May 28, 2013

BOOKS: Red Planet Blues, Robert J. Sawyer (2013)

Robert J. Sawyer is one of our best science fiction writers, and here he tackles one of the genre's bigger challenges -- the SF/mystery hybrid.

The challenge with mixing the two, I think, has to do with reader expectations. SF readers, enjoy -- and yes, this is a rather broad generalization -- the surprise of new gadgets, gizmos, concepts, technology. They'll let an author get away with introducing something entirely new six pages from the end of the book if it makes for an exciting finish. Mystery writers, to make an equally broad generalization, want to feel that they have a fair chance to solve the puzzle, which means that they're going to be annoyed if the solution depends on some unknown bit of technobabble that show up at the very end of the book.

Sawyer's solution to this dilemma is to introduce only one major big new idea for his mystery readers to deal with (and by SF standards, it's neither a very big nor a very new idea). That idea is "transfers," artificial bodies into which human minds can be transferred for enhanced beauty, strength, vision -- whatever they think might be helpful; the original human body is destroyed immediately after transfer so that there's only one copy of any given person at any given time.

And throughout the early chapters of the novel, Sawyers explores the possible complications and ramifications of transfers in a crime-solving context, so that by the time we reach the climax, the reader has been given all the necessary information to stay one step ahead of the detective.

He is Alex Lomax, the only private eye in the Martian city of New Klondike, who Sawyer completists will recognize from the novella "Identity Theft." An altered version of that story makes up roughly the first quarter of Red Planet Blues; it's been fleshed out with additional characters and details to set up the plot for the rest of the novel.

That plot centers on the search for the great mother lode of Martian fossils, the location of which was kept a secret by its discoverers. All of the things you love about private eye novels are here -- cops, both honest and corrupt; beautiful dames, naive and worldly; the local powerbroker who knows where the bodies are buried (often literally). They're set against an appealing Martian backdrop; New Klondike sits under a large dome, and spacesuits are required to venture outside (unless you're a transfer, and don't actually need oxygen).

Sawyer's prose, as ever, is crisp and clean; his ideas are interesting; and his characters are a bit more fully developed than is the norm for either SF or private eye fiction. Red Planet Blues is a breezy entertainment that should please fans of both genres.

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