Details: (c) 1988 Ian McDonald; Pub Bantam Books 1988; ISBN 0-553-27057-5
Verdict: Wow. One of the more bizarre things that I've read recently, but incredibly well done.
Reasons for reading it: M lent it to me without explaining why he thought it worth reading. I think it's a good thing that I came to this book with no preconceptions, because I think any I might have had would have been, not disappointed, more subverted.
How it came into my hands: M
I really hardly know what to make of Desolation Road, though I most certainly enjoyed reading it.
Part of it I think is being thrown by finding magic in a high tech setting; I expected the bizarre happenings to have a tech explanation, only they never quite do. Well, I'm used to fantasy existing almost always in a Mediaeval tech setting (with a couple of post-tech exceptions but they come to the same thing in practical terms), and magic realism in a modern tech setting, so I suppose it's not unreasonable to have some magic in an extreme future tech sort of context. Perhaps DR is playing on the Arthur C Clarke's idea that
In general DR seems to be playing with, almost juggling, a whole slew of ideas, some of which I most likely missed because I'm not that well up on SF conventions. Everything is pretty much up for grabs in this book. At times I thought I was reading something like Steinbeck's Cannery Row, where the cast of characters completely overshadow any hint of structure, but DR kept surprising me by having a plot after all.
There are some really touching romantic interludes (that fall short of being soppy); there is a battle scene almost straight out of [what is the male equivalent of 'chick-lit'?] some stupid action man novel, complete with blood and gore and loving descriptions of ultra-sophisticated weaponry. But to my amazement I was interested enough to actually read that section properly rather than skimming it. There's something of an undercurrent of parody (as the viewpoint character is very much a caricature of the sort of person who would get off on this kind of literature). And just about everything in between, time travel paradoxes, metaphysics and theology, small-town character play, a Dilbert-esque satire on corporate culture, you name it. Yet DR rarely feels crowded or jumbled, everything fits in to the whole (even though it's sometimes hard to see how at the time of a particular scene).
DR is also quite simply enjoyable to read; I got caught up in the story and not distracted by ostentatious cleverness. It made me laugh out loud in several places; it's funny in the way Pratchett is funny, messing with language and the absurd and poking fun at all kinds of conventions. But unlike Pratchett, McDonald's humour is understated and blends in with the story; I didn't feel I was reading the script of a stand-up comic's show.
I constantly had the feeling I was missing something, I was doing the literary equivalent of catching glimpses out of the corner of my eye. Like the names, for example; I'm almost positive the characters' names mean something clever, only I never actually managed to catch one out directly as being significant. And some of the time I thought, what's the point of this? DR seems in many ways like art for it's own sake; it doesn't appear to be making any point at all, just expressing the sheer exuberance of writing and creating people and situations.