This is a novel which differentiates itself from the crop of Martian sci-fi that pervaded the 1990's. Different could been seen as a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view; if you are expecting a detailed chronicle of Man's colonization of the Red Planet in the vein of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, then you might be disappointed. This has always been a book which divides opinion: some readers find it inaccessible, others too experimental, a fair few people say its just to slow in getting anywhere. I disagree. McCauley does a fine job here conveying the complexities of his imagined future Mars, but as usual he doesn't coddle the reader, this is a book you have to tough out! A book that will both punish and reward you at the same time, with dense detail and a playful hybrid style, seeming to fuse both fantasy and science fiction.
Red Dust is set on a far future Mars dominated predominantly by the Han Chinese, the Tibetans are an underclass who labored for generations to make Mars more like Earth, while the "Yankees" have developed into a nomadic people who sail across seas of dust; the "Sky Roaders" want to see the Mars terraforming project finished and are outlawed for their beliefs. Earth is depopulated and its environment is gradually reverting back to its pre-human condition, all under the supervision of The Consensus, who posses high technology which they use to parley favor with the rulers of Mars. "The Ten Thousand Years" as they are know, have halted the planets terraformation under the demand of missionaries from The Consensus, called "Conchie's".
The asteroids are anarchist regimes filled with rebels and dissenters from all over the system; one such rebel known as Miriam Makepeace Mbele makes planet fall, only to be found by a Han technician named Wei Lee, who is also a descendent of one of The Ten Thousand Years.
Wei Lee is infected by his new friend with a nano-virus which imparts him with great powers: they then set off on a great journey, with the aim of breaking the domination of The Ten Thousand Years and allowing the Martians to complete the transformation of their world. This quest forms the bulk of McCauley's book. Wei Lee is a strange yet likable protagonist, his love of Old Earth styles and Elvis Presley, make his a superb point of view through which the reader can enjoy the diverse and weird characters he encounters. Wei Lee and Miriam eventually, with the help of a young girl, inspire open rebellion against the Mars Government and their Consensus allies.
Red Dust is a rambunctious read, full of surprises and brimming with ideas. McAuley doesn't always hold the readers attention, but here in one of his earlier books, he shows he is willing to take big risks in an effort to produce something unique. One of the best Mars books of the 90's.