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REVIEW: Desolation Road by Ian McDonald

REVIEW SUMMARY: I was expecting a traditional sf story, but got Peyton Place.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The story of a Martian town and its residents. But mostly its residents.

PROS: Imaginative; interesting characters that are diligently drawn.
CONS: The characterization-to-plot ratio was way too high; for a majority of the book, nothing ever seemed to happen.
BOTTOM LINE: Felt more like a literary exercise than the wondrous story I was hoping for.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road going in. The recent reprint of his 1988 novel (his first) sports a description that is not very illuminating – a cast of characters, really. I would soon find out why.

The novel spans the life of the Martian town of the book’s title, which was founded quite by accident, when Dr. Alimantando happened upon an alien artifact and settled there. As time passed, other characters came to join him and the town was born. The feel of the town itself, despite some of the tech involved, is decidedly Old Western, replete with a (in this case, Martian) railway that passes near it.

The most prominent aspect of this novel is its structure. Each of the first several chapters of Desolation Road introduced a new character or set of characters, giving the book an episodic feel — except that the episodes did not seem to contribute to some larger story. It felt less like a novel with a linear plot than it did a succession of character portrayals (who are eventually involved in a plot, I would learn). Among the character vignettes and situations: there’s the aforementioned Dr. Alimantando; the warring families of Stalins and Tenebrae; a man called The Amazing Scorn who could literally kill people with his sarcasm; an ill-fated love triangle; how one resident left Desolation Road to become an expert Snooker player; a murder and the subsequent trial; an impending meteor strike disaster that could spell the end of the town and its residents; the experimental employment of a time machine; a labor dispute and the subsequent revolution, etc. These are all interesting ingredients, to be sure, but without a discernible plot for most of the narrative, it didn’t feel like the traditional story I was expecting.

It took a while to realize that McDonald was going to spend some significant time doing this before the story kicked in. Curiosity kept me reading because characters were introduced and they were interesting. I began to settle into the groove about this time. I thought I was getting it. The narrative was a cornucopia of tastes: part surrealism, part satire, sometime flat-out humorous and brilliant — but the structure of the story was always distractingly evident in its presentation. Still, my interest was initially piqued. Where were these characters going? What was going to happen? As it turns out…not much. By mid-book I was losing interest. Eventually a plot did surface towards the end of the book but, alas, by then I was already disengaged from the narrative and the characters that were so diligently drawn.

In the end, Desolation Road felt more like a literary exercise than the cool wondrous story I was hoping for.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

6 Comments on REVIEW: Desolation Road by Ian McDonald

  1. I’m about half-way through and haven’t lost interest yet. I’ve been reading a lot of space-opera-style, sweeping, grand, interweaving plots lately, so maybe I’m enjoying this so much because it’s a nice break from my usual (of late) fare.

  2. The wonderous story was in the characters.  This was SF as maybe Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have written.  So, yes, perhaps in that sense it was a “literary exercise”, but that only makes it more special.  In my very humble opinion.  (Shifting an entire town onto an alternate timeline and then letting the new line veer right back into the original path isn’t enough “happening” for you?)

  3. Oddly, all the way through you talking about the plot and characters, John, I found myself thinking “martian Chronicles” over and over again. Even though it was a low-star review, I kinda want to read this book now.

    If nothing else…the cover is GORGEOUS.

  4. @Mark: My experience was that when stuff like that did start happening, I was already disengaged from the story.  I’m glad you enjoyed it, though!

    @Pete:  Yeah, overall, this was a mediocre reading experience for me, but you may find the book more enjoyable. (Like Mark did.)  By all means read the book and judge for yourself.  And yes, the cover rocks.

  5. @John D.  Fair enough.  And in fact, this was McDonald’s least plotted novel.  I have the same reaction to him that I had with Delany initially—the language really grabbed me.

  6. I’m taking you off my Christmas card list.

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