Sunday, May 16, 2021

Review of Ares Express by Ian McDonald

If Ian McDonald were an actor he would be Johnny Depp. Capable of entirely transforming himself into character—costume, voice, makeup, dialogue, etc., he switches things entirely book to book. Gangster, pirate, businessman, Edward Scissorhands—Depp becomes the persona seamlessly. Ian McDonald seems to have the same talent writing science fiction. Whether it be Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, George R.R. Martin, and several others, McDonald has been able to shape shift, successfully, through a variety of styles and forms, maintaining his own style in the process. In 2001's Ares Express we see him return to the form he adopted for his debut novel Desolation Road—voodoo sf on steroids.

A sequel of sorts, Ares Express is more a return to the setting of Desolation Road than its story. A dangerous game, McDonald changes up the magic-realist method by turning the volume on imagination up to 11, then channels it through a Mark Twain-esque adventure.

Ares Express is the story of Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th, a roughly sixteen year old young woman living on a futuristic colonized Mars. Her home, and her family's home, is more precisely the titular Ares Express train, a building-sized hurtling missile of metal that traverses the wild west of a cyber/steam/diesel punk-ish Mars. Each train owned, run, and engineered by a particular clan, Sweetness finds herself in a spot of trouble when her train moves on without her, a trek through the colroful wilds of Mars her only hope tog et back to her family.

Ares Express is a novel that unravels in mysterious, exciting ways. Each page anything but a stereotype, McDonald lets his imagination graze upon the freshest grass, high in secret valleys. Bicycle powered airships, age-defying sleight of hand, all powerful AIs of the most distinct order—this is just the tip of the novel's imagination iceberg. McDonald never short of ideas, sensawunda lies all around.

But the novel does glut itself. At 300+ pages, there are moments the imagination begins to feel like an unending parade. Sure, each float is interesting and unique, but at some point in time the reader is looking for cohesion, a line they can draw through the whole to bind it together—as crooked as it need be. Sweetness' return to her family's train does provide impetus, but, like McDonald's other imaginative overload novel Out on Blue Six, Ares Express asks readers to hold on to their seats and hopes they survive the ride.

In the end, Ares Express is a tour de force of imagination, for better and worse. There are moments that will stick (granny's games with the card shark, for example), and there are moments the reader would just like to take a breath, to settle into a rhythm of plot before the next brilliant set piece arises. It's unnecessary to have read Desolation Road to read Ares Express., but I would argue the former remains the more focused novel which better integrates its parts.

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