Ares Express

By Ian McDonald, 2001, Earthlight, ISBN 0-684-86151-8

Any book with a protagonist named Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th has got to be good, especially when she knows she’s in a story.

In Ares Express, Ian McDonald returns to the rather dreamlike distant future Mars of his earlier Desolation Road (1988). This is a welcome return for all those who enjoyed DR, and AE will not disappoint, although AE is a separate work and only one character makes the crossover between the two.

It’s a fantastical romp through a richly detailed and surreal landscape, strangely believable for all its magical touches. Martian humans are little changed from ourselves, living ordinary lives beneath the barely understood gaze of the Artificial Intelligences that drove the terraforming of the planet. Sweetness is the child of railway engineers, the pilots of the vast fusion-powered trains that link together the disparate cities and communities of the planet. She’s a dissatisfied child for all the pride and arrogance of her clan, for females do not pilot the trains, instead it looks like she’s to be married off into the Stuard clan and a life in their stainless steel kitchens.

Fortunately for the reader, Sweetness isn’t likely to take to this particular destiny without some rebellion, and when she realises that she’s featuring in her very own story, she’s off at right angles to the tracks and into a series of mishaps and lucky escapes that lead her into a search for her dead twin (who lives in mirrors) and ultimately a struggle to save the very fabric of her universe…

McDonald writes vividly. His prose in itself is reason enough to read the book, bringing the strange world to life and entrancing the reader at every step. Sweetness’ own knowledge that she’s living a story might put off those who are not fond of such indulgences, but on McDonald’s Mars, where reality itself is subject to manipulation, it fits right in among all the other weird and wonderful events and beliefs and magical technologies.

Delightfully written, pure escapism – this is one of the best books I’ve read for quite some time. Go and lose yourself among the vast trains, uploaded demi-gods, reality-twisting AIs and insane Cults on McDonald’s Mars.