July 21, 2010

Book review: "Ares Express," by Ian McDonald

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Ares Express, by Ian McDonald

Ares Express
By Ian McDonald

(This is being published today for the first time in honor of "Ian McDonald Week" at CCLaP. For an overview of all the content regarding McDonald being posted here this week, you can click here.)

One of the things I like most about British science-fiction author Ian McDonald is that, unlike a lot of writers in his genre, he's able to slip effortlessly between different styles and themes in his work; so even though, for example, he's mostly known here in the 2000s for his more mainstream developing-world day-after-tomorrow tales (think "third-world cyberpunk" if you will, stories that feel like William Gibson or Neal Stephenson but set in such places as India, Brazil and Turkey), he's also loved by a generation of '90s fans for his urban fantasy tales set in Ireland, which much like many of the projects by Neil Gaiman or Joss Whedon posit a sort of hidden world of magic and fairies and demons that exists in the shadowy corners of our own real world. And so too is he also loved by a third group for his Charles-Strossian far-future "hard SF" stories, many of which play out almost like complex linguistic experiments, combining the expansive visions of such Silver Age authors as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury with the literary style of such academic favorites as Thomas Pynchon, James Joyce and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and indeed, his very first novel, 1988's Desolation Road which I've also reviewed here in the past, is a rather literal homage to the latter's 100 Years of Solitude, only in McDonald's case set on a terraformed Mars a thousand years in the future, where such Marquez-inspired magic-realism touches as ghosts and angels have actual scientific explanations for their existence, while still being just as poetic nonetheless.

It turns out, in fact, that McDonald actually revisited this terraformed Marsh in 2001, penning a "companion volume" of sorts called Ares Express, which is only coming out now in the US for the first time this month, thanks to our friends at genre upstart Pyr, and which I finally got my own hands on a few weeks ago. And indeed, it's important to point out that this isn't a traditional sequel, not only in plot terms but even its overall scope; becuase that was one of my few complaints about the original, actually, for those who have read that older review, that it limits itself by adhering too closely to the structure of Solitude, making it for the most part a beautiful but sometimes frustrating look at merely one tiny village within this utterly fascinating speculative world, with many scenes that contain literally no speculative elements at all, and which could be reset in the Mexican desert in the 20th century with no one being the wiser. Ares is instead a much greater look at this entire environment, which while referencing the dusty small town of the original actually concerns itself with a lot more than just that, taking us finally all the way around the planet to explore not just different geographical environments but the wealth of different urban societies that exist there; and unlike the more limited writing style of the twenty-something newbie McDonald of Desolation, the forty-something veteran McDonald of Ares delivers a knockout of an actual text, the kind of sophisticated manuscript that can be enjoyed not just by fanboys but those who usually stay far away from science-fiction, whose very idea of "speculative" is to pick up a title by Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy. Everybody wins! Everybody wins!

And in fact this is probably the first important thing to know about Ares, that it's not just the typical terraforming story of grubby domed colonies out on a distant barren world, but instead enfolds far-future ideas into a lush vision of the mechanical meeting the biological, a world where nearly omniscient artificially intelligent weather-generating satellites have the capacity to go insane and wreak havoc on an unsuspecting population (and in fact have a bad history of doing exactly that), a world where nerds with body-image issues can simply digitize their consciousness and upload their "souls" into the literal ring of orbiting devices necessary to keep Mars habitable for humans, using quantum mechanics and a type of science that sometimes seems more like magic. And indeed, I found myself thinking a lot about that famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke while reading this book, how any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; and in fact McDonald gets a lot of play out of this idea in Ares, that in another millennium science will have become so sophisticated to once again start resembling the Medieval idea of wizards and alchemy, of self-flagellating wise men in the desert conjuring up unstoppable forces of both good and evil.

Like Desolation, the Mars of Ares Express is conceptually held together through the massive railroad track making a complete circle around the planet, the only thing holding these far-flung communities together; this time, though, we actually get on one of the trains using this track, following the fates of the various, again Medieval-sounding, hereditary families making up the various technicians needed to make those oversized train-cities run, the multi-generational groups of "Royal Engineers" and "Royal Cabin Stewards" who devote their entire lives to the time-honored traditions of those who came before them. And in good cyberpunk style as well, the actual plot revolves mostly around the exploits of a teenage girl in one of these families, one Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th, who starts the novel learning that she's been promised in an arranged marriage she is against, so "runs away from home" in a manner that will have her family paying penance in this deeply caste-run society for years to come.

This then gives McDonald the perfect excuse to explore all kinds of different environments within this profoundly strange world of a partly green and completely breathable Mars, as Sweetness hops her way from one random place to another in a constant flight from both her family and others who wish her harm, taking her from a floating religious compound to the planet's largest city (scattered with the non-eroding "giants' skeletons" of a grand rocket program that hasn't been needed for centuries), a visit to a sleepy suburb whose citizens have lost the ability to have dreams, a jaunt across the desert with a mad genius in a dune buggy powered by floating box kites, and all kinds of other flabbergasting concepts from this utterly original, utterly addictive world. Along the way, then, McDonald also takes the opportunity to add a good amount of historical backstory to this environment, and even something resembling a three-act actioner plot, both of which were missing from Desolation, including an intriguing thread about the natural symbiosis and thus disdain between the humans who live on the planet's surface and the haughty AI society out in orbit who are needed to keep it all running, and the complicated way this relationship would play itself out after a thousand years of both groups now being there and relying on the other. And that of course is probably the last important thing to know about this book before reading it, that there is a real sense of gravitas to it, a sense of vast amounts of time passing, which is what makes it feel so much weightier than many other so-called "hard SF" tales.

As I often seem to be saying with McDonald's work, Ares Express has turned out to be one of my favorite reads of the year so far, and the only reason it's not receiving a higher score is becuase of a standing policy here at CCLaP, that genre books aren't allowed to score in the 9s unless they're able to transcend their genre, and become a book that even non-fans of that genre will have a chance of obsessively loving. (For example, McDonald's other new novel, The Dervish House, whose write-up is being published here tomorrow, expressly did get a score in the 9s, which should give you a good idea what the main difference is in their subject matter.) Nonetheless, it definitely is the kind of genre novel that usual non-fans of the genre would be wise to take a chance on, the kind of infamous "hey, this sci-fi stuff ain't so bad" title perfect to give your pretentious friend who likes Boing Boing and Lost but scoffs at your "Dragonriders of Pern" collection. Although they may end up scoffing at this too, it's at least worth the effort, a book that will show many for the first time just how artistically savvy science-fiction can be at its best.

Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.9 for science-fiction fans

Read even more about Ares Express: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:13 AM, July 21, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |