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Ian McDonald (1960-) is a British science fiction novelist, living in Belfast. His themes include nanotechnology, postcyberpunk settings, and the impact of rapid social and technological change on non-Western societies.
McDonald was born in 1960, in Manchester, to a Scottish father and Irish mother, but moved to Belfast when he was five, and has lived there ever since. He therefore lived through the whole of the ‘Troubles’ (1968-99), and his sensibility has been permanently shaped by coming to understand Northern Ireland as a post-colonial (and so, in his view, de facto ‘Third World’) society imposed on an older culture. He became a fan of SF from childhood TV, began writing when he was 9, sold his first story to a local Belfast magazine when he was 22, and in 1987 became a full-time writer. He has also worked in TV consultancy within Northern Ireland, contributing scripts to the Northern Irish Sesame Workshop production Sesame Tree.
McDonald is known for his work set in developing nations. His 1990s ‘Chaga Saga’ is particularly notable for its analysis of the AIDS crisis in Africa. His 2004 River of Gods is set in mid-twenty-first-century India, and his 2007 Brasyl (2007), set in the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries in Lusophone South America, was nominated for, and reached the longlist of, the £50,000 Warwick Prize for Writing.
Desolation Road (1988)
Empire Dreams (1988) (short stories)
Out on Blue Six (1989)
King of Morning, Queen of Day (1991) – see Waiting For Godot
Hearts, Hands and Voices (1992, US: The Broken Land)
Speaking in Tongues (1992) (short stories)
Kling Klang Klatch (1992) (graphic novel, illustrated by David Lyttleton)
Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone (1994)
Necroville (1994, US: Terminal Café)
Chaga (1995, US: Evolution’s Shore)
Sacrifice of Fools (1996)
Tendeléo’s Story (2000)
Ares Express (2001)
River of Gods (2004) – Hugo Award nominee, winner of the BSFA award
The Djinn’s Wife (2006) – Hugo Award winner (excerpt in the Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, July 2006)
Brasyl (2007) – Hugo Award nominee, winner of the BSFA award, Nominated for the £50,000 Warwick Prize for Writing
Cyberabad Days (2009) — cycle of stories set in the milieu of River of Gods
The Dervish House (2010)
Nebula Best Novelette nominee (1989) : Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh
Arthur C. Clarke Award Best Novel nominee (1990) : Desolation Road
Philip K. Dick Award Best Collection winner (1991) : King of Morning, Queen of Day
Locus Fantasy Award (1992) : King of Morning, Queen of Day
Arthur C. Clarke Award Best Novel nominee (1993) : Hearts, Hands, and Voices
British Science Fiction Award (1992) : Hearts, Hands, and Voices
World Fantasy Best Short story nominee (1994) : Some Strange Desire
Philip K. Dick Award Best Novel nominee (1994) : Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone
British Science Fiction Association Award Best Novel winner (1994) : Necroville
John W Campbell Memorial Award Best Novel nominee (1996) : Evolution’s Shore
British Science Fiction Association Award Best Novel nominee (1995) : Chaga
The John W. Campbell Memorial Award nominee (1996) : Chaga
British Science Fiction Association Award Best Novel nominee (2004) : River of Gods
Arthur C. Clarke Award Best Novel nominee (2005) : River of Gods
Hugo Award Best Novel nominee (2005) : River of Gods
Hugo Award Best Novelette (2007) : The Djinn’s Wife
Hugo Award Best Novel nominee (2008) : Brasyl
British Science Fiction Association Award Best Novel winner (2007) : Brasyl
Warwick Prize for Writing (2008/9) nominee and reached prize longlist announced in November 2008 : Brasyl
The John W. Campbell Memorial Award nominee (2008) : Brasyl
Locus SF Award nominee (2008) : Brasyl
Nebula Award nominee (2008) : Brasyl
Hugo Award Best Novelette nominee (2009) : The Tear
McDonald’s first novel. It won a number of awards on first publication and is frequently compared with works of Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, although these references appear to be given as a measure of quality rather than a note of similarity in style. In fact, this book is highly similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in its portrayal of a remote community over time, as well as with elements of magic realism.
