Robert J. Sawyer continues to amaze me.
RED PLANET BLUES is a blast to read, an old timey gumshoe-detective story set on Mars, one of those "Who Did It" detective tales that's more "Who's DOING It," as the mysteries keep piling up with almost every chapter.
RED PLANET BLUES is sci-fi, to be sure - it's set in the future, takes place on VERY foreign soil, and about half the characters are "transfers" (robotic bodies into which humans have transferred their consciousnesses). But Sawyer is mostly interested in having fun this time around...his concepts here are not meant to push the edge of the envelope. Rather, consider it a novel that that USES sci-fi to allow that story to be told.
Being a private eye story, it's full of tricky secrets, hidden identities, spurious motivations, criminal shortcuts and ill-gotten gains. Our hero is Alex Lomax, or Double-X, as befitting each name's concluding letter. He's a drinker, a lover (who doesn't mind married or even artificial women), a fighter (who is often outmatched by transfers), and a romantic with a secret past of his own. But, most of all, his real secret weapon is his inherent cleverness that will prove to be more than a match for the labyrinthine twists and turns of a story that is quite literally out of this world.
Mind you, the sci-fi trappings are still there. The small-ish group of colonists on Mars lives within a dome about five kilometers in diameter and about twenty meters tall at its center. The colony exists because of the Gold Rush-like mentality that followed the discovery of Martian fossils, each more precious than the last. A prospector can make a fine living if he finds lithic evidence of early life on the planet, and to make matters worse, there is evidence that a major fossil site had been discovered upon the planet, once, many years ago, and every prospective prospector worth his salt believes he or she can find it.
Thus, the Great Martian Fossil Rush has began. And, while all might be fair in love and war, fossil hunting is downright cruel, and it doesn't hurt to have someone who knows his way around the planet and isn't afraid of a firearm.
And that's where Alex Lomax, Private Eye comes in.
And make no doubt about it: RED PLANET BLUES is a lot of fun. Author Sawyer, who usually writes serious novels about cutting edge conundrums facing us in our near or distant future, has let his creative hair down here. While his stories always are well paced and quick moving, this one really flies by, with a twist or turn in the plot taking place every chapter.
Additionally, the novel is rich in characterization..I really grew to like several characters within, which is usually not a trait of Sawyer, as his focus is rarely on more than the central character and maybe one other. Not so here...his characters are multi-faceted and vital, and there are several I cared deeply about. Alex Lomax is a tough dick with a good heart, and knows how to handle himself. The tale is rich with fistfights, shootouts, double-crosses, and back stabbing.
Science still abounds within this tale: I learned a great deal about the possibilities offered in a low gravity environment, as well as what is possible in Mars' thin atmosphere. (Hint: think airplane--with BIG wings.) As usual, Sawyer thinks out his environment, and his Mars society has life-support tax, airlocks and suit rentals, dune buggies, and a rocket still active decades after it was extremely well hidden.
But more than anything else, this is a fun book. While the author really seems to inhabit the hardboiled detective genre, enjoying his tough talk and muscle-y persona, he particularly displays a real delight with his language, as in "Airplanes on Mars need clear open stretches to touch down, just as they did to take off, and although Isidis Planitia was a plain, it wasn't a plain plain, and landing our plane was going to be a pain."
Another area in which Sawyer's playfulness shines is in his novel's lighthearted use of the transfers, the subject of his rather serious novel Mindscan. It was interesting to see Sawyer have fun with a topic that he had previously plumbed both topically and legally, through an auspicious court case.
To my way of thinking, it's one of the traits that makes Sawyer my favorite sci-fi author. Perhaps he will become yours.