Excerpt from Ian McDonald's DESOLATION ROAD

Thanks to the good people at Pyr, here is an extract from Ian McDonald's Desolation Road. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.


For three days Dr. Alimantando had followed the greenperson across the desert. Beckoned by a finger made from articulated runner beans, he had sailed over the desert of red grit, the desert of red stone, and the desert of red sand in pursuit of it. And each night, as he sat by his fire built from scraps of mummified wood, writing in his journals, the moonring would rise, that tumbling jewel-stream of artificial satellites, and it would draw the greenperson out of the deep places of the desert.

On the first night the meteors were flickering high in the stratosphere when the greenperson came to Dr. Alimantando.

“Let me near your fire, friend, let me have warmth, give me shelter, for I am of a warmer age than this.” Dr. Alimantando gestured for the greenperson to draw closer. Observing the strange, naked figure, Dr. Alimantando was moved to ask, “What manner of a creature are you?”

“I am a man,” said the greenperson. His mouth, his lips, his tongue,
showed leaf-green as he spoke. His teeth were small and yellow like nibs of
maize. “What are you?”

“I also am a man.”

“Then we are the same. Stoke up the fire, friend, let me feel the blaze.” Dr. Alimantando kicked a knot of grey wood and sparks fled upward into the night. After a time the greenperson said, “Have you water, friend?”

“I have, but I want to be careful with it. I don’t know how long I will be crossing this desert, or if I will find any water on my journey.”

“I will lead you to water tomorrow, friend, if you will give me your flask tonight.”

Dr. Alimantando was still for a long time beneath the tumbling lights of the moonring. Then he unhooked one of his flasks from his pack and passed it over he flames to the greenperson. The greenperson drained the flask dry. The air about him sparkled with an aroma of verdure, like forests after spring rain. Then Dr. Alimantando slept and did not dream at all.

The next morning there was only a red rock by the embers of the fire where the greenperson had sat.

On the second night Dr. Alimantando made camp and ate and wrote in his journal. Then he sat, just sat, made vast with the exhilaration of the desert of stone. He had sailed and sailed and sailed, away from the hills of Deuteronomy, away from the desert of red grit, through the desert of red stone, across a land of chasms and fissures, like a petrified brain, over polished stone pavements, between eroded pinnacles of dark volcanic glass, through forests petrified for a billion years, down water-courses dry a billion years, through wind-sculpted palisades of ancient red sandstones, over haunted mesas, plunging over thin granite lips into infinite echoing canyons, gripping wide-eyed with terror to every handhold as the wind-board’s promagnetic levitators fought to hold it aloft. He had run before the long wind, he had sailed and sailed and sailed until the first pinpricks of the evening stars pierced the sky.

As he sat thus, bluehot lasers flickered fitfully across the vault above him, and the greenperson came to him again.

“Where is the water you promised?” asked Dr. Alimantando.

“Everywhere was water once and will be water again,” said the greenperson.

“This stone once was sand once and will be sand again on a beach a million years from here.”

“Where is the water you promised?” cried Dr. Alimantando.

“Come with me, friend.” The greenperson led him to a notch in the red cliff and there, in the deeper darkness, was the chuckling of lonely, clear water, trickling from a crack in the rock and dropping into a small dark pool. Dr. Alimantando filled his water flasks but did not drink. He was afraid of defiling the ancient lonely water. Where the greenperson had stood, pale green shoots now pushed through the damp imprints of his feet. Then Dr. Alimantando slept and did not dream that night at all.

The next morning there was a withered gray tree by the embers of the fire where the greenperson had sat.

Upon the third night after the third day, when he had sailed the desert of red sand, Dr. Alimantando built his fire and made his camp and wrote his observations and speculations into his leather-bound journals in his fine, delicate hand, all loops and curlicues. He was weary that night; the passage of the desert of sand had drained him dry. At first he had tingled with exhilaration and wind-driven sand as he rode the wind-board up and over, up and over, up and over the ever-breaking waves of sand. He had ridden the red sand and the blue sand, the yellow sand and the green sand, the white sand and the black sand, wave after wave after wave until the waves broke him and left him drained dry, exhausted to face the desert of soda and the desert of salt and the desert of acid. And beyond those deserts, in the place beyond exhaustion, was the desert of stillness, where could be heard the ringing of distant bells, as if from the campaniles of cities buried a billion years beneath the sand, or from the campaniles of cities a billion years yet unborn that would stand there. There, at the heart of the desert, Dr. Alimantando stopped, and beneath a sky huge with the riding lights of a SailShip arriving at the edge of the world, the greenperson came a third time to him. He squatted upon his heels beyond the edge of the firelight, drawing figures in the dust with his forefinger.

“Who are you?” asked Dr. Alimantando. “Why do you haunt my nights?”

