Subway Literature: Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road

Nathan attempted to have me stop what I was doing to read the first chapter, in which Dr. Alimantando, while riding his wind-board across a great desert, is visited for three consecutive nights by a greenperson who claims he is there to lead Alimantando to his destiny. That’s how I knew this one was going to be good. I read the first few pages and gave it back. I was pretty sure if I finished the chapter, I wasn’t going to get any writing done that day because I’d sit and read the whole thing. When Nathan finished it, he handed it over and said, “Eh. Reminded me of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I lost track of the characters. But you’re going to like it a lot.”

It was a safe bet. He knows One Hundred Years of Solitude has been one of my favorite books for, oh, ever. And he was right. I loved Desolation Road, and it is just like One Hundred Years of Solitude, only on Mars instead of in Macondo. If there were mechanical angels in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And sentient trains. And a garden straight out of Jorge Luis Borges. And the Greatest Pool Player in the World. And a man who charms broken machines back to life. And a guitar player known only as The Hand, who calls down the first rain ever to fall on the town of Desolation Road with a red guitar.

So actually, there are several points of difference.

Basically, the idea is this: led by the mysterious greenperson, Dr. Alimantando finds himself sheltering at an oasis in the red desert. When his wind-board is swept away as he sleeps, Alimantando is trapped at the oasis, his only companion a dying, abandoned ROTECH environmental engineering module who wants Alimantando to shut it off and put it out of its misery. From the body of the module, Alimantando extracts enough material to build what will become the infrastructure of Desolation Road: a solar collector and a wind-pump gantry. And then, slowly, slowly, the little oasis begins to gather its people to it: Mr. Jericho, the Patriarch of the Exalted Families, who is fleeing across the desert to escape assassins; Rael Mandella, his father Haran and his pregnant wife Eva, attempting to outrun a dust-storm in a rail-schooner; the Mandella twins, Limaal and Taasmin, born seconds after Dr. Alimantando and Mr. Jericho rescue their parents and who are accidentally cursed by their father as he names them, one with pragmatism and the other with mysticism; Rajandra Das, a railway tramp with the power of charming machinery who wins the Great Railroad Lotto and passage out of Meridian on any train he chooses (but is not permitted to decline the honor). When the trains begin to recognize the oasis-turned town as a legitimate stop, Desolation Road becomes a collective of misfits, mystics, betrayers, time-travelers, stunt-plane flyers, even the occasional trio of clones.

This book, by the way, is the perfect subway read, because each chapter reads like a short story. It does cover the entire existence of the town from its birth to its demise, but I, possibly because I am just wired differently from my husband, did not have any trouble keeping anyone or anything straight as I read. It’s chock-full of just the kind of weird detailing that keeps me riveted (reference the above-mentioned examples), and it’s written in some of the most beautiful prose I have ever encountered. McDonald’s writing has just gorgeous rhythm to it, and it goes from hilarious to heartbreaking with devastating ease.

It is definitely a book for the pie-cooling cupboard that holds my most favorite favorites. If, that is, Nathan doesn’t mind my squirreling it away in my room rather than his. Even if I loved it and he just liked it, Nathan likes his books just so. I can appreciate that.


  1. I love both Desolation Road and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I first read the MacDonald years before I’d heard of Marquez, and when I read the latter I thought “This reminds me of something I’ve read before. What? Oh yes, Desolation Road.” I’ve just been re-reading them close together, Desolation Road for the third or fourth time and One Hundred Years of Solitude for teh second time; the plot similarities aren’t as close as I’d vaguely remembered, but in feel they’re more similar to each other than, say, Desolation Road is to any of MacDonald’s other works I’ve read. It’s my favorite of his books, though Brasyl, River of Gods, and Evolution’s Shore are all very good too.

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