Tag Archives: Ian McDonald

Ares Express

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ares Express [Amazon, Local Library] by Ian McDonald.

McDonald Ares Express

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!

River of Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews River of Gods [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Ian McDonald

McDonald River of Gods

The “river” of this amazing work of science fiction is not merely Ganga Mata–the goddess who is the river Ganges–but also the flow of human life and experience on which the god-like artificial intelligences of the novel are borne. The human characters begin as separate tributaries, and their stories twist and merge with each other as they rush down into the watershed of an imagined history of the mid-21st-century. These characters inhabit niches throughout the spectrum from the absolute top to very nearly the bottom of Varanasi society, with a couple of American academics and an Afghani-Swedish journalist thrown in for good measure. Although the book takes place on the eve of the centennial of Indian Independence from Britain, its political situation describes a balkanized subcontinent in which independent Bharati and Awadhi states are on the brink of war for control of water resources. (It goes without McDonald’s saying, that the epochal drought is a function of climate change and the exhaustion of Himalayan glaciers.)

The futurological scenario of this book doesn’t feel at all dated, despite the fact that it was first published seven years ago–a long time at today’s pace of cultural and technological change. The two tiny clinkers naturally relate to personal electronics: McDonald’s “palmers” failed to anticipate that everyone’s pocket computer would be subordinated to the concept of a phone, and his use of “the Tablet” to denote a unique piece of espionage data hardware falls a little flat in the wake of iPads and their competitors.

The novel’s setting presupposes an assortment of post-human types, in addition to great masses of “ordinary” humans with virtual-reality headsets and nanotechnologically engineered pharmocopoeia. There are genetically enhanced “brahmins” who age at half the ordinary human rate, with immunity to many degenerative diseases. The oldest of these are in their early twenties, all with great influence, money, and native intelligence, but they look like ten-year-olds. There are “nutes,” who have “stepped away” from masculine and feminine gender identification into a third sex, surgically created, with erogenous cues tied to subdermal buds on their forearms. And there are artificial intelligences (“aeais”) beyond generation 2.5, the point where they are smart enough to pass a Turing Test, and to know when it is in their interest to fail one.

This is a big book: a 600-page doorstop, but it reads fast like a rushing river. Where the events of McDonald’s lovely debut novel Desolation Road take place over three human generations, the course of River of Gods spans a mere three weeks. And into that it packs political intrigue, edge-of-the-envelope scientific speculation, love stories, violent deaths, profound disillusionment, and, gosh, other stuff besides. The plot is full of semi-surprises; McDonald is an artful stylist who provides enough information to sometimes create dramatic irony by giving the intelligent reader an edge on the characters, but often stuff just happens in ways that are jaw-dropping at the time, but seem inevitable in retrospect. 

Anyone who can enjoy thoughtful science fiction should love this book.

Desolation Road

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Desolation Road [Amazon, Bookshop UK, Publisher, Local Library] by Ian McDonald.

McDonald Desolation Road

The jacket copy promising “every conceivable abnormality” had me expecting a more comical romp than the wry and profound storytelling McDonald provides in his first novel. Although in many ways the most science-fictiony of science fiction–a story set on Mars during a period of human settlement–there are many other literary veins enriching Desolation Road. The little serendipitous town by the train tracks certainly has a 19th-century-US Western feel to it that gave the book a steampunk vibe (this well before the coinage of the genre label). Some readers have accused McDonald of “magical realism” in this Martian novel, which nevertheless intensely engages religious and political themes. The net effect for me was something like a hybrid between Little, Big and Dune

There must be many influences and allusions that flew past me. Critics commonly point to homages to Jack Vance and Ray Bradbury. The 1985 Terry Gilliam movie Brazil is “sampled,” if you will, in chapters 25 and 35. Cory Doctorow notes that the Catherine Wheel in the religion/planetary administration of McDonald’s Mars alludes to the music of David Byrne. It’s clear that McDonald has taken the old Clarke “indistinguishable from magic” saw to heart, and thus lays himself open to the charge of fantasy in SF drag, but if time travel is acceptable as science fiction, the rest of this kit should pass muster.

Sometime around page 150 I started to wonder, “What’s with all the characters being sexually active at the age of nine?” It wasn’t until I read about the grandfather of mature grandchildren thinking “the thoughts a man of forty-five thinks” that I realized these are Martian years! There are no C.E. dates in the book, but the story must start in the 28th century at the earliest, given some information about the timescale of “manforming” Mars. It takes place over roughly three human generations, each of which conveniently corresponds to a “decade” in Martian reckoning (i.e. 18.8 of our years).

McDonald very comprehensively adheres to the framing of Mars as “the world,” with the word “earth” used only to reference soil and planetary surface, while planet Earth is called “the Motherworld.” And still the Martian milieu is full of clever evocations of 20th-century mass culture. 

