book review

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.

Book Review: Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

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I was recently browsing the shelves at my local library branch, when I noticed that the only book by Tim Powers on the shelf was On Stranger Tides. This was likely on the shelf due to one of my earlier recommendations: I had told the staff that the Pirates of the Caribbean film was loosely based on Powers' novel. As I was checking out, I saw his most recent novel, Hide Me Among The Graves. This novel is a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, although it doesn't need any previous knowledge of the earlier book. Hide Me Among the Graves book cover

This latest novel takes place a generation after the events in The Stress of Her Regard: the poets Shelley, Byron and Keats are long dead, and the Nephilim, the pre-Adamite stone creatures with vampiric tendencies have been banished, along with their poetic gifts, when a new wave of poets unknowingly invite them back.

I'm not as familiar with the works of the Rossettis as I am with those of Byron, but once again, Powers works his magic, weaving a fictional secret tale with historical records, which in some ways seems to make more sense than the original records.

 

The tone of this novel was also slightly different from The Stress of Her Regard. Where the earlier novel focused a great deal on blood and bloodlines, this novel focused more on kinship and family. This is seen as well by the choice of protagonist, and his relationship to characters from the original novel. The way in which this Powers writes in the previous history is actually quite clever, as it again enhances this novel for those who have read the first, but does not rely on any knowledge from the earlier book. Hide Me Among the Graves stands perfectly well on its own merits, although I highly recommend reading the earlier book as well.

Structurally, Hide Me Among the Graves is divided into several sections, each separated by a number of years. These breaks work in several ways. The breaks offer dramatic irony: the characters in the story believe the threat is over, while the reader is well aware that it has returned, and the threat is ever more dire than before. The intervening period also allows the characters to drift apart, and form new relationships, making the inevitable reunion a tense negotiation of personal alliances.

I didn't find Hide Me Among the Graves as intense a story as I found The Stress of Her Regard. The earlier novel felt more primal, more mysterious, than the more recent novel. Perhaps this is due in some part to the nature of the protagonist. In the earlier novel, the protagonist is a complete newcomer to the hidden world of the Nephilim. He has no prior experiences to prepare him for these supernatural events. In Hide Me Among the Graves, the protagonist has stories from his parents which prepare him in part for the supernatural events.

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Book review: Triggers by Robert J Sawyer

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I recently finished reading Triggers, the latest novel by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J Sawyer. After the television adaptation of his novel Flashforward, there was an obvious desire to tap into a larger market of potential fans. Many of Sawyer's earlier novels had elements of suspense, but none could ever truly be called a thriller. They have all been heavy on the philosophical issues, exploring ideas and thoughts on the meaning of humanity. Book cover for Triggers

Triggers is the combination of this philosophy on the human condition, mixed with high stakes action. Sawyer manages this quite well. While Sawyer's message is as positive as always, the comparison to Michael Crichton's techno-thrillers is more relevant than ever.

Although Sawyer is writing a faster paced story, the primary plot elements are still based on scientific extrapolations, with a focus on what it means to be human. In Triggers, the focus is on human memory. Unlike the common perception of memory as being stored whole and complete, Sawyer draws on recent scientific studies which show that memories are encoded as a series of cues, which are then decoded and interpreted in a framework of our experiences. It is these cues, which contain noteworthy elements, which are then physically stored in the brain. It's a really compelling theory, and explains a great deal about how the legal system now views memory.

Author Robert J Sawyer

In Triggers, Sawyer creates a situation where a medical experiment causes a link to be formed between two people, where the memories of the first could be accessed and decoded by the second. It is a science fiction version of telepathy, with the limitation that only these memory cues are accessed, from formed memories. It's a fascinating premise, and Sawyer gets some good use out of it, with some interesting examples of how it might affect our sense of morality.

At the same time, it challenges our sense of individuality. Certain sensations or events can trigger memories, but how do you decide whose memory is being relived? How could people use this ability to their advantage, with someone else able to recall any of your memories? Omnipresent surveillance is a common theme in Sawyer's novels, playing an important role in Flashforward, the Neanderthal Parallax novels, the Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, and now Triggers. In each novel, the circumstances and implications are different, but in all the cases, they affect our understanding of moral choices.

Triggers is not a perfect story. While the ending could be seen as a logical progression from the original premise, it felt too much like a deus ex machina. As intriguing as I found the earlier science about the physical encoding of memory, I found the further progression rather unsatisfying, and the eventual implications of the story rather unsettling. To make a Star Trek analogy, I greatly prefer the Federation to the Borg Collective.

Despite my dissatisfaction with the ending, Sawyer still writes a compelling story which tackles some interesting issues.