Ares Express: This ain’t Mars like you’ve ever seen it before

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAres Express by Ian McDonald science fiction book reviewsAres Express by Ian McDonald

There’s really something special about Ian McDonald’s Mars books. McDonald’s Mars is a place I love to visit in all of its crazy, off the wall, illogical glory. I’ve rarely seen the numinous, and irrational, nature of magic so well displayed in fantasy books, let alone in a sci-fi one (the exception would have to be Sean Stewart who is also expert at such depictions, though in a very different vein). Despite the strangeness of McDonald’s Mars, I’ve rarely seen such a consistently envisioned and joyfully painted world.

Ares Express is a hell of a lot of fun and it even taught me a few things: 1) Hell hath no fury like a failed art student; 2) If something is going to run your life it might as well be the Rules of Narrative, they just might save your life; 3) Feisty and Resourceful (But Cute With It) Heroines can kick some serious ass; 4) If you’re going to do it at all, do it widescreen; and 5) never underestimate the power and resourcefulness of grandmothers. But I think I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.

Ares Express is a sequel of sorts to Desolation Road, a foray into a wild and wonderful terraformed Mars. In this outing we are introduced to the life and times of one of the great tribal-trains that travel across the Martian frontier as we jump on board the Catherine of Tharsis and meet our feisty and resourceful (but cute with it) heroine Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th. As a member of the leading clique in the multi-family domiety of this rolling city, all she dreams about is driving the train that her family has run for 11 generations. There’s only one small problem: she’s a girl… and everyone knows that girls don’t drive. Luckily for Sweetness the universe, and more specifically the Powers of Narrative, have something more in store for her, and after she crosses paths with a certain Green Man, nothing will ever be the same.

There are a few things you may need to know. First off, this ain’t Mars like you’ve ever seen it before (well, expect for the previous volume of course) as the past and the future collide in strange and wonderful ways. This Mars is circled by a glittering moonring composed of godlike AIs who manformed the world in the first place and are now worshipped as the angelic hierarchies of God the Panarchic and his sometimes almost-human saints. The planet is criss-crossed by the great rail lines of the Bethlehem Ares railroad and its multitude of behemoth engines, while its skies are dotted with great floating airships. Each city, village, and town is more strange than the last, whether it’s the interconnected megalithic city-states of the originally settled Grand Valley that lie under the glittering diamond Worldroof, or the tiny lotus-eating hamlet of Solid Gone under its literal cloud of deadening apathy. And the kids! When they’re not dreaming of manning the orbital defense stations or becoming reality shaping cineastes, they’re listening to that outlandish music put on by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra. I guess if you’re going to terraform your world with quantum computers that scrutinize the expanse of the multiverse in search of the best of all possible worlds as part of their planetary engineering, you shouldn’t be surprised if things start shading into magical realism. In short if there’s one thing McDonald seems to know, it’s a sensawunda and he builds it into the very fabric of this world and then turns it up to eleven. It struck me at one point that his Mars books are kind of like a Terry Gilliam movie (though better written): they’ve got that zany, manic surface of ‘anything-is-possible’ and off the wall characters with an underlying core of emotion.

Secondly Story (with a capital S) and its relation to human lives is integral to this, um, story. There’s a very self-conscious artifice to this “story as Story” aspect that McDonald revels in and, in order to get the most out of it, you’re going to have to buckle in for the ride and not worry too much about the rules of probability. For the duration of the narrative the main character *is* a story and McDonald examines not only the way this impacts her life, but also how we need and use stories to give our lives meaning (and shape)… even if it is someone else’s story. Ultimately we are all ‘trapped’ by our lives to some degree, that formless shifting thing that is shaped by both our decisions and apparent blind luck (or lack thereof), and which only seems to gain a shape when we look back on it (and force it to adhere to one). One begins to wonder if the lucky ones are those whose lives truly do form stories in the strictest sense of the word, or whether it’s a mixed blessing at best.

