Discovering Ian McDonald

by Paul Kincaid

Ian McDonald comes from Manchester and now lives in Northern Ireland. I come from Manchester and lived for three years in Northern Ireland when I was at university there. On such small coincidences, tottering edifices can be built.

I discovered Ian McDonald in 1988, in Birmingham, in a bookshop that wasn't Andromeda. Actually, I might well have discovered him some years earlier, in 1982 when his first story was published in the short-lived British magazine Extro. At least, I had the magazine, I could have read the story, but if I did, I have absolutely no recollection of it.

No, the discovery came in 1988 when I came across two American paperbacks, his collection of short stories, Empire Dreams and his first novel, Desolation Road. I have no idea after all these years what impulse it was that drove me to pick up the books. (I have a vague feeling it was something to do with Bernie Evans), but I'm damned glad I did.

The stories, that's where I started. I've always enjoyed a good, well- told short story a skilled author can often do more in a short story than they can in a full-length novel, and McDonald was clearly a skilled author. These were stories that whispered with a strange menace, that became vigorous in places where other science fiction seemed to be becoming tired, that wrung the changes stylistically and, more importantly, emotionally. When did you last read a science fiction story that wrung you out emotionally? But there were stories here that were doing just that: "Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh" (McDonald has an odd way with a title) and particularly the stunning "King of Morning, Queen of Day".

Then there was the novel: "For three days Dr. Alimantando had followed the green person across the desert." There was all the exuberance that seemed to have been missing for too long from science fiction. This was a massive book, a sprawling combination of Ray Bradbury and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a book that had too much going on for its own good but it is far far better to be too fat with ideas than to be too thin.

And the thing that really got me was that here were two stunning books by a British writer, and he'd never been published in this country. (Let's forget Extro, I clearly had.) This was a crime, and I made as much of a fuss about it as I could. Lo and behold, Desolation Road then did appear in this country thanks to Bantam, and with a very handsome hardback edition courtesy of another Ian McDonald fan, Rog Peyton and his Drunken Dragon Press. Since then, every one of McDonald's books has had a British edition and it is probably absolutely nothing to do with me, but I can't help feeling I have a stake in the enterprise. He was my discovery mine, and thousands of other people's, but still mine.

If the thing that appealed to me about that first short story collection was the diversity of his work, I could hardly complain about where he went after Desolation Road: all his books have been very different. There was the utopian Out on Blue Six, and King of Morning, Queen of Day which is one of those rare novels that shows it is possible to turn a good story into an equally good novel, and Hearts, Hands and Voices (what did I say about his titles?) which is as lush and exotic and inventive as something by Geoff Ryman, and his nanotechnology meets the living dead thriller Necroville, and Chaga with more alien exotica making the world a stranger and more challenging and usually a lovelier place. Not much uniformity there, thank heavens, science fiction should play with ideas, and Ian McDonald is more playful than most.

If there is a common theme it is probably politics, though none of his books is obviously political in any straightforward sense. The failed utopia of Out on Blue Six is probably the most overtly political, though it is for that reason probably less interesting than King of Morning, Queen of Day which uses a lyrical fantasy to explore the nature of Irishness, and you'll hear a backbeat of the Irish situation drumming away behind many of his fictions.

But it's not just novels, we have to remember that. He still writes short stories, not enough of them maybe but they are there, every bit as fresh and odd as those early ones in Empire Dreams. They come at you from unexpected directions and make you sit up and take notice. There was a second collection of stories, Speaking in Tongues, which came out four years after the first. If I'd not already discovered his work, it would have had the same effect on me as Empire Dreams did, stories like "Gardenias" and "Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" (ah, there's a strain of madness running through the work, a madness which may explain the profusion of beautiful nightmares that are the landscape of so many of his tales, which may grow out of the madness of Ireland, which may indeed be the only sane way of seeing our mad world).

And there's a story which hasn't been collected yet, a story called "Some Strange Desire" which appeared in one of the Omni anthologies, which is sad and cruel, bitter and beautiful, disturbing and enthralling. It is one of those stories that sticks in the mind, a story that plays you like a yoyo reeling you back and forth with the contradictions of your responses. It is a story composed of opposites, and it seems to typify everything about Ian McDonald's work.

There are times, reading a story like that, when I wish I had not discovered Ian McDonald in 1988, then I could be discovering him afresh right now. But maybe that's what I'm doing anyway.


© Paul Kincaid

First published in the first Progress Report for Intuition, the 1998 Eastercon (ed. H. Steele) November 1996


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