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Desolation Road by Ian McDonald

1/8/2010. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin

Buy Desolation Road in the USA - or Buy Desolation Road in the UK

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pub: Pyr/Prometheus Books. 363 page enlarged paperback. Price: $15.98 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59102-744-7.

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Ian McDonald is widely regarded as one of the most diverse and interesting of Science Fiction authors writing today. Having been nominated for most of the major SF awards for his last two novels, 'River Of Gods' and 'Brasyl', anticipation of his work grows stronger with each of his works. This book however, goes back to the origins of McDonald's career. 'Desolation Road' is a re-released edition of the author's first novel, which won the Locus Award First Novel Prize in 1989.

'Desolation Road' is set on Mars but the multi-cultural nature of the many denizens of McDonald's Mars are hints of the culture-spanning nature of his fiction, which has recently explored future India and Brazil to such great effect. Desolation Road of the title is a new settlement by the side of the train tracks in the middle of the Martian desert. Over many brief and dynamic chapters, we are introduced to the melting pot of quirky characters who will come to call the growing town home and later lead to its downfall.

There are too many stories here to list them all, each of them as audacious and fantastical as the next. From the flightless pilot who marries triplets to the bizarre baby-swapping of the eldest couple in the town, the novel sets the scene early that this book doesn't exactly play by the same rules as we are used to.

Each of the children of the inhabitants seems to have some special innate gift as we watch them grow. Limaal Mandella, the 'Greatest Snooker Player The Universe Had Ever Known', leaves the town to play snooker against all and sundry and beat them all, including the Devil. Arnie Tenebrae sneaks away with the Whole Earth Army after seducing a young officer and grows to become the fiercest military leader the planet has ever seen.

There are enough stories in here for ten books, including old Dr. Alimantando's discovery of time travel and his attempts to find the green man who showed him Desolation Road in the first place, and the machinations of Johnny Stalin and Mikal Margolis in the belly of the Bethlehem Ares Corporation's vast soulless industrial cities. Taasmin Mandella becomes the saint of all machines and half-human/half-robotic pilgrims come from all over Mars to worship at her unconvinced feet.

'Desolation Road' feels like a first novel of a promising but over-ambitious author. Within its pages are many remarkable events that would be the centre-piece of other works, but the desire to detail everything about every inhabitant's life in such grandstanding, over-blown fashion renders the book confusing and lacking in a grounding to reality.

The structure of the book is almost like a religious text, with many short chapters detailing the wondrous deeds of a character before switching completely to another miraculous event only a page or two later. The whole book has a fable quality to it, where we are in some alternate universe where anything the author wants can and will happen.

There are some really great moments, with the main battle scene at the end of the book particularly engaging. The language used is expansive and often beautiful, if frequently at risk of seeming to try a little too hard to be revolutionary. This is a confusing and oftentimes frustrating novel, where the sheer ambition seems to burst apart any sense of continuity at the seams.

Ian McDonald has written much tighter and better books since his debut in the late eighties. This novel misses the crisp focus of his Indian work such as 'River Of Gods' and the fantastically ridiculous elements are much more uncontrolled than when used to such good effect in 'Brasyl'. However, it is very interesting to see where it all began and though ultimately less satisfying than his more recent work, 'Desolation Road' is still a worthy read from an extremely intriguing author that does things like no one else in the business.

Tomas L. Martin

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