Friday, April 20, 2018

Review - Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer

Short review: Alex Lomax is the only private eye on Mars, and and everyone comes to him with their problems. Unfortunately, these problems involve murder, greed, and treachery and frequently pose serious hazards to Lomax's continued health.

When in New Klondike
You can go hunt for fossils
But it's dangerous

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Red Planet Blues is a noir-ish science fiction novel clearly inspired by the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Set on Mars and featuring Alex Lomax, the red planet's only private investigator, the novel presents a set of interconnected mysteries involving murder, money, and insanity with a healthy dose of alien artifacts and imaginative technology to complicate matters. The novel winds through a series of smaller mysteries, that are threaded together by the facts that almost everyone on Mars lives in one relatively small settlement and Lomax is really the only option people have to turn to when they need a crime solved.

Alex Lomax lives in New Klondike, a domed city on the surface of Mars (which is also the only city on Mars), exiled from Earth for somewhat mysterious reasons that are only revealed near the very end of the book. Without much in the way of technical skills, Lomax plies his trade as a private investigator, filling in for the mostly disinterested local police force. The fictional future world Sawyer created for him lives in is dominated by the technology of identity transfer, a development managed by the "NewYou" corporation, and which allows people to move their consciousness into a new and usually much improved body that is often stronger, more durable, and can be made more attractive, even to the point of changing one's appearance to match that of a well-known celebrity. "Transfers" as individuals who have undergone the process are called, also don't need to eat, sleep, or breathe, can comfortably work unprotected on the surface of Mars, and are exempt from certain life-support related taxes, which quite understandably makes transferring quite popular among the denizens of New Klondike. Despite some legal controls, in short order it becomes relatively obvious that this technology, if abused by someone with nefarious intent, can be used to hide one's identity, and make it very difficult to identify who is actually in a particular body.

It should be noted that the first ten chapters of this novel are a moderately rewritten version of the previously published novella Identity Theft, and they work pretty much as a stand-alone story. This is not to say that the first section is disconnected from the rest of the novel, but if one were to read through to the end of chapter ten and stop, one would have read a reasonably satisfying complete story. The novella (and thus, the novel) opens up like most hard-boiled detective stories do: When a beautiful woman named Cassandra shows up in Lomax's office asking him to find her missing husband. Both Cassandra and her missing husband Joshua are not only transfers, they own the local NewYou franchise. Cassandra's missing husband is located in relatively short order, but that only causes the mystery to deepen and the tale of greed, kidnapping, and murder ensues that takes a couple of interesting twists and turns and hinges on the use (or rather misuse) of identity transfer technology and the attendant difficulties that logically ensue concerning how do you prove who someone actually is, or how one proves which one the "real" version of someone is. By the end of the opening novella, the villains have been foiled, the innocent have been vindicated, and at least some modicum of justice has been served.

Even though the remaining plot of the novel is something of a "fix-up", Sawyer is a skillful storyteller, which means that he is able to pick up the slender threads left by these opening chapters and build the rest of the novel upon them to create a coherent whole. The mystery that runs through every section of the book concerns the Alpha Deposit, a legendary find that kicked off the Great Martian Fossil Rush as hungry fortune seekers flocked to the planet hoping to find alien fossils they could ship to collectors back on Earth for huge profits. The location of the Alpha Deposit, and the fate of Weingarten and O'Reilly - the two explorers who found it - is unknown, and, given the fact that anyone who could answer these unknowns would find themselves immensely wealthy, there is keen interest in being the person who can answer them. There is a further mystery involving a notorious passenger ship and the horrors that took place upon it that wraps into the narrative, adding still more intrigue to the story. Everything is told in Sawyer's extremely readable style, and the text of the entire book just flows smoothly. I have always found Sawyer's prose to be extremely enjoyable and capable of being consumed at a rapid clip, and this book is no exception.

There are only a couple of minor flaws to Red Planet Blues. The first concerns the identity transfer technology, which is described as being a well-established technology that has been in use for decades and so well-entrenched in society that only adherents to fringe religious groups object to its use. Despite this, the inhabitants in the story seem to be frequently surprised or unprepared for the realities of dealing with "transfers". For example, Lomax carries a handgun, which is pretty much useless against transfers due to their incredibly durable artificial bodies, but he seems to act like the weapon should serve as protection in such cases, even while simultaneously pointing out that it won't be. Many of the twists in the story turn on people being caught off-guard by what should be pretty routine ways of exploiting transfer technology, and so on. One is also left wondering why everyone who can doesn't simply transfer - as presented in the book, transferring makes one younger, stronger, and essentially immortal. Given the fact that everyone who isn't regarded as a crackpot holds the opinion that identity transfer is a safe and proven process, there doesn't really seem to be a reason for anyone to not do it.

The second flaw concerns the women in the book. Pretty much everyone who shows up in the story gets involved in the deadly hunt for the Alpha Deposit from geologists to down-on-their-luck thugs, to housewives to writers in residence to police officers, each of whom plays a part. While the men are described as coming in all shapes and sizes, almost all of the women are described as various stripes of beautiful with the one notable exception being a woman who is described as looking like an ape - if a woman isn't sexy, apparently the only other option is for her to look simian. Lomax spends his internal monologue leering at and salivating over these women no matter what circumstances he encounters them under, which serves to make him seem kind of sleazy and unlikable.. Further, this collection of women seem to find Alex improbably attractive, even the ones who would seem to have no real reason to. To a certain extent, this is probably an effort to mimic the noir detective stories that inspired Red Planet Blues, after all, beautiful women who fall for hard-boiled detectives are kind of a staple of such novels. The problem is, the trope sticks out like a sore thumb when imported into this novel, and doesn't really do much other than give the story some uncomfortably creepy segments.

Despite these small missteps, Red Planet Blues is a good science fiction detective story. Lomax is a flawed but ultimately engaging and enjoyable character who inhabits a world that is both interesting and plausible. The mysteries that he is confronted with are just cryptic enough to keep the reader guessing but still sufficiently well-laid out that it feels like the author is playing fair. In the end, anyone looking for something akin to The Maltese Falcon on Mars is likely to come away from this book feeling like they got what they came for. If a noir-era mystery in a science fiction setting sounds like something you would enjoy, this is pretty much exactly what you need to scratch that itch.

2006 Hugo Award Finalists
2006 Hugo Award Longlist
2006 Nebula Award Nominees

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