Red Planet Blues
by Robert J. Sawyer
Cover Artist: Tony Mauro
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace ISBN/ITEM#: 9780670065776
Date: 02 April 2013
Links: Author's Website / Road to Utopia (2:18 ...in a dirty glass) / Show Official Info /
Red Planet Blues: Take equal parts Raymond Chandler's noir detective novels, Robert Service's poetry of the Yukon gold rush, and Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, add a generous splash of The Road to Utopia, shake it all up in Rob Sawyer's noggin and chill in the Yukon for a few months. Decant onto pulp paper, and knock the concoction back like cold Sarsaparilla in a dirty glass.
It's worth reading the preface to see what possessed Rob to write this bit of Yukon noir. It turns out that it was Mike Resnick's fault, asking for a bit of noir for a collection, which spawned the novella "Identity Theft" and some time spent in the Yukon in close proximity to the homes two of its greatest writers, Robert Service and Jack London. The result is a tongue in cheek romp through the mean streets of New Klondike, a past its prime domed Martian city built to cash in on the "Great Martian Fossil Rush", and across the frozen sands of Mars to find the lost mother-lode or a perfectly preserved Martian Pentapod or rhizomorph.
The fossil rush has long since peaked, and the two explorers that sparked it died with the secret of where the best fossils were to be found. Finding it fuels much of the action in the novel, but it begins with a missing person's case involving a recently 'transferred' husband who's gone missing. Transferring, the process of uploading a human consciousness into an android body, is really the meat of Red Planet Blues, and Sawyer does take time to bring up a few ethical dilemmas that uploaded humanity engenders, like whether it's murder to terminate a transfer. Unfortunately for P.I. Alex Lomax, that's easier said than done since bullets more or less bounce off them, it takes an EMP weapon to scramble their circuits, and all he's got is a Smith and Wesson and his wits.
The story is really about becoming android, and there's no real there, there. The android tech itself is a bit off-putting. Androids are nearly indistinguishable from humans, and nobody mentions the "valley of the weird". Androids feel pleasure and pain from the same physical inputs as humans, and appear to possess a pretty healthy libido, which Lomax is happy to oblige. Why androids would want to have sex with a human is beyond me, since it's pretty clear that they're physically more than a match for biologicals.
The novella still works fairly well, but the novel tacked on to it doesn't add a lot to the story. We do get out onto the Martian surface, for trips to the fossil bed, but Lomax reliably falls asleep in the rover on the way, providing scene cuts from the domed city to the treasure site.
Lomax's motivations are pretty much restricted to hoping for a piece of the action that finding the fossilized treasure holds, getting a piece of android or cocktail waitress action, or running up his bar tab. Ironically, I think that Robert Sawyer likes people too much to really believe the darkness in the human soul that noir protagonists tango with, and it handicaps his characters.
Okay, so I've got issues with the book. It's not about Mars, though in Rob's defense, he wanted to call it "The Great Martian Fossil Rush", and the publisher wanted something that could take advantage of the red planet's marketability. In the end, it's not even about the blues. Alex doesn't have a lot of Chandler's Quixotic hero in him, and he's pretty much the same caricature of a noir P.I. at the end as he is in the beginning. Sure, Alex knocks back cheap booze in a seedy bar...but we never get the feeling he needs it, just that he's doing what's expected of his character.
None of that means the book isn't a decent read. No, really, I mean that. The problem is that it's not what you expect going in. Instead of a thoughtful novel like WWW: Watch, this is a playful romp through a collection of tropes that the author just wanted to have fun with. I've got nothing against fun, but while this book would be perfect in pulp, it doesn't merit the $25.95 they're asking for the hardcover.