Desolation Road by Ian McDonald

384 Pages
July 2009


If there were an official list of “must reads,” I’d place Desolation Road at the top.

It is the story of a community that grows systematically from founder to boom town to bust. On a Mars far in the future, a Mars just recently – over the last 700 years – made habitable for humans by the Remote Orbital Terraforming and Environmental Control Headquarters, ROTECH, Desolation Road comes into being in a place it should not be, at an oasis that should not have been, next to a railroad track. The town survives its initial crisis, and booms.  In the midst of the boom, the seeds sown with its original immigrants blossom to create the bust, the end of Desolation Road.

Beginning with the founder, Dr. Alimentando, every person added to the population plays a role in Desolation Road’s growth and education or its end. Each new resident totes a history and talent that must, sooner or later, be committed to the town. Dr. Alimentando envisioned his town as a refuge for any and all who stumbled upon it. Everyone could live as he or she wanted checked only by the same courtesy to all other residents.

Through a logical but strange evolution, this free spirited community transforms into “industrial feudalism” engineered and maintained by the Bethlehem Ares Corporation. How and why the Corporation comes to Desolation Road turns on human failings: a pair of romantic triangles, a jealous murder, an enslavement, a climb up the corporate ladder, an ambitious discoverer of a fortune laying on the ground about Desolation Road, a nag, an indignant daughter, a murder victim turned ghost in a particular hell, a woman yearning for glory, a woman yearning for release from all human concerns, a woman yearning for power, a babooshka, a sentient train, a pilot grounded by accident but sent aloft again by love, siblings split at birth into rational and mystical counterparts, a man with an affinity for all things mechanical and a man with a desire to become all things mechanical, a mad mathematician who discovers the secret of time winding, and a woman who weaves the definitive history of Desolation Road into her tapestry. Some of these are one and the same person but one and the same person never continues in a straight line. They are all human and their human flaws made Desolation Road the town that it was.

How and why Bethlehem Ares Corporation is evicted from Desolation Road turns on the same listing of human failings brought into conflict with one another. Is it a matter of yearn-for-glory woman battling yearn-for-power woman? Is it a matter of robots contesting for supremacy with humans? Is it the ROTECH bureaucracy battling itself? Or is it, simply, Desolation Road reaching its time for dying?

There is not one human protagonist in this story but a cast of protagonists. There is not a clear definition between man, machine, and nature but there are clear and defined roles for each to play. 

And there is Desolation Road. You might wonder if the founder had not made the slip of tongue that changed his intended christening from Destination Road to Desolation Road, if, somehow, it all would have gone very different. But he did and Desolation Road was born, grew, and died.

This is a “must read.”

 © 2010 Dan Bieger

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