From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Ares Express by Ian McDonald

Review by Cynthia Ward

Long ago, Mars was terraformed. Now, from major urban center to minor whistle-stop to barren polar desert, great steel trains roar across the altered landscapes: fusion-powered steam locomotives the size of city blocks, streaming contrails ten kilometers long. Crews—and their families—live and die on the trains, driving and tending their engines and cars, passengers and cargo, generation after generation. The greatest of the trains is the Bethlehem Ares Railroads Class 22 Heavy Fusion Hauler Catherine of Tarsis.

On the Catherine of Tarsis, a young woman of the engineering clan, whose name is Sweetness Octave Glorious HoneyBun Asiim Engineer 12th, wishes to be a railroad engineer. But that isn’t considered a suitable vocation for a woman, so she’s contracted to marry a young man from another train, who has a very desirable stainless steel kitchen. Since that’s far from Sweetness’s desire—and since she has consulted a fortuneteller as well as being aware she has fallen into this metafictional story—she flees her marriage and the locomotive lifestyle that’s the only one she’s ever known.

Sweetness has a ghost sister, Little Pretty One, a conjoined twin who died when they were separated shortly after birth. Little Pretty One is ghostnapped by Devastation Harx, the power-hungry head of the Church of the Ever-Circling Spiritual Family, a mail-order religion whose Vatican is a grand flying cathedral. It seems Little Pretty One isn’t the ghost of Sweetness’s sister, after all. She’s the disembodied posthuman consciousness of a long-dead terraformer—or, to put it another way, she’s St. Catherine of Tarsis, the quantum-entangled spirit of Mars, who, as Harx’s slave, gives him enormous powers.

Seeking to save her quasi-sister and her world, Sweetness traverses the weird wild breadth of far-future Mars. Of course, she encounters strange events and even stranger people (among them 1940s bandleader Glenn Miller, a second-rate variety troupe covertly serving the planet’s anarchist government, a Laurel-and-Hardy’s-love-children pair of pomo homo performance artists with a penchant for blowing things up, and possibly the oddest space/time-traveler since the dragon-riding German in The Swords of Lankhmar) before she reaches the cathedral and confronts Devastation Harx.

SF master Ian McDonald knows that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic realism. And, with humor, poetic grace, and an abundance of Big Ideas, he embodies that truth in Ares Express. Artificial intelligences manipulate mortals with the casual power of gods; prophecies come true; quantum realities erase railroad tracks with a slice of terrain from an alternate Mars—and that’s just for starters.

On top of the Big Ideas, like frosting roses on a many-layered, multi-flavored cake, are the metafictional touches. Ares Express gives a nod to Jack Vance (whose Big Planet is the novel’s spiritual father, as Ray Bradbury’s Mars was for Desolation Road, McDonald’s 1988 novel set in the same world, but an earlier time) and it references the red planets of other SF writers as well. McDonald gingerbreads the all-important locomotives with steampunk detailing. These metafictional devices are enjoyable for readers who are in the know, and not disruptive for readers who aren’t. But the narrative sometimes consciously discusses its existence as a story, as in this example:

If all this wasn’t story, it would end here…If it was, then the rules of narrative governed everything that happened. Therefore, this was the Point of Worst Personal Threat, when all the Feisty and Resourceful (But Cute With It) Heroine’s efforts to attain her Dramatic Goal hang by a thread, and Something Big Happens that rolls it over into the End Game. Here narrative creatures like Coincidence, Chance and Serendipity were all the FR(BCWI) Heroine could trust to save her.

If you find the quote too jarring (or too cutesy), then Ares Express is probably not for you. If you don’t, then grab this book: it’s a treasury of extrapolative and imaginative SF delights.

Ares Express
Ian McDonald
Pyr
ISBN: 978-1-61614-197-4
389 pages| Trade Paperback | $16
May 2010

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