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2labz's picture
Written on Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Cons: not a good mystery, not good scifi, overly noir

You can’t track someone when you don’t know what body he’s using. Your quarry could look like anybody –his real self, some video star, your sibling… Alex Lomax, the best private eye in New Klondike, Mars (mostly because he’s the only one) had a foolproof system: He killed them all and let God sort them out.

Well, to be fair, he didn’t kill everyone: the women he’d bed and then kill. In the finest tradition of the noir dick, Lomax would chase every shapely female that came his way, and whip out a different rod for the males. Mike Hammer had come to Mars…

In the second generation of the Martian fossil rush, bone-hunters were still hunting for the Lost Dutchman of Martian fossils:  the Alpha Deposit’s location had disappeared during a fiery rocket re-entry, along with everyone who knew it. Since finding one “pentapod” in prime condition could pay your way home to Earth and fund a life on Easy Street once you got there, finding Alpha again would be a dream come true. That’s why anybody on Mars would be happy to lie, cheat and steal to find it – or to kill. Except someone actually found it – someone who wants Lomax to help him keep the secret.

What a dummy! He’d picked the wrong person to share with. Alex Lomax was as greedy as anyone else in New Klondike, only just a little more trustworthy. Given that a gorgeous Indian writer, a set of identical mandroid triplets, a luscious Asian, and several others were all trying to kill each other on the empty plains of Mars; Lomax needed a scorecard more than he needed anything else.

Wikipedia lists many awards on its Robert J Sawyer entry, including being honored with Canada’s top mystery and scifi awards for one short story. In fact, the first few chapters of Red Planet Blues have been modified from Sawyer’s Nebula-nominated novella, “Identity Theft.” The rest builds on the original premise: most people on Mars (Lomax’s stomping grounds) prospect for fossils, anyone with the cash can transfer his consciousness to a different body of his choosing, the cops are worthless, etc. Sawyer also recounts – more times than strictly necessary, I think – how hard it is to damage a “transfer” body, how easy Mars’ 1/6th-G gravity makes it to get around, and several other things that only need to be pointed out once.

In other, Red Planet Blues may have worked as a 10-chapter novella, but  once you’re in chapter 11 the novel basically becomes endless repetition of the usual noir detective tropes: when a good-looking woman comes by, get her in the sack – if she’s not available, just watch her fine body with all-consuming lust. When someone you don’t like appears, knock him off. When a rule gets in your way, bend (or break) it. Combine those lazy tropes with Lomax’s ridiculously coincidental luck and a propensity for breaking all his promises, and it looks more like satire gone bad than scifi – or mystery.

There’s no denying that Sawyer’s inventive, and he should be applauded for the lack of a single reference to heroin jazz.  Red Planet Blues, however, is not a very good mystery – too many coincidences for my taste – and it’s “science fiction” only because it’s set in the future. Lomax doesn’t actually solve a mystery after chapter 10; he has to let the bad guys fill him in on what happened after the action’s over.

Well, there’s some awful SciFi on the shelves, as well as some dreadful mysteries. Red Planet Blues isn’t awful SciFi and it isn’t a dreadful mystery – but it’s not a good example of either genre, either.

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2labz doesn't recommend Red Planet Blues. Robert J. Sawyer

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