Red Planet Blues: Doesn’t justify its length

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsRed Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer

Red Planet Blues, by Robert J. Sawyer, is a sci-fi noir novel a la Raymond Chandler set, unsurprisingly, on Mars. More specifically, in New Klondike, the domed city built during the time of the Great Martian Fossil Rush (thus the name Klondike), sparked when the pair of explorers who had found “Alpha” — the motherlode of pristine and incredibly rare Martian fossils  — died without having revealed the fossil bed’s location. The rush was on to be the first to find it, but now, decades later, the rush has petered out and New Klondike is well past its prime, grim and seedy, a perfect setting for a hard-bitten detective to narrate his tale of double-crossers, sharp talking dames, young toughs, lazy and/or corrupt cops, missing husbands, unfaithful wives, murderers and thieves, buxom blondes, spaceships, brain transfers, near-immortal androids, disruptor weapons — all the usual tropes of a Mickey Spillane novel. Well, if it were set in the future on the fourth planet from the sun.

Our private dick narrator is Alex Lomax, who can’t seemingly walk into an establishment without being told not to break stuff this time around. Early on he gets a missing husband job from a concerned wife, a stock plot point in this kind of work. The difference here is that the husband and wife are recent “transfers,” meaning they’ve had their minds/consciousness uploaded into an android body and their original bodies destroyed. As is always the case, the missing husband case turns much more complicated, and soon Lomax is caught up in all sorts of intrigue that gets him shot at multiple times and leaves him (and the reader) unsure of whom to trust.

A problem with reading a Chandler-like pastiche is that all too often it leaves one wanting more of the original and less of the pastiche. Another is while all that focus on dames’ breasts and pneumatic acts of love has some sort of sense-of-the-times appeal in a classic, when updated into modern form it can simply be off-putting. Which is how I found it here.

The plot of Red Planet Blues was interesting enough (barely), though I’d never call it compelling, but at the end it sort of devolved into one ending after another, with complication atop complication, and a far less interesting standoff that felt multiple times longer than it needed to be.

Characterization was weak throughout, with nobody really feeling like much more than either a caricature of a noir type or a simple plot prop. That’s bad enough in the secondary characters, but when the book is narrated by such a creation, that’s a tough obstacle to overcome. I get the whole Chandler-esque thing that Lomax is going for (though we get hit over the head by it a bit with all his references to old movies), but Lomax just never has the charm or three-dimensionality; he never feels more than what he is — a purposeful shadow of a type.

The future setting doesn’t add much to the form save for constraining some actions and allowing others, due to the lessened gravity on Mars, the problems with a non-breathable atmosphere, and the extra-durability of the android bodies (which makes them somewhat bulletproof). In other words, Mars itself never comes alive as part of the story. Nor does New Klondike. Sawyer makes some nods to the complex questions surrounding the idea of shifting one’s consciousness into a near-immortal body, but those questions are barely raised. Nor was there any sense of a larger context — how has this technology affected society, what is Mars’ relationship to Earth, why are the androids (the non-transfer ones) so dumb, and so on.

In the end, I didn’t feel like Red Planet Blues justified its length. As a playfully light, tongue-in-cheek pastiche of sci-fi noir, it probably would have worked as a short story, maybe even a long one. But over the course of a novel the shtick gets a bit tiresome, the tropes threadbare, and then it buries itself under the weight of its own self-imposed complexity of plot, trying to spin out one double-cross after another, one standoff after another. Not recommended.

Red Planet Blues — (2013) Publisher: Robert J. Sawyer, the author of such “revelatory and thought-provoking”* novels as Triggers and The WWW Trilogy, presents a noir mystery expanded from his Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated novella “Identity Theft” and his Aurora Award-winning short story “Biding Time,” and set on a lawless Mars in a future where everything is cheap, and life is even cheaper… Alex Lomax is the one and only private eye working the mean streets of New Klondike, the Martian frontier town that sprang up forty years ago after Simon Weingarten and Denny O’Reilly discovered fossils on the Red Planet. Back on Earth, where anything can be synthesized, the remains of alien life are the most valuable of all collectibles, so shiploads of desperate treasure hunters stampeded to Mars in the Great Martian Fossil Rush. Trying to make an honest buck in a dishonest world, Lomax tracks down killers and kidnappers among the failed prospectors, corrupt cops, and a growing population of transfers — lucky stiffs who, after striking paleontological gold, upload their minds into immortal android bodies. But when he uncovers clues to solving the decades-old murders of Weingarten and O’Reilly, along with a journal that may lead to their legendary mother lode of Martian fossils, God only knows what he’ll dig up…

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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