Vintage Treasures: Out on Blue Six by Ian McDonald

Vintage Treasures: Out on Blue Six by Ian McDonald

Out on Blue Six (Bantam Spectra, May 1989). Cover by Will Cormier

Ian McDonald has written some of the most acclaimed science fiction of the last four decades. His first novel Desolation Road (1988), about an oasis town on a far-future Mars, won the Locus Award, and his King of Morning, Queen of Day (1991) won the Philip K. Dick Award. His novels River of Gods, Brasyl, and The Dervish House were all nominated for the Hugo Award, and he’s been nominated for the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association) Award numerous times, including for his novels Terminal Cafe, Chaga, and Luna: New Moon.

Out on Blue Six is something of an oddity in his catalog. His second novel, it tells the tale of a group of “pain criminals” in a far-future state where all forms of pain and unhappiness are illegal. Ian McDonald has gone on record saying “I hate [it]… I wish I hadn’t written the damn thing.” Kat Hooper at Fantasy Literature, in her review Out on Blue Six: Really bizarre, calls it “strange all the way through… and over-stimulating, like an acid trip.”

None of that has dissuaded the book’s many fans, of course, who adore this book.

[Click the images to deep-six the small versions.]

Desolation Road (Bantam Spectra, February 1988), Terminal Cafe
(Bantam Spectra, November 1994), and River of Gods (Pyr, March 1, 2006).
Covers by Jerry LoFaro, Stephen Youll, and Stephan Martiniere

Let’s start with Cory Doctorow, who provided the foreword for the 2014 reprint edition, and who describes it (at Out on Blue Six: Ian McDonald’s brilliant novel is back) this way.

For ten years, I’ve been singing the praises of Out on Blue Six… this book is one of those once-in-a-generation, brain-melting flashes of brilliance that makes you fall in love with a writer’s work forever.

Out on Blue Six [is] a book I’ve read dozens of times, and by which I am still awed and delighted. I won’t try and summarize the plot. There’s no point. Picture a 16-car pileup in Dr Seuss country, where the colliding zithermobiles are piloted by William Gibson’s console cowboys and Mad Magazine caricatures, have P.K. Dick and Orwell do alternating rewrites on the text, and you’ll be getting close to the kind of novel that this is…

This is a masterful stew of a novel… [and] an important book. Not “important” in the sense of being difficult and dry and esoteric. Out on Blue Six is none of those things. It is fun, it is fast, it is convulsively funny, and it is packed with enough action for six books.

But it is important nevertheless. It’s important because it does to all the sf that came before it what a Coltrane solo did to the musical conversation that had taken place among all his peers before he picked up his horn. This is a book that shows the unexpected connections between the high and the low, the serious and the frivolous, the sacred and the profane. It’s a novel that marks the end of the Cold War and the start of a too-short techno-optimistic period, and it is prescient in its shrewd guesses about where all that optimism is likely to end.

Corey made no attempt to summarize the plot, but Jesse at Speculiction bravely takes a stab at it.

Out on Blue Six is entirely set… in the great city of Yu. An environmental catastrophe has forced the implementation of order upon society in order to prevent the complete devastation of life and a massive wall has been built around the city. The control of pain considered the lowest common denominator, the ruling Compassionate Society psychologically profiles people at birth, and until death imposes profession, caste, and partner. Any cause of harm to others, be it verbal, physical, spiritual, etc. is a reason for alarm, the Love Police vigilant enforcing the city’s what’s-best-for-the-majority laws. Yu not entirely a controlled state, however, its neon jungle burns with life off the grid.

Courtney Hall [is] a political cartoonist working for one of the city’s largest media consortiums, in the opening pages she uploads a subversive cartoon for reasons she can’t quite put her finger on. The remainder of the book spent on the run from the Love Police… she quickly ends up in the underground, both literally and figuratively. Sentient raccoons, confidante to the King of Nebraska, and climbing the five kilometer high wall that encloses the city, hers is an adventure of kaleidoscope dimension going where none can predict…

One can literally turn to any page in the novel and read of some bizarre object, place, or scene that requires the context of the novel — a slippery notion at best — to fully comprehend…. Out on Blue Six… has a minor cult following; there is a group of fans who adore the novel…

Exponentially outpacing the literary daring of McDonald’s first novel Desolation Road, Out on Blue Six is an ambitious second novel. Seemingly believing he can do anything conceptually, the story is swimming in science fiction conceits spun to max on the surreal. Conceptually (and some would say, lyrically) all over the map, Out on Blue Six is not a standard science fiction novel, and must be approached without expectation… Bearing some small resemblance to Pohl and Kornbluth’s dystopian The Space Merchants and influencing Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground and Jeff Noon’s Vurt (and possible Charlie Stross’ fiction), it may even be best to go in with 3D goggles: of the dystopian novels to date, this is the most surreally psychedelic.

Although Ian McDonald began publishing during my most prolific period reading period (the late 80s, right before I entered grad school), I somehow managed to avoid reading any of his novels. Out on Blue Six sounds like the place to rectify that.

Out on Blue Six was published as a paperback original by Bantam Spectra in May 1989. It is 335 pages, priced at $4.50 in paperback. The cover is by Will Cormier. It has never been reprinted, but was released in digital formats by Open Road Integrated Media in 2013.

Our previous coverage of Ian McDonald includes:

A Game of Moons: Ian Mcdonald’s Luna Trilogy
Vintage Treasures: King of Morning, Queen of Day

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

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