Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!

Desolation Road by Ian McDonald


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Desolation Road by Ian McDonald
Pyr, 2009, 365pp

A settler and his family lost in a desert storm. A bum with a magical gift for machines. A freedom-loving stunt pilot. A rakish set of identical triplets that may be illegal clones. The head of a mob family on the run from another house, with the wisdom of his predecessors literally implanted into his brain. They are all drawn to a lovely spot by the railroad tracks. A town that shouldn’t be there. A place that shapes their lives, and the lives of their descendants.

Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road is a contemporary science fiction masterpiece, reissued in 2009 a little more than twenty years after its original publication in 1988. It is a powerful story, a complex story, reading like Winesburg, Ohio written by Jack Vance and set on Mars.

The novel relates the history of a community on Mars, after terraforming (or “manoforming”, as McDonald’s narrator calls it — getting away from terracentric language) but before massive colonization of the planet. It covers the life and death of the community, from its founding by a scientific exile obsessed with the idea of time travel to its death some thirty-odd years (Martian years, not Terran) later.

In the tradition of Sherwood Anderson, the novel is told in story-chapters. Each introduces a new character and presents events from his or her perspective. But one only sees the complete picture by reading everything, including reading between the lines. I have rarely seen the novel-in-story technique used so effectively. It is hard for me to believe Desolation Road was McDonald’s first novel.

Given the scope of the story and the mode in which it’s told, it is difficult to give a brief summary. Within the covers of the book, one finds love and hate, romance and betrayal, rationalism and mysticism. And through it all, the sense of how a place, a real, authentic place, can shape peoples’ lives. For, even when characters leave Desolation Road, they do not escape the town’s influence.

For those interested in literary science fiction, or simply science fiction with a broad scope and a rich sense of character and place, I highly recommend Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)

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One Response to “Desolation Road by Ian McDonald”

  1. […] Express is a sequel of sorts to Ian McDonald’s masterpiece, Desolation Road. Though the book has a 2001 copyright date, Pyr’s 2010 printing is the first North American […]


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