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Mars noir Red Planet Blues'

April 3, 2013
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Sci-fi detective story a ripping good read

Science fiction is first and foremost a literature of ideas. However, without an engaging story behind them, those ideas tend to fall flat.

What makes a good science fiction writer great is the ability to infuse gripping sci-fi with ideas that are both grandiose and grounded feasible futures. Robert J. Sawyer is one of the most consistent authors out there in bringing readers that dynamic blend.

His latest is 'Red Planet Blues' (Ace, $25.95); the novel sports the delightfully descriptive subtitle 'Murder on the Mean Streets of Mars' which tells you everything you need to know. It serves as an expansion of his 2006 novella 'Identity Theft' a piece that was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards.

Private detective Alex Lomax is a man with a past, living in the settlement of New Klondike on the planet Mars. New Klondike sprang up 40 years previously following the discovery of fossil life on the Martian plains. Earth technology has long been able to synthesize previously valuable commodities, so these fossils instantly become the most valuable of collectibles; desperate treasure hunters flock to the Red Planet to take part in the Great Martian Fossil Rush.

Lomax has been eking out a living amidst the failed prospectors, corrupt cops and other lost souls that populate New Klondike. And walking among the human population is a growing number of what are called transfers human minds that have been downloaded into customizable robot bodies. These bodies can look like anyone or anything and they can ostensibly live forever.

But Lomax's latest case looks like it might be too much even for him. He's thrust into a situation where he's caught between a corporate rock and a criminal hard place, with no one he can truly trust on either side. Before he knows it, Lomax is swept up into a decades-old mystery that involves money, murderand perhaps the location of the biggest, baddest Martian fossil bed on the entire planet.

There's a wonderful Raymond Chandler-meets-Ray Bradbury vibe that permeates 'Red Planet Blues.' Sawyer's Mars is as realistically realized as his settings always are; no one creates a plausible near-future quite like he does. There's a richness of detail particularly in the descriptions of New Klondike that is particularly engaging. From the shady dive bars to the spaceships to the sweeping Martian plains, Sawyer paints a vivid picture.

But it's his creation of Alex Lomax where Sawyer really shines. There's an obvious love for the noir detectives of the past here; by dropping this character into a future that is more grit than shine, the seedy spirit of literary gumshoes gone by is brought to glorious life. Add to that a liberal dose of Sawyer's dry wit, awash with pop culture awareness, and you've got Sam Spade's spiritual cousin. 

The supporting cast could have been pulled straight from the pulps. You've got wealthy captains of industry with questionable motives. You've got beautiful dames scattered up and down the spectrum of trustworthiness. You've got friends that become enemies and enemies that become friends. At its core, 'Red Planet Blues' is an excellent detective novel that just happens to take place on another planet.

It's a genre mash-up that might have felt gimmicky in less capable hands; however, with Sawyer at the helm, it succeeds beautifully. A hard-boiled noir detective on Mars the sort of character a guy like Sawyer was born to write.

'Red Planet Blues' is a fine example of what makes Sawyer such an enjoyable read. Alex Lomax is the good-naturedly tarnished soul of the story while the scientific detail that marks Sawyer's work is undeniably present. That science might not be as prominently front and center as it has been in some of his previous works, but the balance being struck here is just right.

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