Far-Future Martian Charm and Railway Adventure In "Ares Express"

At long last available stateside, Ian McDonald's Ares Express is a phantasmagoria of nuclear locomotives and wild Martian awesomeness. It's a definite must-read.

In an unimaginably distant future Mars has been terraformed by machines so powerful that they're understood as (and might as well be) angels. Across the Martian deserts, enormous trains carry passengers, resources, and factories. These trains are so huge that they're effectively societies of their own, with their own peculiar customs and rigidly distinct social strata – the locomotive functionaries, like Engineers and Stuards and Deep-Fusion tenders, are more like tribes than they are like jobs. From the great train Catherine of Tarsis, Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-bun Asiim Engineer 12th flees an arranged marriage and stumbles into a mad adventure on which the future of Martian civilization depends.

Sweetness' epic travels across the Martian landscape reveal a sprawling world engineered by Macdonald's keen social eye fearsome imagination. Sweetness travels to towns where the inhabitant have lost their dreams, to places that exist only probabilistically, to the cities of the Grand Valley – a rift that extends a quarter of the way across Mars and is entirely covered by a roof made of diamond. It is a Mars that is saturated in impossible far-future technology and still a culture that most closely resembles late 19th or early 20th century America. There is a sense of vastness to its empty wastelands, a kind of pioneerism to towns like Solid Gone that cling to the edges of uninhabitable desert. It is a world of magic and superstition, in which the people are so far outpaced by the science that permits their livelihoods that it's been sublimated into religion.

McDonald does some remarkable things with Ares Express. From the outset, Sweetness herself understands that she is an element in a story, protected by the Narrative Laws of the Universe. Yet, despite her sometimes plain awareness about what part of the story she's in – even when she's in The Point of Worst Personal Threat, and knows that coincidence and serendipity will step in to save her – McDonald never shorts the story on dramatic tension.

It is true that many heroic stories follow similar patterns of plot and action, and despite the fact that we know this, we still hang on the edge of our seats at the tense parts, we're still moved by sad parts, still energized by the hero's brilliant reversal of circumstances. Macdonald has, somehow, made this tacit awareness of the rules of story explicit without sacrificing any of the experience of reading.

Much of this rests on the indefatigable charm of plucky young Sweetness herself: a clever, tough, frankly sexual heroine that never descends into the clichés that those characteristics invite. Though much of the story involves things happening to her or around her, as she endeavors to recover the ghost of her conjoined twin sister (separated bodily since birth, but always present in nearby mirrors), Sweetness' survival in the face of Mars' strangeness is never less than compelling.

McDonald is furthermore an extraordinary stylist. His prose is clear and lucid, and at once both beautiful and playful. There is an inescapable sense that Macdonald enjoys playing with words, building prose like intricate clocks, which can persist wholly on their beauty, regardless of their subject. Consider, as Sweetness' grandmother tries to secure help for her grandchild from a pair of postal clerks at a run-down post-office in the Martian waste:

Grandmother Taal's plea hit a layer of institutionalised incest annealed to the back of the siblings' eyes and abounced, like moonring-gleam from a star-struck cat. Berya's hand seized the stamp like a striking snake, lifted it to blast. Laventine barely wrestled him back to the ink pad.

This intricacy extends to the broad structure of the story itself; "kaleidoscopic" is a word often thrown around in reviews of epic fiction, but it's completely appropriate here: the fractured elements from which the plot grows organize themselves as the reader's perspective broadens. McDonald introduces more and more with every page, but far from leaving characters and ideas hanging out to dry, they reveal themselves as integral parts of his increasingly-larger narrative. In this respect, it resembles an energetic, brightly colored Book of the New Sun, and for it Macdonald absolutely deserves favorable comparisons to Gene Wolfe.

The Mars of Ares Express is not at all a hard-SF Mars; readers looking for in-depth discussions of the titanic processes by which the barren Mars could be reshaped into a habitable world will be disappointed. It is also a Mars that is full of magic and superstition, and one that never fully clarifies just how real that magic is, where it comes from, and whether or not it's simply Clarke's sufficiently advanced science. MacDonald eshews the limitations that hard-SF imposes, to instead construct a paean to all possible red planets, a story that follows a gloriously tricky path through the many conceptions of Mars that literature has woven over the years. It is a Mars that is, above all, a Mars of the imagination.

A final note: Ares Express is actually the sequel to Desolation Road, which I hadn't read and didn't realize until I was already finished this one. If there was some information imparted in Desolation Road that was required to understand Ares Express, I never noticed its absence. Based solely on how great Ares Express is, I'd recommend reading both, but I don't think it matters where you start.

Ares Express is available now from Pyr Books.

Chris Braak is editor of lit & cult/ure blog Threat Quality Press, and emperor of the moon in exile. His credentials, accomplishments, and accolades, are too numerous to list.