Amelia slipped closer to them, closer to the flames, intent on watching the conflagration. It seemed something akin to a pagan ritual, but then, the kids wouldn’t have known anything about this. It was simple mayhem to them
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!
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.