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WesternSFA
Red Planet Blues
by Robert J. Sawyer
Ace Books, 2013, $7.99, 340pp
Publication Date: March 25, 2014
Alex Lomax is a private eye detective on the Red Planet, earning a precarious living solving the occasional crime when the police can’t be bothered. Most people come to Mars with get-rich-quick dreams of finding sudden wealth in the form of Martian fossils dug out of the desolate land; most end up trapped by debt and disappointment, and too adapted to the low gravity to ever go back to Earth, even if they could afford the fare. But some, the wealthy, the daring, and the desperate, transfer: they move their sense of self and their memories into a robotic body, one that doesn’t need to eat or drink or breathe the expensive air of the domed city of New Klondike. A transfer can go out of the dome without life support gear and be designed with modifications like infra-red vision; if the goal is to find wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, or the new body can be designed for aesthetics and pleasure.

Alex’s case seems straightforward enough: find a missing husband, newly transferred. But it turns out there aren’t any easy answers to the questions Alex starts to ask, and underneath the surface is a devious plot to find and exploit the mother lode – the lost fossil bed that the first explorers found and mined.

Red Planet Blues is an expansion of the novella “Identity Theft”, and it is magnificent storytelling. You do not have to know and love the old Warner Brothers detective movies to enjoy the author’s allusions to classic films, but it certainly helps. Alex Lomax quotes and paraphrases Humphrey Bogart at opportune moments, especially lines from The Maltese Falcon, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and other characters play unwittingly along, as it were. The Big Man of Mar’s financial exchanges bears a marked resemblance to Sidney Greenstreet, for example.

There’s romance, hilarity, heartbreak, low comedy and high drama, devious plot twists, showdowns, and… puns! Good ones, too. The science and speculation are well-thought-out, enough to activate one’s pineal gland.

What makes a lone detective stand out though; is his moral code. His code probably isn’t conventional, but for him to be anything more than an opportunist and a feather in the wind, he has to stand for something, to care about something or someone more than himself. Alex does. It’s a long while before you find out just why he can’t go back to Earth – it’s not the gravity – and his conscience is a bit flexible when incalculable wealth is at stake, but Alex is the guy you really want to have your back.

One of the best books I’ve read this year. ~~ Chris R. Paige

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