Review – RED DUST by Paul J. McAuley

1993,  AvoNova/Morrow

     I know I’ve discussed the difference between reviewing an ebook and a paper book before. It seems I have a  penchant for reviewing paper books long after their “shelf life” and so from that aspect, it’s a pointless exercise. That’s assuming, of course, that you’re reviewing the book in order to raise its visibility or otherwise call attention to it. Since Red Dust was published in 1993 and, so far as I can tell, has no ebook edition, that really doesn’t apply. So why do it? Because I like to think about what I read, and I think best when I’m writing things down. So I do. 

   Red Dust was written at a time when readers and pundits in the genre were constantly announcing the death of Cyberpunk. Remember cyberpunk? A literary movement centered around “street” uses for technology, specifically computer power. Arguably launched by William Gibson’s Neuromancer and precursed (Love that word. Love the sound of it and its obvious double-meaning. And if it’s not a word, it damn well should be) by John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, among others. Once any literary movement is announced, there’s always a cadre that immediately starts gathering ’round the guillotine, waiting for its inevitable death.

Cyberpunk didn’t die. Any more than The New Wave did. Science fiction just did what it always does with a definable shift of perception or technique–it incorporated those elements into itself and emerged, not transformed but enhanced.  Cyberpunk’s gift was not technique or even its much‑imitated dystopian setting but rather its central conceit‑‑the concept of “information space” serving as both mirror of the real world and metaphor for transcendence.  It’s a powerful tool, and McAuley makes good use of it in Red Dust, a book that is clearly not Cyberpunk but builds on what has gone before.

     Red Dust is set on Mars less than a thousand years in the future.  The United States is an historical footnote, marginalized long ago by the Han (Chinese).  Mars itself has undergone separate waves of colonization, first by the Yankees, then by Tibetans who replaced the failing Yankee colony and oversaw the terraforming of the planet.  The Tibetans in turn were overwhelmed by a final wave of Han immigrants when Mars was finally made livable.

     Temporarily livable, as it turns out.  There was never enough water released during the terraforming project to reach equilibrium, and every year the tide of “red dust” is slowly rising.  Mars is dying.  Worse, it’s being murdered.  Under pressure from “conchie” missionaries of Earth’s Consensus, Mars’ government has brutally suppressed the Sky Roaders, those who believed the Martians should complete the terraforming of Mars and then push on to the stars.  Conchie drones actively sabotage the ecosystem.  Earth, fighting an extended war with the anarchist cultures of the asteroid belt, has its own reasons for wanting a dead Mars; what’s less clear is why the “Emperor” of Mars and The Ten Thousand Years apparently want the same thing.

     Wei Lee is a contract agronomist working for the Bitter Waters danwei, a type of capitalist collective that, except for a few scattered cities, serves as the basic unit of settlement across Mars.  Lee is also a great-grandson of one of The Ten Thousand Years, a ruling elite made nearly immortal through computer and nanotechnology acquired by treaty with The Consensus.  Wei Lee has fled the capital city to try to free himself from the domination of his great‑grandfather and to buy himself time while he searches the data nets, trying to learn the fate of his parents, who disappeared during the purges of The Great Reassessment.  Wei Lee knows his escape is merely temporary‑‑he owes his great grandfather a life debt for his upbringing and knows that one day the old man will collect.

     That day comes even sooner than Wei Lee expected.  An anarchist agent named Miriam Makepeace Mbele manages‑‑barely‑-to penetrate Mars planetary defenses and is captured near the Bitter Waters danwei.  She’s a genetically engineered courier, carrying a load of special “totipotent” nanotech viruses within her body.  These have the ability to confer extraordinary physical and mental powers on anyone infected with them, and, according to the agent of his great‑grandfather who contacts Wei Lee, it will be his duty to help her escape so that his great‑grandfather can acquire them.

     It’s not that simple of course.  Wei Lee is framed for the murder of the anarchist’s guards, his and the anarchist’s deaths neatly and dispassionately arranged.  Wei Lee and the badly injured Miriam barely escape on a genetically enhanced warhorse into the Martian wastes.  Within a short time, Wei Lee is infected with the totipotent viruses himself, and his real journey begins.

     It’s a journey of both distance and perception, discovery and transcendence, and as on any hero’s journey there are helpers and guides along the way: Miriam Makepeace Mbele, first in body and later as a personality aspect roaming free in information space.  Redd, the archetypal Yankee cowboy. Chen Yao, a little girl who carries the partially encoded personality of a long‑dead anarchist agent like the aspect of a god.  Vette, the tattooed harpooner (shades of a female Queequeg) of the dwindling Free Yankees.  First, and before all, there is the King of Cats.

     Summing the plot turns of Red Dust from Wei Lee’s escape until the climax atop Mars’ highest volcano would take far more space than I want to use, especially since I think plot summaries are boring even when the plot definitely isn’t.  Suffice it to say that we learn the fate of Wei Lee’s parents and the true nature of The Consensus, the Emperor, The Ten Thousand Years, and of Wei Lee himself.  We learn who wants the planet and people of Mars to die and why.  And why it is so important to the future of all humanity that they be stopped.

     Nitpicks?  A few.  McAuley sometimes forces words into unfamiliar roles, and some major players are left obscure.  The book builds slowly, but that’s because McAuley has a great deal of foundation to lay down to support the story he’s telling.  It’s not a simple story, and not always an easy one.

If you look around a bit you can pick this one up used for not a lot of money. It’s worth the trouble. Too bad there’s no ebook edition. I think this would be a natural.

3 thoughts on “Review – RED DUST by Paul J. McAuley

  1. Since I have enjoyed watching Mission to Mars on dvd about 2 dozen times with my husband, I will definitely be looking out for a used copy of Red Dust! Your review told just enough to tantalize!

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