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McDonald, Ian

Entry updated 9 April 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1960-    ) UK author, a resident of Northern Ireland, who began publishing sf with "The Islands of the Dead" for Extro in April/May 1982, assembled, with other short work, as Empire Dreams (coll 1988); later stories were collected as Speaking in Tongues (coll 1992); he is not a prolific short story writer, though "The Djinn's Wife" (July 2006 Asimov's) won a Hugo award in 2007. He very quickly demonstrated a fascination with garish sf impedimenta and a habit of rococo elaboration in longer forms, which made him both a highly promising writer and potentially a wilfully eccentric one. His first novel, Desolation Road (1988), which won a Locus Award for best first novel, has been described as The Martian Chronicles (1950) crossed with One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), a joke limited in accuracy only by its failure to add Cordwainer Smith to Ray Bradbury and Gabriel García Márquez (1928-2014). McDonald is not so much writing pastiche under heavy influence as shortcutting deftly via other writers the precise gestures needed to make ideological or emotional points about the human implications of Terraforming or cyborgization (see Cyborgs); sampling of the intensity McDonald employed in his earlier career is, however, more often found in the visual arts of the twentieth century, where it is easier to understand as a productive conversation.

Out on Blue Six (1989) describes a failed Utopia, a standard theme in the UK during the Thatcher years, working both to rehabilitate socialist ideals and to acknowledge legitimate criticism; it combines standard Robert A Heinlein motifs – the Man, or in this case Woman, who Learns Better – along with A E van Vogt mystification about Amnesiac Hidden Masters, and a catalogue of Dystopian and heterotopian fragments, plus chunks of Grail quest and some expert (though possibly extraneous) action sequences. King of Morning, Queen of Day (in Empire Dreams, coll 1988; exp 1991), which won the Philip K Dick Award in 1992, is a fantasy about Irish identity across the generations which manages in its third (contemporary) section to assimilate much of the feel of Cyberpunk. Hearts, Hands and Voices (1992; vt The Broken Land 1992), set in a tropical venue much resembling Asia (though the religious conflicts have an Irish ring), replicates the technique of his first novel; in this case his models are Geoff Ryman's novels The Unconquered Country (Spring 1984 Interzone; rev 1986) and The Child Garden; Or, a Low Comedy (1988).

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone (1994) concisely depicts the circular hegira through near-future Japan of an occidental man who is re-sorting his life and attempting to come to terms with the consequences of his Invention (or possibly discovery) of reality-controlling Computer images. Necroville (1994; vt Terminal Cafe 1994), more concentrated than his previous work, constructs an intensely complicated urban Near Future world – Cyberpunk imagery of the world-City is utilized with bravado throughout – in which Nanotechnology has accomplished what many – certainly in the late twentieth century – felt might be its first transformative change, making it possible for cellular creatures – like us – to become immortal. The plot spins this speculation with feverish energy.

An interest in the interaction between Third World (or at least not paradigm First World) venues and Alien incursions had been manifest from the beginning of McDonald's career. In Sacrifice of Fools (1996), which converses fairly intimately with Gwyneth Jones's Aleutian sequence, sexually ambiguous aliens – ambiguities that are made dubiously transgressive by virtue of the Irish setting – are embedded into complex events that threaten to transform the planet. In the Chaga sequence, comprising Chaga (1995), Kirinya (1997) and Tendeléo's Story (2000 chap), an Alien biological intrusion known as the Chaga has begun to cause the transformation (perhaps Xenoforming) of Africa into a quasi-organic fungoid "wonderland" that may ultimately be sentient, while at the same time a giant Alien Spaceship – which resembles, and is in fact named after, the kind of artefact described in this Encyclopedia as a Big Dumb Object or Macrostructure – is detected heading for Earth. The focus of the sequence, characteristic of McDonald, is on the Third World adaptive response to, and ultimate use of, the Chaga, for the fungus embodies or manifests aspects of manipulable Nanotechnology. The resistance of the First World to the Chaga, which promises easy Genetic Engineering and Technology advances, is clearly doomed.