“Though we journey through different dimensions, like you I am a traveller across this dry and waterless place,” said the greenperson.

“Explain these ‘different dimensions.’”

“Time and space. You space, I time.”

“How can this be?” exclaimed Dr. Alimantando, who was passionately interested in time and temporality. Because of time he had been driven out of his home in the green hills of Deuteronomy, labeled “demon” and “wizard” and “eater of children” by neighbours who could not accommodate his harmless and creative eccentricity within their tightly defined world of cows, clapboard houses, sheep, silage and white picket fences. “How can you travel in time, something I have sought to accomplish for years?”

“Time is a part of me,” said the greenperson, standing tall and brushing his body with his fingertips. “So I have learned to control it as I have learned to control any other part of my body.”

“Can this skill be taught?”

“To you? No. You are the wrong colour. But one day you will learn a different way, I think”

Dr. Alimantando’s heart leaped.

“How do you mean?”

“That’s for you to decide. I am here only because the future demands it.”

“You riddle much too well for me. Say what you mean. I can’t abide obtuseness.”

“I am here to lead you to your destiny.”

“Oh? So?”

“Unless I am here, certain trains of events will not come to pass; this my fellows have decided, for all time and space is theirs to manipulate, and they have sent me to guide you to your destiny.”

“Be more explicit, man!” cried Dr. Alimantando, his quick temper flaring. But the firelight flickered and the sky-filling sails of the Praesidium vessel twinkled in the light of the vanished sun, and the greenperson was gone. Dr. Alimantando waited in the lee of his wind-board, waited until his fire died to red-glowing embers. Then, when he knew the greenperson would not be returning that night, he slept, and dreamed a steel dream. In this dream titanic machines the colour of rust peeled back the skin of the desert and laid iron eggs in its tender flesh. The eggs hatched into squirming metal larvae, hungry for hematite, magnetite and kidney ore. The steel maggots built for themselves a towering nest of chimneys and furnaces, a city of belching smoke and hissing steam, of ringing hammers and flying sparks, of rivers of white molten steel and pulpy white worker drones who served the maggots.

The next morning Dr. Alimantando woke to find the wind had risen in the night and covered the wind-board with sand.Where the greenperson had squatted at the edge of the firelight was a cracked boulder of green malachite.

The breeze strengthened and carried Dr. Alimantando away from the heart of the desert. He breathed in the wine-sharp air and listened to the crack of the wind in the sails and the whisper of windblown sand streaming away before him. He felt the sweat dry on his skin and the salt-burn etch into his face and hands.

He sailed and he sailed and he sailed, all morning. The sun had just reached its zenith when Dr. Alimantando saw his first and last mirage. A line of pure, shining silver ran straight through his musings on time and its travellers: purest, bright-shining silver, running east-west above a line of low bluffs which seemed to mark the end of the desert of sand. Drawing nearer, Dr. Alimantando discerned dark shadows in the silver glare and a reflected green glow, as if from green things that might be growing there.

Trick of a dry mind, he told himself, portaging the floating wind-board up a faint track through the cave-riddled bluffs, but on reaching the top of the rise he saw that it was not a trick of a dry mind, nor any mirage. The glow of greenness was indeed the glow of green growing things, the shadow the dark silhouette of a peculiar outcropping of rock which bore on its summit an antennaefeathery microwave relay tower, and the line of silver was precisely that, two sets of parallel steel standard-gauge railroad tracks catching the sun.

Dr. Alimantando walked a little while in the green oasis remembering what green smelled like, what green looked like, how green felt under his feet. He sat listening to the chuckling of water running through the cascading system of little irrigation ditches and the patient chunk, creak of the wind-pumps drawing it up from some stratum of subterranean aquifer. Dr. Alimantando helped himself to bananas, figs and pomegranates and ate a moody lunch in the shade of a cottonwood tree. He was glad to be at the end of the stern desert lands, yet the spiritual wind that had carried him through that separate landscape had died out of him. The sun beamed down on the bee-buzzy oasis and Dr. Alimantando slipped into a lazy, comfortable siesta.
An indefinite time later he was woken by a sting of grit on his cheek. For a closed-eyed, lazy moment the significance escaped him. Then realization struck him like a nail hammered between his eyes. He sat bolt upright, shivered to the pith by a bolt of pure horror.

In his haste he had forgotten to tether the wind-board.

