Review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer

red planet blues

  • Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ace; Reissue edition (March 25, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425256413
  • Paperback $6.14
  • Hardback $18.81
  • Kindle $5.83
  • Audio $10.36


Sawyer was a major discovery for me when I returned to the fold of science fiction fandom.  How had this guy won so many awards without me noticing?

Well, the not noticing part was easily explained by my Gafiation.  And of course how he’d won so many awards quickly became obvious once I started playing catchup.

Sawyer is, I believe, considered to be one of the heirs to the Heinlein legacy; he tackles broad themes, he gets his science right and he manages to pull off that delicate balancing act between needed exposition and heedless info-dump.

Red Planet Blues is based on an award nominated novella – Identity Theft – which I’ve not read in the original.  The title of the novel however, was crowd-sourced by Robert on Facebook, a promotional activity I eagerly participated in.

The premise of the novel – archaeologists and treasure hunters digging for ancient fossils on Mars, coupled with a murder mystery – was intriguing (who still doesn’t long for a Mars that is inhabited in one form or another)?

Unfortunately, Sawyer decided to go for a hard-boiled detective tale style of presentation and I found it a bit jarring.  Blurbs on the cover make it apparent that this homage to “hard-boiled detectives of the past” is at least a primary marketing point.  One that left me pretty uninterested.  Detective tales (other than in films titled The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon) are not really my cup of tea, so please take my dissatisfaction like the red-herring it will probably be for most readers.

I also found the backgrounding a bit…incomplete.  Mars was initially visited by a private concern that happily discovered the fossils during initial exploration.  The same (now very rich) entrepeneurs return for two more missions, dying on re-entry to Earth upon their final return.  However, their discovery led others to follow and a small, bubble-enclosed town – very much down on its luck – has been established.

I kept wondering how such a small, hard-scrabble concern managed to support a private eye.

Sawyer also throws in a mind-transfer technology that allows people to upload their consciusness to android bodies;  Legally, copies are not allowed to be made.  Techologically, owners of android bodies can work on the surface of Mars without need for environmental support, can customize their capabilities and are immortal or nearly so.

Legalities or no legalities, I found it extremely hard to believe that a thriving black market for copies of oneself had not run rampant over the whole industry;  I also found a lack of discussion about what happens to the originals (they’re “disposed” of) to be a big downfall for the entire story.  Or rather, a bit of world-building that didn’t resonate with me.

So far as copies are concerned:  no spoilery here so no direct references to the book.  But.  It just seems to me that since the technology to make “transfers” is presented as being relatively simple, it would be very easy – and very logical – for a prospector (who is naturally paranoid and very circumspect with information) to want to make as many copies of him or herself as possible.  Since cosmetics seem to be one of the easier modifications for an android, it would therefore make sense to have a legion of oneself, all with different looks, to be running across the dead sea bottoms of Mars looking for fossils.

That is was not presented, nor really address (at least not in the manner I’m speaking of), I felt this a hole in the story that led to distraction.

I found the “detective tale” confusing.  There seemed little opportunity for me to be able to “guess” what the story behind the story was.  At least it didn’t end with a roomful of people and the lead character announcing “one of you in this room is the murderer”.  Quite honestly, I found the movie Clue to be more sensible and logical than the mystery in Red Planet Blues.

On the other hand, its a Robert J Sawyer novel.  His vision of a thinly populated Mars given over to adventurers prospecting for Martian fossils (one of the few unique things left in a world of easy plenty) to be intriguing.  (Though I was always forced outside of the novel to ask questions like:  if finding a fossil could make one so fabulously wealthy, why aren’t there more bubble towns?)

That is story was at least partially based on Bogart/Bacall noir detective films is pretty obvious when we run into the Sydney Greenstreet character.

Maybe I just had a disconnect with the hard-boiled part (I’m not really into that kind of read), or maybe Red Planet Blues is just Sawyer not at his best.  I’ll finish up by saying that fans of SF that takes place on Mars won’t be disappointed;  fans of ye olde HBD tales won’t be either, and fans of Sawyer will probably find it an acceptable entry into the canon.  But beyond that, as much as I’d like to, I can’t really recommend it.  And it hurts to say that.

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