On a partially terraformed Mars (comfortable temperature and atmosphere, although still mostly desert) a lone scientist is hunting a mysterious being across the desert, using a device best described as an anti-gravity sailboard for transportation. While taking a rest, he neglects to secure the board thoroughly and wakes up in time to see it blown away by the wind. Stranded in the desert, he is fortunate to discover an artificial oasis (created by a long-lost terraforming AI) near a line of railway. With all the necessities of life around him, he awaits rescue or company. Eventually, he is joined by other strays and castaways, and together they found the town of Desolation Road.
The novel outlines the history of the town through the next few decades, generally focussing on one major event at a time and dealing with in-between events in quick outlines. When characters leave town to seek fortunes elsewhere, the viewpoint often follows them on their adventures, revealing McDonald’s Mars as a complex and rich world. The style is witty and highly poetic, with a strong eye to character. Many of the numerous sub-stories of which the novel is constructed would have made fine short stories in their own right. Although not especially long, the book has the feel of an epic.
If the novel has a noticeable flaw, it is that it occasionally resorts to using “Gee whiz” sci-fi (as opposed to science-fiction) devices and inventions as Deus ex Machina to resolve some story arcs. This does not happen often enough to irritate the reader, but it is a feature nonetheless and continues to make its appearance in some of McDonald’s later work.
Although not a steampunk novel, much of the technology featured in the book, such as locomotives (albeit Fusion) and propellor-driven aircraft, appears to harken back to Earth’s near-history rather than to standard visions of the future. This gives the novel an atmosphere of anachronism and timelessness.
The ‘Chaga Saga’
Published between 1995 and 2000, the novels Chaga (US title Evolution’s Shore) and Kirinya, with the novella Tendeléo’s Story, form the ‘Chaga Saga’–perhaps the most important and certainly the most compelling and moral redaction of the alien invasion story in recent decades.
The journalistic tag ‘Chaga Saga’, playing on Aga Saga, resonates with the female protagonists of each novel, but McDonald’s purposes were far darker than domestic romance allows. An outer frame of the action involves the very real mystery of the dark side of Iapetus, but the principal story begins with extensive alien landings around the equator—meteoric biological packages that slam down and spill out an unstoppable wave of transformation. Animals are not directly harmed, but habitat is remorselessly consumed, and the major axis of Chaga concerns the alien advance on Nairobi from an impact-site on Mount Kilimanjaro. The protagonist is Ulster journalist Gaby McAslin, whose outsider’s eye both caresses African landscape and sees very clearly what the ‘UN quarantine zone’ is doing to Kenya and Kenyans. Gaby’s story, with that of her daughter, continues in Kirinya to a hugely satisfying space-operatic but also visionary and satirical climax. Tendeléo’s Story is an oblique coda, seen through the eyes of a young Kenyan girl who escapes to the UK only to be deported back to Kenya as an unwanted alien potentially contaminated by an even less wanted and much more alien alien.
The moral force of McDonald’s plot derives from his use of the invading alien as an immensely powerful but also very slippery metaphor:
The image of the unstoppable wave of transformation was nicked from [1982 Star Trek movie] The Wrath of Khan: it’s the Genesis device, slowed down, and once I had that, it became a rich source of metaphors: for colonialism, new technology, globalisation, change, death. If the Chaga is colonialism, it’s a unique kind that allows the people of the poor South to use and transform it to meet their needs and empower themselves: it’s a symbiosis.
The economic and moral issues are focused and driven home through the determination of the UN and the global pharmacological industry to conceal the fact that exposure to the alien Chaga cures AIDS, and the knife is turned by a fictional but verisimilar virology. In McDonald’s 2008 (imagined in 1994-5) there are four strains of HIV: HIV4 is a death sentence for everyone, until the Chaga arrives, but HIV1-3 are death sentences only for the poor—showing very clearly McDonald’s understanding (unusual in the mid-1990s) that AIDS was no longer a ‘killer’ in itself, but had become for the ‘First-World’ wealthy a manageable condition. McDonald’s plotting is also, in Chaga, deeply engaged with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and just as in Conrad the real horror is not only in the Congolese interior, but also in the looming bulk of late Victorian London, so McDonald’s ‘heart of darkness’ is not the invading alien but the responses to it of the UN and of developed nations.
Clute, John, & Nicholls, Peter (eds). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1993. ISBN 0-31209-618-6.
Lennard, John, Ian McDonald: Chaga / Evolution’s Shore. Tirril: Humanities-Ebooks, 2007.