Carried off by the rising wind, the loose wind-board bobbed and swooped across the dry flats. Helpless, Dr. Alimantando watched his only means of deliverance sail away from him across the High Plains. He watched the bright green sail until it vanished into a speck of colour-blindness on the horizon. Then for a long and stupid time he stood trying to think what to do, but he could not think of anything but that mocking, bobbing wind-board. He had lost his destiny, he had let it sail away from him on the wind. That night the greenperson would step out of time to talk with him but he would not be there because he had missed his destiny and all those trains of events that the great minds of the greenpersons had foreseen would never come to be. All gone. Sick with stupidity and disgust, Dr. Alimantando set down his pack and hoped for rescue. Perhaps a train might come up the line. Perhaps a train might come down the line. Perhaps he might tinker with some mechanism in the relay tower to signal his distress through the airwaves. Perhaps the owner of this fertile, green, deceptively soft place might help him. Perhaps . . . perhaps. Perhaps this was all just a siesta dream from which he might waken to find his battered wind-board floating beside him.

Perhapses led to if-onlys. If only he had not fallen asleep, if only he had tied that rope . . . if only.

A molar-grating subsonic rumble shook the oasis. The air shivered. Water trembled in drops from the leaves of the plants. The metal relay tower shuddered and Dr. Alimantando leaped to his feet in consternation. There seemed to be some disturbance beneath the desert for the surface boiled and moiled as if some huge object was tumbling and turning deep below. The sand blistered into a great red boil and burst, shedding torrents of sliding grit, to reveal an enormous boxlike thing, bright orange, with soft rounded edges, emerging from under the Great Desert. Its mountainous flanks bore the word ROTECH lettered in black. Drawn by his fatal curiosity, Dr. Alimantando crept nearer to the edge of the bluffs. The orange box-thing, big as a house, sat on the desert floor, humming potently.

“An orph,” whispered Dr. Alimantando, heart pounding in awe.

—Good afternoon,man! said a sudden voice inside Dr. Alimantando’s head.

“What?” yelped Dr. Alimantando.

—Good afternoon, man. I apologize for not greeting you more readily, but you see, I am dying, and I am finding the process most troublesome.


—I am dying; my systems are failing, snapping like threads, my once titanic intellect is plunging toward idiothood. Look at me, man, my beautiful body is scarred, blistered, and stained. I am dying, abandoned by my sisters, who have left me to die in this dreadful desert rather than on the edge of the sky as an orph should, shields down and blazing to brief stellar glory in the upper atmosphere. A curse upon those faithless sisters! I tell you, man, if this is what the younger generation has come to, then I am glad to be leaving this existence. If only it weren’t so undignified. Perhaps you can help me to die with dignity.

“Help you? You? You’re an orph, a servant of the Blessed Lady; you should help me! Like you, I am abandoned here, and if I am not aided, my demise will shortly follow your own. I have been abandoned here by capricious fate, my means of transport has failed me.”

—You have feet.

“Surely you’re joking.”

—Man, do not trouble me with your petty needs. I am past aiding you. I cannot transport you away from this place; I cannot transport myself even. Both you and I will remain here, in the place I have created. Admittedly, your presence here is unscheduled, much less official; the Five Hundred Year Plan does not allow settlement in this micro-environment for another six years, but you may stay here until a train comes past to take you somewhere.

“And how long will that be?”

—Twenty-eight months.

“Twenty-eight months?”

—I am sorry, but that is the forecast of the Five Hundred Year Plan. The environment I have prepared is admittedly rough and ready, but it will support and sustain you and after my death you will have access to all the equipment within me. Now, if you have quite finished troubling me with your woes, may I address myself to mine?

“But you must take me away from here! It is not my destiny to be . . . whatever it is you want for me . . .”

—Communications systems warden.

“A communications systems warden: there are great events I must set in motion elsewhere!”

—Whatever your destiny, it must be worked out here from now on. Now, kindly spare me your whinings, man, and let me die with a little dignity.

“Die? Die? How can a machine, a ROTECH environmental engineering module, an orph, die?”

—I will answer this one question, and then I will answer no more. The life of an orph is long, I myself am almost seven hundred years old, but we are no less mortal than you, man. Now, give me peace and commit my soul to the care of Our Lady of Tharsis.

The pervasive hum ceased abruptly. Dr. Alimantando held his breath in anticipation until it was uncomfortable, but the orph sat unchanging and unchanged on the red sand. In reverent silence Dr. Alimantando explored the little handmade kingdom the orph had bequeathed to him. He found particularly fine caves threading the outcrop of rock which bore the microwave relay; these Dr. Alimantando chose for his home. His few possessions seemed trivial in the large round caverns. He unrolled his quilt bag to air and went to pick dinner.

Darkness was falling. The first jewels of the moon-ring were shining in the sky. Up there the unfeeling orphs were rolling and tumbling, forever caught in the act of falling. Trapped by soil and gravity, their moribund sister cast giant purple shadows across the sand. Dr. Alimantando ate a spiritless supper and went to sleep. At two minutes of two a great voice woke him up.

