The novel “Ares Express” by Ian McDonald was published for the first time in 2001. It’s the sequel to “Desolation Road“.
Sweetness Octave Glorious-Honeybun Asiim 12th was born into a family that for generations has been running the Bethlehem Ares Railroads Class 22 Heavy Fusion Hauler Catherine of Tharsis, one of the trains that travel across the planet Mars. Her dream is to drive it but there are rules that prevent women from doing it and her family has combined a marriage that she doesn’t want.
Sweetness decides to leave and finds herself part of a story that embraces possible futures because reality can be fluid. There are many alternatives possibilities, managed by technologies so advanced as to be similar to magic because the line between artificial intelligences and angels can be blurred.
In his 1988 debut novel “Desolation Road”, Ian McDonald introduced a terraformed planet Mars setting most of the story in a sort of oasis in the desert that even in that future occupies most of the planet. In 2001, he wrote a sequel, but it’s very different. “Ares Express” is still set on that future Mars but otherwise has only some rather vague connections with the first novel, to the point that they can be read independently.
“Desolation Road” was already a novel for which the use of labels was limiting, this is true for “Ares Express” as well. Both of them are science fiction novels but Ian McDonald uses genre and subgenres elements in ways he thinks are best for what he wants to tell. In particular, for both novels what’s called magical realism is mentioned with references to highly advanced technologies whose use leads to effects that can be indistinguishable from magic.
In “Ares Express”, Ian McDonald focuses on the huge trains that travel across Mars with families that drive them passing on their job from generation to generation. Technological advances have been remarkable but from the human point of view that future seems reactionary because there are strict rules that for example prevent women from driving those trains. Sweetness would just like to drive the train on which so many generations of her family have lived, instead she finds herself living a sort of quest after deciding to run away from an arranged marriage.
Sweetness’s journey offers her the chance to meet a wide variety of people in the different places she passes through interacting with them in so many ways. The plot soon becomes complex, sometimes even convoluted among many surprises and due to the fact that the protagonist herself has a certain awareness of being the heroine of a story.
Sometimes the pace suffers due to a certain exposition, but the details of everything around Sweetness are an important part of the story. Setting, characters that come and go, various ideas and more are significant in this novel. This involves a certain fragmentation for a story that is like a mosaic with the protagonist at the center and many elements around her.
“Ares Express” is a case where style also becomes part of substance. Ian McDonald writes novels with different styles, using language differently depending on the way he thinks is best suited to a certain story. In the two Martian novels the language is particularly rich and evocative.
In some ways “Ares Express” is even more difficult to read than “Desolation Road” since Ian McDonald adds other levels of complexity to go beyond a story about humanity. It’s a novel in which reactions can be very subjective due to the complexity and the author’s sophisticated style. It’s more than ever a work I recommend to people who appreciate mixes of genres and subgenres, and in general to those looking for something original and different.