Ares Express is classed as a sequel to the author’s wonderful far-future Mars story Desolation Road. As I anticipated, the continuous characters from Desolation Road are few and somewhat peripheral. It would be a fine stand-alone read, and no one should avoid it for lack of familiarity with the previous volume.
Unlike his first Martian book with its sprawling ensemble, McDonald really focuses this one on the single heroine Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th, and the time-frame of the story is much briefer, so McDonald doesn’t pull off the same astonishing combination of little stories adding up to a big one. Although he still manages to avoid the word Mars throughout the novel, he also furnishes a lot of additional information about the fourth planet and its history, religions, and relations to “Motherworld,” in ways that are more direct than those of Desolation Road.
“Naked to our lens, human imagination had engineered its surface. Whether watered by slow canals, galloped across by green or red barbarians; contemplated by a wistful autumn people; the little world next one out, unlike the other globes in the system, rocky or smothered with steam, had always possessed a geography. Names were written on its skin.” (251-2)
Ares Express is full of thematic and iconic connections to Peter Pan. Sweetness kicks off the events of the book by fleeing her arranged wedding: she doesn’t want to grow up, at least not in the way dictated by her family — part of the engineer caste perpetually living on the massive nuclear-powered trains that serve as the principal long-distance transport on Mars. The Captain Hook role is occupied by Devastation Harx, a cult leader attempting to incite planetary cataclysm from his airship cathedral. The book is chock-full of urchins and micro-societies of voluntary castaways.
While the central course of events in Ares Express make up a coming-of-age novel, the most significant secondary plot-line features the adventures of Sweetness’ Grandmother Taal in her efforts to rescue the girl (and the planet). As a counterpoint to the rollicking cinematic action of Sweetness’ journey, Grandmother Taal’s story is more literary and episodic.
It’s no wonder to me that McDonald took about thirteen years to finish a second Mars story — his vision is too fine to waste on a rush job, and it’s clear that he had the necessary inspiration to continue here. Maybe there’ll be a third someday!