Dec 21 2009 3:24pm

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.

Christopher Turkel
1. Applekey
This book sounds awesome! Add this too an already long list of books to buy and read. Curse your good taste, Jo Walton!
Steve W.
3. Steve W.
Not to take anything away from McDonald, whose work I'm also very fond of, but it's worth pointing out that McDonald often riffs on other non-SF books in his work. Desolation Road feels very much like an SF play on Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude (Haven't read Ares Express yet so I don't know if he continued the referencing in that book)
Christine Evelyn Squires
4. ces
Ares Express, although a sequel of sorts, is an entirely different novel from Desolation Road and shouldn't, IMHO, be grouped together with Desolation Road in this review. I LOVED Desolation Road - Ares Express was good, but I didn't LOVE it. Ares Express felt to me like McDonald just sort of stopped writing it.
Steve W.
5. E Gaillard
I absolutely agree -- Desolation Road is truly something special. I found the recent reprint in B&N and grabbed it. Many pleasant hours later, I emerged wondering why more people don't know about this book.
Sandi Kallas
6. Sandikal
I've been reading Ian McDonald almost as long as he's been writing. I was delighted to see that Desolation Road has been re-released and hope the rest of his work will follow. He is one of the few authors I will buy in hardback.
Mark Argent
7. argent
This is one of those books that I snap up all available used copies of in order to give them away.
Steve W.
8. Capt. Xerox
I read this book years and years ago when I picked up a coverless copy that was in the garbage behind a bookstore along with dozens of other coverless books.

Stores routinely return the ripped-off covers of unsold books to the publishers for refunds and toss the book in the trash.

I read Desolation Road and absolutely loved it and have since read everything by McDonald.

I agree with a previous comment that Ares Express is a decent book, but it in no way compares to Desolation Road.

My biggest disappointment was when I learned that McDonald had cancelled out of this year's Worldcon.
Bruce Bromberek
9. wombatpm
Thank for reminding me of a long time favorite, I now know what I'm rereading tonight.

My favorite character name of all time:
The Mutant Scorn: Master of Scintillating Sarcasm and Witty Repartee.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Argent: Yes, us too. That's why I'm so glad to see it back in print, and in a nice edition. I should have put it on my list of useful presents people appreciate.
Steve W.
11. Tom Scudder
Such a great book. Picked it up at random in a bookstore while on vacation; have probably read it twenty times since.
Mary Kay Kare
12. MaryKay
Apparently, I forgot to hit post after previewing. That happens to me rather often, sigh. Wish preview weren't mandatory. Annnnyway.

Putting the word "desolation" in the title is not the way to get me to read a book. It is the way to get me to avoid even picking it up and looking at it.

Your account sounds rather interesting though, so I'm adding it to my list of Be On the Lookout For.


Christine Evelyn Squires
13. ces
For those who don't it, Stephan Martiniere did the cover for Desolation Road and Ares Express. He's done quite a few other Pyr-published McDonald book covers.
Steve W.
14. afterthefallofnight
@Steve W

I am a little more than half way through Desolation Road and I have also been struck by the many similarities to One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I have to admit that Science Fiction and "magical realism" seem like odd bedfellows to me. A chapter like #38, the story of the infinite garden of the imagination, feels more like a fable than most of the book (at least the first half of the book). To my ear it strikes a slightly discordant note.


Despite this small complaint, I am enjoying the book. Thanks for the recommendation.
Steve W.
15. dmg
You have me punching holes in my library, Jo, for my original Bantam Spectra edition of this book. I have it (unless I lost it), and read it... but remember nary a word of it!
Steve W.
16. afterthefallofnight
After recently finishing Desolation Road, my single strongest impression was that Mr. McDonald might have been sued if "One Hundred Years of Solitude" had been written by Mr. Ellison. The similarities between the two novels were so strong that while I was reading Desolation Road I kept having more or less constant flashbacks to the earlier story.

I found this a little disturbing.

I know that authors and other artists constantly learn from, get inspiration from and "borrow" from each other. But there has to be a limit to how much can be ethically "borrowed". At what point does author A have just cause to complain about ideas that have been borrowed by author B? Or am I making a mountain out of a mole hill?
Steve W.
17. Somewheresouth
@12 I assume the title is a reference to the Dylan song "Desolation Row". But as I don't know when the book was published, it might not be.
Steve W.
18. Fran Burstall
What a fabulous book! Thank you so much for the recommendation.

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