October 19, 2019

Desolation Road

Desolation Road by Ian MacDonald was first released in 1988 when it was nominated for an Arthur C. Clarke award. It is being rereleased by the folks at Pyr Books.

Desolation Road is a roller coaster ride of a sci-fi novel. It’s funny, it’s wonderous, it’s sad, it’s a little unnerving, and it’s one heck of a read. It follows with style the birth, life, and death of the title town.

This story takes place on Mars in the middle of a heretofore unpopulated desert whose resources are worked by the corporate giant ROTECH. Dr. Alimantando, traveling by wind board,  is on a solo discovery mission of the Great Desert. He encounters a green man, not to be confused with a Green Man, and their two lives are entwined…to what extent is developed to the end of the story.  The combination of Dr. Alimantando’s roaming, the green man, railroad tracks, and an antiquated dying orph (a mechanical servant of the Blessed Lady, again not the Blessed lady you’d expect) and Desolation Road (meant to be Destination Road) is born.

As Dr. Alimantando’s wind board sails way — forgotten in the discovery of oasis and orph — his  immediate future is settled. The oasis provides water and other natural necessities; the orph, mechanical parts for other necessities of survival. Soon after the Doctor’s settling in for the long haul, others of the extensive cast of characters start to arrive.

Next to arrive is Mr. Jericho, a Paternoster escaping his enemies on a rail hand cart.  Since the oasis that is Desolation Road is not a charted spot, he stays, feeling safe for the first time in a good while. Next to arrive — by wind schooner — is Rael Mandella with father and pregnant wife. Luck — good or bad is yet to be determined — has the schooner’s sail ripping and forward progress stopping within visual distance of Desolation Road.  Then comes Rajandra Das, who has a way with machines, and then the Margolis family and the three Gallacelli brothers and Persis Tatterdemalian and Marya Quinsana and the cast is pretty much set for a fully populated town with a fortunately useful set of life skills.

Relationships develop and children born of Desolation road.  The first is the aforementioned Mandella child, then the child started in a jar, stolen and replaced by a mango, and carried to term in a womb, and the others that follow.  Then, those children’s children.  Somewhere in the middle of all the childbirths, one realizes that children reach their majority at NINE years old, go off into the world, find love, reproduce.  And that one is an elder at a superannuated 40 years old.

One child of Desolation Road becomes a pool sharp, goes off to the big city, rises and falls, and comes home. Another is made a holy figure, another a political activist, and yet another is traded for the safety of his family.  The stories of each person are necessarily tied to the stories of every other. Things happen quickly, as they would in a world where one is an adult by 9 years old and old by 40 years, and not all in a fun way.  Along the way, other characters are introduced, play their parts, and leave Desolation Road’s inhabitants changed by their visits.

Although the story evolves from light prose in the development of its characters to the startlingly darker descriptions of their departures from the story, I really enjoyed this book. In fact, it’s hard not to touch on every pertinent development in this summary. Each chapter is like a new episode in a great sci fi series.  Each step through the story leaves the reader looking for more. Each of the many characters pulls his or her own weight in the events of Desolation Road.  All are of interest and all develop and move with the events in the story.  There’s a creepy sort of realism that adds to the plot.  A reader may not like where the story ends, but the trip there is worth the time investment.

Sabrina Fobes


  1. [...] Express is Ian McDonald’s marvelous and long awaited sequel to Desolation Road.  Mars is still the setting, but a Mars far in the future from that on Desolation Road. The [...]

  2. [...] stranger to Mr. McDonald’s works with our reviews over the years of the post-cyber punk thrillers Desolation Road, Cyberabad Days, (our favorite Ian McDonald read thus far) and The Dervish House. Mr. McDonald has [...]

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