There is an abiding sense in McDonald's more recent work that the futures we already inhabit in the early twenty-first century are not only all-encompassing, but may also mark the end of the dominance of the old First World. This is perhaps most explicit in River of Gods (2004), set in a complexly depicted loose confederation of states that by the year 2047 (the hundredth anniversary of independence) have exfoliated out of India. The great subcontinent – bedevilled by the inexorable crises of Climate Change, and intensely implicated in the development of AI technologies beyond limits "permitted" by a conservative America attempting vainly to defend its old prerogatives – becomes here an immensely detailed and plausible arena, a vision of Near Future that seems in the end quite remarkably realistic. River of Gods won the 2005 BSFA Award for best novel; Cyberabad Days (coll of linked stories 2008) comprises tales in the same setting, including the already cited "The Djinn's Wife" and a sequel to the novel's climactic action.

A similar embracing of new worlds marks Brasyl (2007), intricately exploring the Brazil of the heart-of-darkness past (see Joseph Conrad), the present and the Quantum-Computer-transformed future, though plot concerns are perhaps here foregrounded too heavily (see also Omega Point). The Dervish House (2010) focuses Mcdonald's intense, gonzo, panoptic techniques on an extremely fast-forward rendering of Istanbul; this novel won the John W Campbell Memorial Award. The Young Adult Everness sequence begins with the exhilarating Planesrunner (2011), whose young protagonist comes into possession of an infundibulum – McDonald's use of the term being perhaps influenced by the "chronosynclastic infundibulum" in Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan (1959) – which maps access to innumerable Parallel Worlds; further volumes in the series, similarly livened by action, include Be My Enemy (2012) and Empress of the Sun (2014) to date. The Luna sequence whose main narrative arc comprises Luna: New Moon (2015), Luna: Wolf Moon (2017) and Luna: Moon Rising (2019) focuses on a cabal of corporations known as the Five Dragons which dominate an industrialized Moon, and at least initially on the lifestyles of the human clans involved; too baroque for effective Satire, the narrative moves virtuously all the same towards a dark climax, with Earth sliding rapidly into Climate-Change chaos, and the Moon – where Homo sapiens may survive – still cursed by dynastic and corporate strife. The Menace from Farside (2019) is a somewhat less demanding Young Adult prequel. Frequent comparisons of this series with George R R Martin's Game of Thrones series (2011-2019) seem called for. The ambitious Hopeland (2023), which extends from recent London to a Near Future Polynesia half-drowned from the effects of Climate Change, focuses on the eponymous, benignly interactive, online community, a Media Landscape for sharing life strategies in the melodramas of the Anthropocene.

Although individual titles may lack some balance, McDonald is now a central voice in any sf attempt to understand the futures among us. [RK/JC]

see also: Colonization of Other Worlds; Eastercon; Games and Sports; Interzone; Mars; Mecha; New Worlds; Women in SF; Virtual Reality; Worldcon.

Ian Neil McDonald

born Manchester, England: 31 March 1960



Desolation Road

  • Desolation Road (New York: Bantam, 1988) [Desolation Road: pb/Jerry Lofano]
  • Ares Express (London: Simon and Schuster/Earthlight, 2001) [Desolation Road: hb/Paul Youll]


  • Chaga (London: Victor Gollancz, 1995) [Chaga: hb/Mark Harrison]
  • Kirinya (London: Victor Gollancz, 1998) [Chaga: hb/Mike Posen]
  • Tendeléo's Story (Leeds, West Yorkshire: PS Publishing, 2000) [chap: Chaga: hb/David A Hardy]

River of Gods

  • River of Gods (London: Simon and Schuster, 2004) [River of Gods: hb/Darren Wall]
  • Cyberabad Days (Amherst, New York: Pyr Books, 2008) [coll of linked stories: River of Gods: hb/Stephan Martinière]



individual titles

collections and stories


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