Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Desolation Road

Ian McDonald

Much quirkier than I had expected. It’s an inevented future that’s highly bizarre on many levels, with a weird array of characters in their phsical and psychological characterisics. It’s a thoroughly strange environment, from the traveling carnivale selling ’make a baby’ kits, to the near-random timetravel and the widely shifting rate of politics. It works because there are clear emotional journeys for the characters even among all the bizarre and at times grotesque detail. It feels at times like McDonald is being too playful for his own good, but on the whole the push of the main characters onto their various successes, tragedies and wacky hijinks works well.

In the representation of larger events it’s hit or miss. At the best moments the book functions like an intensely genre version of the series Deadwood, showing the growth in complexity, numbers and mechanisms of community into an elaborate hypermodenr civilization. In this vein, the arc with escalating conflict between labor and the corporate management is particularly effective, particularly in the hectic narrative pace set once a full revolution breaks out. It’s interesting, intense, tragic and defined with lots of unique little details that tie the events to this specific invented future. On the other hand, at points the big picture stuff simply gets too far out there, straining suspension of disbelief overly and making for an excessively arbitrary story universe.

It was McDonald’s first novel, and is very different from the larger direction he ended up going. Well, it’s good to see that he wasn’t locked into a single recurrent formula like a lot of authors. Moreo, though, I have to say that I’m quite glad he moved beyond the writing pattern of Desolation Road. Overall it was good and it had a lot of strong elements, but I was also a lot more disatisfied than I’ve been with any other McDonald and there’s something about the way the whole narrative is formed that was a bit alienating. It’s not incoherent in the sense of a Hylozoic, but at points there are indications that might go in that direction, and as a text it’s one that could have used a bit more restraint. We always read a book under the shadow of the book we were expecting to find, and I’d say that factor was particularly strong here. Beyond that there are problems in the basic story, and I wouldn’t consider this boo a classic in the way Evolution’s Shore was. It’s a fair distance from aesthetic ruin, in no small part because of a lot of engaging pieces of characterization.

Better than: Hammerfall by C. J. Cherryh
Worse than: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

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