Finally, be aware that it’s a wild ride. Once the Powers of Narrative take control of your life and invest it with Purpose you’d better be prepared for an adventure. In this regard I was once again impressed with McDonald’s truly cinematic style, a style that, while full of gosh-wow moments and hair-raising exploits straight out of an action movie piled one on top of the other, he still manages to couple with meaningful substance and interesting characters. Throughout the tale of Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th, McDonald likes to both meet and invert our expectations of the Hero. First of all she is female, not generally the norm for stories in this genre (at least back in the day), and secondly despite being ‘the hero’ she is not always invested with full agency, being driven hither and yon by the dictates of narrative. The latter might sound like a bad thing, but as I mentioned above if you buckle yourself in you should enjoy the ride and Sweetness is certainly resourceful and spunky (but cute with it) enough to win us over. An interesting side element to her story is the fact that while she certainly attracts her fair share of members of the opposite sex (and is in no doubt as to her own attractiveness) she is never an irresistible lure to any of them. One after the other, each of her plethora of prospective mates turns out not to be ‘the one,’ though they all serve necessary functions in her story. They are ultimately very much an adjunct to Sweetness’ heroism, though still required for its fruition. They are the helpers who aid in, or dudes-in-distress that define, her heroism. It was an interesting inversion of some of my expectations.

I haven’t even talked about the main story arc, despite its obvious centrality to a story about Story, but suffice it to say that it involves disappointed ambition, thwarted desire, the destabilization of governments and, ultimately, a threat to the very fabric of reality. The villain is top-notch (how can you not be with a name like Devastation Harx?), if a bit behind the scenes, and the many surprises, twists and turns that comprise the plot are fully satisfying. Things move from the personal and particular to the general and universal and then back again as Sweetness’ personal rebellion sends shockwaves into the wider world and those in turn circle back to affect her closest family and friends. All in all it’s a lot of fun and certainly has cemented Ian McDonald as one to watch for me. I have to admit though, in looking at his wider catalogue, that it seems he veered away from this kind of balls-to-the-wall fun and went in for much more issue-oriented sci-fi in many of his other works. Not a bad thing, but I’m curious if I’ll like these supposedly ‘serious’ books half so much as I did these two grand adventures in a Mars that can never be.

Desolation Road — (1988) Publisher: Nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It all began 30 years ago on Mars, with a greenperson. But by the time it all finished, the town of Desolation Road had experienced every conceivable abnormality from Adam Black’s Wonderful Travelling Chataqua and Educational Stravaganza (complete with its very own captive angel) to the Astounding Tatterdemalion Air Bazaar. It’s inhabitants ranged from Dr. Alimantando, the town’s founder and resident genius, to the Babooshka, a barren grandmother who just wants her own child grown in a fruit jar; from Rajendra Das, mechanical hobo who has a mystical way with machines to the Gallacelli brothers, identical triplets who fell in love with and married the same woman.

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TERRY LAGO, one of our regular guest reviewers, is a Torontonian who, like all arts students, now works in the IT field. He has been a fan of fantasy ever since being introduced to Tolkien by his older brother when he was only a wee lad, though he has since branched out to enjoy all spectrums of the Fantasy genre and quite a few of the science fiction one as well. Literary prose linked with well-drawn characters are the things he most looks for in a book. You can see what he's currently reading at his Goodreads page.

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3 comments

  1. I just looked these two books up. I couldn’t figure out why a female character couldn’t be an engineer, so I wondered if these were older than I first thought, like maybe from the 1980s. Doesn’t look like it. I guess I’ll understand the culture more when I read the books.

    In Desolation Road, he probably could have reeled me in with Chautauqua!

    I just may have to break down and buy both of these. They look like rollercoaster-fun!

    • Ian McDonald did write about this setting and Saint Catherine in the early 80s. Last year I read his story called “The Catherine Wheel (Our Lady of Tharsis)” which was in Asimov’s in 1984.

      • So he may have been working on them for a while. There’s no reason a society can’t have completely irrational restrictions based on gender (Clears throat and gazes innocently at the ceiling), right? It just feels like a convention from an earlier time, and perhaps it was.

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