Fiction Reviews

Red Dust

(1993) Paul J McAuley, Gollancz, 15.99, hrdbk, 315pp, ISBN 0 575 05488 3


Paul McAuley's Red Dust is an experiment in how far you can push science fiction before it turns into fantasy. The book has a conventional SF setting: Mars in the far future, terraformed by the Chinese, but now slipping back to its original state as the planet's elite use its resources to have themselves uploaded into a huge virtual reality. However, the ubiquitous use of nanotechnology and communication between real and virtual people gives the book a fantastical air.

The plot follows the fortunes of Wei Lee, a low-status technician. He becomes embroiled in the complex politics of Mars when he and his friends stumble on a crash-landed anarchist from Earth. Here again the plot seems to be more of a fantasy than an SF template: Lee is searching for his grandfather, who may be able to tell him what happened to his missing parents. After being forced to leave his home he journeys across the surface of Mars, undergoing a series of trials and meeting a group of companions. Ultimately he encounters his nemesis in the huge control centre of Mars' defences under Olympus Mons.

This is a complex and mostly very well written book - my only gripe with the style being a tendency for McAuley to repeat certain favourite phrases a little too often. The story seems to echo numerous well known SF books: there are hints of Dune in the complex politics and dynastic conspiracies, and of course the terraformed Martian setting has been a recent staple of hard SF writers. There are also numerous, strong resemblances to The Book of the New Sun: so much so that to make them explicit would be to give away the plot. It is fair to say though, that Lee is cast in a similar role to Severian: he is charged with saving his world long before he realises it, and the characters he meets are cognate to himself, although he does not know it.

Matt Freestone

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