sweethearts. And it’s a meditation on the idea of colonization, and the concept of “frontier” in SF. From Bradbury on we’ve seen Mars as the American West, and it’s a commonplace of science fiction to use other planets to revisit that colonization.  McDonald gives us a strand of that bound to strands from elsewhere on Earth and plaits it together into something new and Martian—though he never calls it Mars. It’s Ares, and Venus is Aphrodite, which gives it another twist. McDonald has always been interested in the Third World, and here on the Fourth Planet he finds an interesting way of talking about that.

We had a reading from Desolation Road at our wedding. After we gave up on trying to find something that expressed our sentiments and decided to go for really good prose, we had no difficulty on deciding on The Lord of the Rings and Desolation Road. I think all the people there were familiar with the Tolkien passage, but I was astonished afterwards how many people asked me about Desolation Road. We joked that we must have sold seventy copies just by choosing the passage where it rains on the Viking lander for the first time. It sounds terrific read aloud, and of course it’s the sort of thing that makes you want to read it aloud. There should be an audiobook.

If you ever want to demonstrate how different science fiction can be, what an incredible range and sweep of things are published with a little spaceship on the spine, Desolation Road is a shining datapoint, because it isn’t like anything else and yet it is coming from a knowledge of what the genre can do and can be and making something new out of it.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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