The chapters are short and delicious, the vivid characters abundant, and the plot is so manifold that each of chapters 57 through 63 constitutes an independent climax, leaving room for a further half-dozen chapters of denouement and closure. It is a well-formed independent novel, and it does not in any way beg a sequel. The one McDonald eventually wrote (Ares Express) doubtless leverages the terrific world-building in Desolation Road, but I won’t be surprised if it is at a significant remove from the characters and events in its predecessor.

This is one of those books that I devoured rapidly, and then toward the end I started to feel sad that it would soon be over. I recommend it without reservation.


Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Brasyl by Ian McDonald.

As with many of Ian McDonald’s other novels, there are parallel protagonists and plot strands that are brought together only at the end of Brasyl. The unusual thing in this case is that they run “parallel” in the first and fourth decades of the twenty-first century, and in the fourth decade of the eighteenth century. Their eventual interaction is neither on the plane of simple historical causality, nor is it a matter of “time travel” as usually understood.

Brasyl was the first novel I’d read in quite a long while that had a glossary at the back. And it was helpful, because of the frequent use of Portuguese in the story. In fact, I sometimes ended up looking for words that weren’t even in the glossary. I don’t feel like really gained a richer appreciation for Brazilian culture from this book, but the setting was densely presented and effective in framing the story.

There is a cinematic feel to the story, and despite an explicit homage to Terry Gilliam’s (“wrong”) Brazil (214), the ideal directors for this one would be the Wachowskis—the book is suffused with their most conspicuous themes, tropes, and concepts, from The Matrix to Cloud Atlas to Sense8.

I enjoyed Brasyl a lot, but it seemed to have only about half of the overall length and primary character populations found in River of Gods or The Dervish House, and I think I preferred the more sprawling feel and longer immersion that those others supplied. (Of those three “New World Order” books, The Dervish House is probably my favorite.) [via]

Terminal Café

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Terminal Cafe by Ian McDonald.

Ian McDonald Terminal Cafe

I think I prefer the American title Terminal Café for McDonald’s Necroville. It shares and supports the misdirection of the jacket copy and the opening chapter, to make the psychopharm/VR auteur Santiago Columbar the central character of this story. Like nearly all of McDonald’s novels that I’ve read, there is no sole central character. Instead, there is a dispersed ensemble, not united until the book’s ending. This one is unusual in that there is a clear prior relationship among the members of the ensemble from the outset: they are a former school cohort, now 27-year-olds (a “funny age”) who have been holding a reunion annually on the Day of the Dead at the Terminal Café in the necroville connected to Los Angeles.

This book was written prior to McDonald’s “New World Order” cycle of novels (River of Gods, Brasyl, The Dervish House, etc.), and it does not seem to share any narrative continuity with them. It is, however, much closer to them in its sensibility and narrative style than it is to Desolation Road. Necroville is set in the (former?) United States, but it seems that the dominant language is Spanish. Former civil governments seem to have been reduced to suppliers of law on the open market, where corporadas are the dominating players.

The future setting might be in the twenty-second century. It doesn’t have a date other than November 1-2—the whole story transpires over a single twenty-four-hour period. Transformative nanotechnology hasn’t supplied “deathless immortality,” but the dead can be durably reanimated through “Jesus Tanks” that analyze them and then reconstruct them out of “tectors.” The supposedly foggy life-memories of the dead are, however, no guarantee of a subjective continuity of consciousness, so people are really no more inclined to die. What’s more, the dead are not recognized as having full human entity or legal rights to property; they are relegated to necrovilles when not performing services for the living.

The revolutionary struggle of the dead against their subordination by the living is the largest backdrop (and often foreground) of the novel. McDonald does not balk at references implying comparison of the situation of the dead to that of Africans introduced by slavery to the Western hemisphere. The “Freedead” have spaceships with names like Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X, and the member of Santiago Columbar’s set who is most critical to the political events of the novel is named Toussaint.

In Desolation Road, McDonald had already established his ability to artfully advert to the prior canon of science fiction. In this book, the allusions seem predominantly Phildickian. The theme of epistemologically obscure resurrection connects Necroville with Dick’s UBIK. McDonald quietly name-drops at least two PKD novels, Man in the High Castle (177) and Galactic Pot Healer (214). And one of the major plot threads borrows more than a little from Blade Runner, the film based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In fact, the dead of Necroville are in many respects not much different than the replicants of Blade Runner. Even the tyrannical demiurge’s name Tesler is not so far from Tyrell.

After more than twenty years, this novel doesn’t feel dated at all. I wouldn’t quite class it among McDonald’s few best, but those are a terrifically high standard. It’s very worth reading. [via]

The Dervish House

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dervish House by Ian McDonald.

Ian McDonald The Dervish House

The Dervish House is a novel of the sort that Ian McDonald is best known for: science fiction set in the mid-21st century in a technologically developed metropolitan culture outside of the self-regarding “First World.” In this case, the setting is Istanbul: a city of both the East and the West, where the past and the future converge in terrorist espionage, nanotech-induced mysticism, quests for religious antiquities, and an Enron-style financial scandal, all over the course of a week at the climactic end of an oppressive summer heat.

