Saturday, May 5, 2012

Desolation Road

Desolation Road by Ian McDonald
Prometheus Books, copyright 1988
Trade Paperback, 363 pages
ISBN-13: 9781591027447


It all began thirty years ago on Mars, with a greenperson. But by the time it all finished, the town of Desolation Road had experienced every conceivable abnormality from Adam Black's Wonderful Travelling Chautauqua and Educational 'Stravaganza (complete with its very own captive angel) to the Astounding Tatterdemalion Air Bazaar. Its inhabitants ranged from Dr. Alimantando, the town's founder and resident genius, to the Babooshka, a barren grandmother who just wants her own child-grown in a fruit jar; from Rajendra Das, mechanical hobo who has a mystical way with machines to the Gallacelli brothers, identical triplets who fell in love with and married the same woman.

My Thoughts:

Desolation Road by Ian McDonald follows thirty years in the lives of the citizens from one small town on Mars. This is a future Mars, after Mars has undergone terraforming to prepare it for human habitation. The town of Desolation Road, a remote oasis in the desert, was founded by Dr. Alimantando when he was following a green person across the desert.  At the beginning we meet the characters in short chapters as each new town person stumbles into Desolation Road, a town that should not exist, and then follow the pivotal roles each person plays in the destiny of the town and the Martian civilization. And, while all the characters are quite interesting, not all of them are sympathetic.

Desolation Road was originally published in 1988 and then re-released for a new audience in 2009. Several reviewers have pointed out that McDonald is the first writer to successfully apply elements of magical realism to science fiction. In many ways this gives the novel almost the feel of a folktale, but at other times it had the feel of a western. Basically, this is a difficult novel to describe. Really, read the description -  we go from Adam Black's Wonderful Travelling Chautauqua and Educational 'Stravaganza to the Babooshka who just wants her own child-grown in a fruit jar to the Gallacelli brothers, identical triplets who fell in love with and married the same woman. In some ways it is almost a collection of short stories based on the town but in the end it does pull itself together for a very complete novel.

I think it should also be clear that it is at times quite funny. For example, this is the reason for the name of the 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. pg. 18

I also need to note that McDonald's characters follow a Martian year for their ages, but that is never explained. A Martian year is almost twice as long as Earth's year, so, when a 9 or 11 year old  is having adult experiences it might be good to note that they are, in fact, adults.

There was one drawback to this newer edition - the proof reading is lacking. There are several times a new paragraph was started right in the middle of a sentence. But, for me, McDonald has a way with words that I really appreciate so it made reading Desolation Road a pleasure.
Highly Recommended


For three days Dr. Alimantando had followed the greenperson across the desert. Beckoned by a finger made from 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 greenperson out of the deep places of the desert. opening

"Who are you?" asked Dr. Alimantando. "Why do you haunt my nights?"
"Though we journey through different dimensions, like you I am a traveller across this dry and waterless place," said the greenperson.
"Explain these 'different dimensions.'"
"Time and space. You space, I time."
"How can this be?" exclaimed Dr. Alimantando, who was passionately interested in time and temporality. Because of time he had been driven out of his home in the green hills of Deuteronomy, labeled "demon" and "wizard" and "eater of children" by neighbours who could not accommodate his harmless and creative eccentricity within their tightly defined world of cows, clapboard houses, sheep, silage and white picket fences. "How can you travel in time, something I have sought to accomplish for years?" pg. 11

"Unless I am here, certain trains of events will not come to pass; this my fellows have decided, for all time and space is theirs to manipulate, and they have sent me to guide you to your destiny."
"Be more explicit, man!" cried Dr. Alimantando, his quick temper flaring.
But the firelight flickered and the sky-filling sails of the Praesidium vessel twinkled in the light of the vanished sun, and the greenperson was gone. pg. 12

Jameson Jericho left behind his home, wife, children, everything he had ever loved and everything he had ever created. Now he was running across the Great Desert on a stolen Bethlehem Ares Railroads pump-bogie in search of the last place in the world anyone would think of looking for him. pg. 21

"Limaal," he said to the child in his right hand. "Taasmin," he said to the child in his left, and in doing so he cursed them with his curse, so that his right-handed rationalism passed into his son and his wife's left-handed mysticism passed into his daughter. They were the first natural citizens of Desolation Road, and their citizenship bestowed citizenship upon their parents and grandparent, for they could not press on to the land beyond the desert while there were still infants at the teat. So they stayed forever and never found the land beyond the mountains for which all Mandella have been searching ever since, for they know that Desolation Road is always one step short of paradise and they are content with that. pg. 25

Rajandra Das had been given the power of charming machinery. pg. 26

There were three Gallacelli brothers: Ed, Louie, and Umberto. No one knew which was Ed, which was Louie, and which was Umberto, because they were triplets and as mutually indistinguishable as peas in a pod or days in a prison. pg. 41

The first night only Little Johnny Stalin, aged 3 1/4, had a bed to himself. The was because he was a highly strung fat little bulb of a boy who would have screamed and screamed and screamed himself sick if he had not got a bed to himself. His mother acquiesced and popped him three or four adult-dosage sleeping pills to keep him quiet and docile. Johnny Stalin was a spoiled, junkie, highly strung fat little bulb of a boy. pg. 47

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