Pyr, 1988 (2009 reprint), 365 pages, US$15.98 pb, ISBN 978-1-59102-744-7 aug28
Desolation Road may have popped up in US bookstores in the summer of 2009 as a trade paperback edition featuring artwork by SF look-du-jour artist Stephan Martiniere, but it’s not a new book. This is really Ian McDonald’s first novel, published in 1988 and repackaged by Pyr books following the success of River of Gods and Brasyl. McDonald, sadly enough, has had a rough career in the US: While his early novels were published in America by Bantam Spectra from the late-eighties to the mid-nineties (back when Bantam Spectra was, you know, good), he went into UK-only eclipse shortly afterward, until the success of 2004’s River of Gods brought him renewed transatlantic attention and a happy coincidence of interests with then-new publisher Pyr.
My own experience with McDonald’s work mirrors his overall success in North America: While I had generally positive feelings toward Evolution’s Shore/Chaga (albeit tempered by my ignorance that it was the first book in a series), Terminal Cafe/Necroville practically convinced me for five years that McDonald was writing SF that was too literary for my tastes. It took the rave reviews for River of Gods to convince me (and how!) that I had to pay attention to McDonald again.
This being said, Desolation Road is nothing like McDonald’s latest books. While River of Gods and Brasyl brought common SF themes to richly believable extrapolations of developing countries, Desolation Road takes on a half-phantasmagorical tone that owes more to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles than to the state of SF published in the mid-eighties. It flows across genre boundaries –and not necessarily the ones you expect. A three-decade-long tale of a city set deep in the Martian desert, Desolation Road often feels like a soap opera Western with wild SF tropes. The prose doesn’t even attempt transparency: It’s an integral part of how the story is told.
The principal character being the city of Desolation Road itself, it’s no surprise if the (many) dozens of human characters have mere supporting roles. People pop in and out of the story, sometimes bringing along their own storytelling mode and often making Desolation Road feel like a particularly well put-together collection of short stories. The ever-shifting style contributes to this impression, as the novel will occasionally touch upon comedy, fantasy, horror or techno-SF.
The diversity of ways to tell the story often carries through to the tools used to advance the story. McDonald is shameless in riffling through the entire roster of SF tropes to solve (or complicate) his characters’ problems. Time travel, terrorism, robots, labour disputes, tangled lineages, snooker and corporate dystopian comedy all live one alongside others in this book, and it’s not nearly as confusing as it may sound. In fact, this rich brew of elements is one of the best reasons why this novel feels just as fresh today as it did in 1988: It wasn’t trying to be part of the mainstream then, and contemporary readers have been trained to react well to genre-blending. In fact, it wouldn’t take much to call Desolation Road an early example of SF-heavy New Weird given how it feels like a blend of well-known elements thrown in a genre-spanning framework.
It’s not a perfect novel (some segments are less interesting; the cast of characters gets a bit too large to manage effectively; the prose can occasionally feel too precious), but as a resurrected 1988 novel, it’s vivid enough to make me re-evaluate my top-five novels of that year. While this re-edition has a number of issues (the typographic design of the book occasionally feels odd and there are numerous copy-editing mistakes), it’s an enlightened choice given how today’s readers are more likely to enjoy it as a cross-genre romp. It’s a sobering reminder that McDonald’s has always been at the forefront of SF (even two decades ago) and that even his early work warrants a look. Of course, I can’t help to wonder if the past ten years have made me a reader better-prepared to appreciate his work… and so begin the hunt for the rest of McDonald’s back-list.