Book review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J Sawyer

It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that I've read the latest novel by Robert J. Sawyer. Since Sawyer's novel Hominids was the One Book, One Community reading selection in Waterloo Region several years ago, I've read all his books. Sawyer's most recent novel, Red Planet Blues, is the first of his books that I won't be getting signed. Since I've started reading extensively on my eReader (a Kobo Glo), I've rarely felt the desire to read one of my paper books.

The book cover for Red Planet Blues

What can I say about Red Planet Blues? If you've read any of Sawyer's work in the past, you know what you're getting: a science fiction story with strong philosophical content. Moral questions are raised on the essence of consciousness and identity. What you don't get in this book are dinosaurs, although fossils of another sort play an important role in the story.

Sawyer has adjusted his style for this novel, aiming to target a detective/noir/mystery audience in addition to his existing science fiction audience. I can't judge the effectiveness of his appeal to the new audience, but I can say that he hasn't compromised the expectations of his existing audience. The pace and feel of this story feels consistent with many of his earlier works.

While this is a mystery, it's not a dark and gritty noir. It's more like the Dixon Hill Private Investigator holodeck episode of Star Trek TNG ("The Big Goodbye") than Frank Miller's Sin City, or Blade Runner. While I would have welcomed something a little darker, I don't think that would fit as well with Sawyer's style.

The story pacing is good, which is expected. This is hardly Sawyer's first novel. However, there did seen to be a bit more exposition earlier on, as some fundamental concepts to do with consciousness transference were explained. It's important information, and critical to both the setting and plot, and I reasonably executed. It one of those writing problems: how do you get information to the reader that the protagonist should be reasonably familiar with?

Perhaps the other reason I was sensitive to this is that it's a topic Sawyer has dealt with in the past, so I was already familiar with it. It didn't detract from the novel at all, it was merely something that I was conscious of. For readers outside of the science-fiction genre, or even those unfamiliar with this idea, this exposition is essential.

The primary conceit of the story is that people who have transferred to an artificial body don't leave genetic material around, rendering DNA forensics useless, and the investigative role more important. A reasonable way to bring back mystery to the detective genre. It's an interesting conceit, bringing to mind the film GATTACA, which depends in part upon this DNA evidence, and the ability to misdirect.

It's interesting to see the new world Sawyer has created. There is very little in the way of government or democracy in play. The Mars habitat is instead a corporate domain, with minimal services. The local police force does little beyond protect the corporate interests, and Lomax, the private investigator, does work for clients hoping to get paid. In a way, it's one of the more pessimistic of Sawyer's novels, while still leaning towards a believable realism. With any science fiction novel set on Mars, comparisons to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) are inevitable. Where Robinson's work suffers a little from extreme optimism, and a long-term view of progress, Sawyer's novel focuses on the immediate, with an eye to long-term effects.

I liked Red Planet Blues more than Triggers, Sawyer's previous novel. The ending of Triggers didn't sit well with me philosophically. Red Planet Blues better suits Sawyer's style, even if it does seem to accept a more pragmatic view towards capitalism.