Red Planet Blues (2013) by Robert J. Sawyer

The theater of the mind.

I read a lot, there’s always a least one book on the go in my life. But for all of that reading, not every book can spring to life within my imagination. I can’t always see everything it tells me about, it doesn’t always give me the sense-surround 3D IMAX experience, very few book and authors can do that to my brain.

I’ve just found a new one who can.

Penguin books was kind enough to send me an advance copy of Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, Red Planet Blues, and the entire thing came to life in my head. I could see every detail of it, and it’s a great ride, not only for those who love science fiction, but anyone who loves a good pulpy noir detective thriller.

This was my first foray into Sawyer’s writing, and I do believe I am going to actively hunt down his other books.

Red Planet Blues is equal parts Philip Marlowe as played by Bogart, the film Blade Runner as directed by Ridley Scott (different enough from Philip K. Dick’s source material to be its own beast), and The Martian Chronicles as written by Bradbury.

The first ten chapters incorporate and adapt Sawyer’s novella “Identity Theft” and use it as a launching point for the rest of this brilliant and highly enjoyable escapade. Told in the first person, the reader lives the case through the only private detective, Alex Lomax, in New Klondike, a small city within a bubble on the surface of Mars. The city, not much more than a frontier town, was established for the great fossil rush. It seems there was life of a sort at one time on the red planet, and in a world where everything is synthetic, and anything can be created, the originality of these fossils can lead one to insurmountable riches.

Sawyer_Rob_2010_smallBut when Alex gets wrapped up in a decades old mystery involving a mother lode of fossils, as well as the suspicious deaths of those who discovered it, he finds himself thrust into a world of synthetic robots that host the consciousness of those who can afford them, treasure seekers, thugs, topless waitresses, femme fatales, and cops that can be bought.

All the traditional trappings one would expect to find in a film-noir are present, but twisted ever so slightly to the lessened gravity and the thin and dangerous atmosphere.

At 353 pages I flew through the book, unable to put it down, and completely hooked. If I wasn’t working or writing for  the blog, the book was in my hand, and I reveled in the way Sawyer crafted his story and his words. Lomax’s inner monologue is exactly what you would expect from a slightly cynical, hardened shamus who despite having an eye for the ladies, and more than happy to help them have an extra-marital affair. He’s got a bit of a dark past that caused him to leave Earth, and has a history with all of the locals he interacts with.

There’s a reality to it despite its extra-planetary location. By couching the language in an almost stereotypical Marlowe-esque monologue, it provides the reader with a gateway, a point of reference, a grounding that they can then leap off into the science fiction elements of the story.

And like any good noir story, the twists, the double-crosses, the dames and revelations keep coming. Sawyer has done his homework though, and all the clues are there, all the hints, and I sometimes found myself guessing aloud what something was going to mean, or happen, sometimes I was delighted to be right, that I understood Lomax’s character so well, or at least the genre he lives in, and other times I would be equally delighted to be proven wrong and have the story twist in a new way.

Sawyer has crafted a fantastic tale, and created and populated a world that I honestly hope he revisits a number of times. I’d love to have more adventures on this version of Mars.

Red Planet Blues is available today in hardcover from Penguin Books.

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