—God rot ROTECH! it cried. Dr. Alimantando hurried through the pitch-black caves to see what was happening. The night air hummed with power, searchlight beams lanced the darkness, and sections of the orph’s mighty body slid in and out, open and shut. The orph sensed Dr. Alimantando shivering in his nightshirt, and transfixed him like a martyred saint with its search-lights.

—Help me, man! This dying thing is not as easy as I had imagined.

“That’s because you are a machine and not a human,” shouted Dr. Alimantando, shielding his eyes against the search-lights’ glare. “Humans die very easily indeed.”

—Why can one not die when one wants to? Help me, man, help me, come down to me and I will show you how you can be merciful to me, for this creeping debility, this mechanical incontinence, is intolerable. Come down to me, man. Help me!

So Dr. Alimantando scrambled barefoot down the rough trail up which he had portaged that morning. He realized that he must have sailed over the buried orph without ever knowing. Strange things, strange things. He hurried over the yet-warm sand to the humming face of the behemoth. A dark spot appeared on the smooth metal about the size of a twenty centavo piece.

—This is my systems termination activator. Touch it and I will cease to be. All my systems will shut down, all my circuits will fuse and I will die. Do it, man.

“I don’t know . . .”

—Man, I am seven hundred years old, as old as this earth that you walk upon; does old age no longer command respect among you humans in these degenerate days? Respect my wishes, I desire nothing more than to be gone. Touch the spot. Do it, man. Help me.

Dr. Alimantando touched the dark spot and at once it faded into the warm orange metal. Then very slowly, very gradually, the life-hum of the orph dwindled and faded and died and was gone into the silence of the Great Desert. As the great machine relaxed into death, its multitudinous panels, hatches and sections opened, revealing the marvellous mechanisms of its interior. When he was quite sure that the orph was dead, Dr. Alimantando crept back to his bed, troubled and guilty over what he had done.

In the morning he went to pick the body of the orph he had killed. From it he built, over five days of furious, driving and utterly enjoyable labour, a lozenge-shaped solar collector five times as tall as himself and mounted it, with some difficulty, on a wind-pump gantry. Energy and hot water secured, he went on to knock windows in the walls of his caves and glazed the unparalleled view of the Great Desert with plastic from the orph’s polymerization plant. He dismembered the corpse and carried it piece by piece up the bluffs to his new home. He rooted through the bowels of the machine to carve out chunks of machinery that might make good automatic cultivators, irrigation pumps, electrical heating plates, lighting panels, methane digesters, sprinkler systems, all with just a little bit of work and inventiveness. Dr. Alimantando worshipped inventiveness, particularly his own. Every new improved device delighted him for days on end until he built the next one. Day by day the orph was reduced to a pitiful shell, and then to sections a Dr. Alimantando built new solar collectors, then to plates, and then one night the storm wind blew really hard, so hard that Dr. Alimantando, upon his homemade bed, shivered and curled up inside his quiltbag. In the morning the bones of the dead machine had vanished like an ancient city beneath the drifting sands.

But through its death Dr. Alimantando had transformed the waiting oasis into an actual, comfortable, technological hermitage, a private world unknown even to those who had built the world, where a man might ponder long and deep upon destiny, and density, time, space and the meaning of life. All this Dr. Alimantando did, and paper being scarce, he wrote his speculations on the walls of his caves in black charcoal. For a year and a day he covered his walls with algebraic expressions and theorems in symbolic logic, and then one afternoon he saw the steam of a train plume on the western horizon and knew that the orph’s promise had come true, and all of seven months early. He waited until the train was close enough for him to read the name Bethlehem Ares Railroads, and then went up the topmost chamber in his house, his weather-room, and sat looking out at the great desert until the train had passed over the eastern horizon. For he realized that destiny is a numinous, quicksilver thing; from his studies he knew that it took many paths through the landscapes of time and paradox to reach its destination, for were not destiny and destination the same word spelled with different letters? This was his destiny, to live a life of fruitful solitude atop a desert pinnacle. He could think of worse things. So one morning, shortly after the first train in history passed through Dr. Alimantando’s universe, he took himself and a bottle of peapod wine to the weather-room. The topmost cave, with its four windows pointing out in each direction of the compass, was of such fascination to him that he visited it only rarely, so that it would remain special. He looked out upon each preview for a long time. Then he poured a glass of peapod wine, and another, and another, and another, and with the last drop from the bottle he raised his glass and gave a name to everything he could see.

“Desolation Road,” he slurred, drinking down the final glass of peapod wine. “You are Desolation Road.” And Desolation Road it remained, even though Dr. Alimantando realized when he sobered up that he had not meant Desolation Road at all, but Destination Road.

3 commentaires:



Ken said...

These excerpts are really fun to read. Have you thought of organizing them all, like the reviews and interviews?

Anonymous said...

really great!