As is typical for McDonald’s novels, five or more principal characters feature in their own narrative threads that coexist in a shared system of events, only very gradually coming to cross and tie with each other. There are mature nostalgia and regret, adult striving and passion, and the adventures of a Boy Detective.

I had expected a lot from this book, having previously enjoyed other work by the author, and knowing that this was a recent and well-regarded accomplishment. I was not disappointed. [via]


Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Accelerando (Singularity) by Charles Stross:

Charles Stross' Accelerando


I’ve read all of Charles Stross’s Laundry novels, which are humorous neo-Lovecraftian espionage adventures. Those involve extensive homages to various earlier writers, with some consequent inflections of writing style. Accelerando is the first of Stross’s straight-ahead science fiction books I’ve digested, and I presume it represents a more direct delivery of his authorial voice. (There’s a simulated Lovecraft cameo at page 337, though.)

In subject matter, this book seemed most comparable to the excellent work of Ian McDonald, with an ambitious 21st-century futurology involving radical technologies of simulation, artificial intelligence, and enhancement of human capability. But true to his title, Stross imposes a pace of change far in excess of what I’ve seen in McDonald’s books. He has evidently taken Moore’s Law of integrated circuit development and its extrapolation in Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns as the axioms of his story about what might become of our species and our planet. Not only does Stross have the intellectual fortitude to narratively stare down the “technological singularity” but he also confronts Fermi’s Paradox. He enlists Ray Bradbury’s notion of the matrioshka brain, Robert L. Forward’s starwisp, and other inventions that seem inevitable in the face of unchecked technological development.

Given some of the topical focus, I was prepared for the futurological flavor of this book to have something in common with Olav Stapledon’s Star Maker. Instead, I was surprised to sense a certain kinship to 1970s-era Robert Heinlein novels. Perhaps Heinlein’s orientation to the aerospace research of his day has its analog in Stross’s own background in software engineering. Moreover, the characters and their motivations are sketched in the manner that reminds me much more of Heinlein than, say, McDonald.

The novel has a triple-triadic structure, with the nine chapters having seen individual publication as short stories prior to their assembly here. As a consequence, there is something of an expositional “reset” at the start of each part, with a little redundancy and narrative hand-holding. But in light of the huge changes in context imposed by each transition from one part to the next, the effect is barely noticeable, and actually somewhat comforting. Another effect of this compositional process is that each chapter seems to have roughly the same dramatic weight as the others. The last of them could be read equally as climax or denouement, depending on the reader’s inclination. Each of the three larger sections is focused on a successive generation of a single family moving deeper into the trans-human condition.

While not as overtly comedic as the Laundry books, Accelerando definitely has its share of laughs, many of them with a black sense of humor, such as the throwaway mention of cannibalistic cuisine on page 262. The characters are strong enough to keep the narrative rolling, despite its frequent interruption with bulletin-style text bringing the reader up to date on the state of (post-)human affairs for the decade in question. The entire book — excepting the occasional retrospective glance — is written in the present tense, and it is a mark of Stross’s artistry in using this unconventional technique for novel-length fiction in English that I didn’t even notice until I had read most of the way through the first large chapter. In the seven years since it has been collected into a novel, history has of course provided some contradictions to point up the status of Accelerando as a fiction, but the sort of events it proposes could still credibly be in our future. [via]



The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Cyberabad Days

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald from Pyr:

Ian McDonald's Cyberabad Days from Pyr


It took me a bit longer to read Cyberabad Days than it did River of Gods, Ian McDonald’s novel that established the mid-21st-century Indian setting used in all of the stories in Cyberabad Days — despite the fact that the novel is more than twice the length of the entire short story collection. Despite the multiple plot strands of River, it has an continuous (multiple) forward drive of events. By contrast, Days is made up of independent self-contained stories, which allow the reader to come up for air in between them.

Many of the stories in the collection have children for protagonists, or at least begin during the childhood of their protagonists. Also, most especially with the novella “Vishnu and the Cat Circus” which closes the volume, the future history of the setting is made more explicit and set into a wider framework. In these respects, the book’s status as a sequel reminded me of that of Ares Express, McDonald’s novel continuing the far future Mars of his debut Desolation Road.

I had wondered and seen some discussion about whether this book could be profitably read before River of Gods. My tentative verdict is: about half. The first few stories could certainly be read without having read the novel, and “The Little Goddess” would actually make an interesting prologue to it. Among the later (and longer) stories, however, “An Eligible Boy,” “The Djinn’s Wife,” and “Vishnu’s Cat Circus” increasingly involve potential spoilering of some of the most surprising turns of the River. At the same time, these were some of the most satisfying to read after the novel, enlarging on themes and ideas that were introduced there.

The Cyberabad future is not one that leans on pre-fabricated tropes or genre cliches. McDonald’s stories are full of fresh, big ideas about technology, social and cultural change, and human destiny. But the foreground is always taken up with interesting, compelling characters: their ambitions, cares, affections, and trials. [via]



The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.