The husband and I read Red Planet Blues at roughly the same time on our vacation. It’s pretty rare that we read the same book, and even rarer at the same time. We initially reacted pretty differently to the book, so we thought it would be fun to share both perspectives.
Hi there! Occasional guest reviewer and intrepid husband to Curlygeek here, chiming in with my review of Red Planet Blues by Robert Sawyer. Sawyer is one of my favorite authors. Year in and year out, he follows the same script and delivers some fantastic books: Sawyer will introduce his “big idea” and then explore its societal impact through two to four well written, nuanced characters. With Red Planet Blues (RPB), Sawyer attempted something slightly different. He appears to have decided to explore his “big idea” through the lens of a 1940’s era pulp noir detective novel. RPB tells the story of a hard-boiled private eye working in a frontier town on Mars. The really ‘big idea’ is people can now ‘upload’ their consciousness and memories into android bodies, giving them superior physical abilities and effective immortality. It’s a fantastic idea and it almost delivers.
The detective/noir novel construct allows Sawyer to explore his idea from a different perspective and through a very different character than he typically employs. Sawyer’s usual protagonist is a well-realized, complex and flawed person. Detective Lomax in RPB, however, is forced into the stereotype of the noir detective novel – he’s an oversexed, smartass private eye who wants to solve the case and bag the dame. He wears his motivations on his sleeve and in his pants.
This character, along with the associated action demanded by the detective novel, constrains the depth of Sawyer’s examination of ‘uploads.’ What are the societal implications of immortality in robotic bodies? Can a consciousness really be transferred from a biological person into a computer? What are the implications when only the wealthy can afford uploading, giving them both financial and physical superiority? What happens and how can we control copies of our uploads? These concepts and more are only lightly explored. In their place, Sawyer has to pack in his mystery, a multitude of bit-players, and a handful of action scenes, some of which are executed better than others.
In terms of story, concept, and world-design, this book was great. It combines gritty detective noir with a futuristic world where the wealthy can “transfer” their minds into super-strong, super durable, and super-beautiful bodies. It’s like Stepford but you get to keep your brain. He creates an interesting, well-developed setting – Mars – and raises a lot of good issues, like what it means to “copy” someone’s brain, and how are human cops supposed to maintain order when some of the population is practically indestructible?
This book was a fun read, and I loved the tone and setting. Unlike my husband, I like my science fiction on the “soft” side, and for that, this book is perfect. Sawyer does a great job of setting you down in Mars – a really rough place – and making you feel you’re there. He also gives his world a rich sense of history and a wide array of characters, traditional and non-traditional. Sawyer’s won just about all the science fiction awards a writer can win, and one reason is that his books are all really different, from high-concept like www.Wake to alternative history in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. This time he tackles vintage noir, and he does so with all of the creativity of his other works.
But I had a few problems with this book, namely character development. Our hero, Alex Lomax is really an anti-hero. He has almost no conscience and is just as happy to steal from his clients as to bill them for hours worked (including when those hours include sleeping with someone’s wife). He views women “boobs-first” – which my husband says is just Sawyer being honest.
Lomax is a pretty weak detective. He makes a ton of mistakes, overlooks a lot of evidence (probably because he’s looking at -umm-other things), and loses a few people along the way. Although in fairness, Mars is a tough place to live if you didn’t buy a super-human body.
I like a good anti-hero, but I did want the character to develop more along the way. Early in the book, there’s a scene where our hero witnesses someone being tortured. Not only doesn’t he try to stop it, he doesn’t even flinch. Just waits it out, gathers the information, and intervenes when the hurting’s over. Now maybe our hero wouldn’t have been able to stop it on his own — but it made me really uncomfortable that he didn’t even seem bothered about it.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Red Planet Blues. It was a fun departure from the usual Sawyer novel and I liked the detective/noir novel construct. I agree that the book had much more action than Sawyer’s usual books, but because I bought into his story concept, it worked for me. I also didn’t mind the actions of the anti-hero – I’ve seen anti-heroes do MUCH worse in books before. The only major criticism I have of RPB involves a key action sequence. Sawyer has less experience with action than other science fiction authors and at times, it shows. Most of the fight scenes in the book are fun and well written, but there’s a big one near the end that was very confusing to read and contained way too many timely coincidences.
For a better exploration of what ‘uploading’ will mean for society and human development through the lens of the detective-noir story, check out the Takeshi Kovacs novels by Richard K Morgan. In his universe, our memories and consciousness are continually backed up in “stacks” implanted at the base of our skulls. The data on the stacks can be copied and re-transmitted at will, and the ‘stacks’ can easily be implanted in new ‘sleeves’ (bodies). The three books of the series, ‘Altered Carbon,’ ‘Broken Angels,’ and ‘Woken Furies’ are my favorite science-fiction/noir books and I highly recommend them. One quick warning – these novels are VERY dark, so expect lots of graphic violence and explicit sex.
For me, this book was a little too much action, not enough thought. It’s the polar opposite of The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, which was all thought, no action. Sawyer raises a ton of interesting issues in this book but we don’t get to catch our breath long enough to really consider them. The second half of the book seems like you’re just jumping from one chase scene to the next (naked chase scenes, no less). By the end of the book, I just felt… tired.
This book is expanded from his Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated novella “Identity Theft”. This may be where some of the pacing problems came in for me. The first part of the book is perfect as a standalone story, but it just didn’t work as well as a full-length book. It was an entertaining read, set in a fascinating world, I just wanted more.