Red Planet Blues
With my TBR piles, an increasing number of ARCs, projects and events, and attempts to stay current, I only rarely pick up a book at random any more. Something sneaks through once in awhile though, and this time it was Robert Sawyer. I’m not sure why I chose Sawyer, of all authors, since my only previous experience with him was passable at best. (I think it was Mindscan, but don’t remember for certain. I found it essentially plotless, though an interesting thought experiment.) Still, Red Planet Blues called to me from the featured paperback selections at the library and sucked me in with its promise of noir (a non-SF favorite) and Mars (an everything favorite).
The situation on Mars will be familiar to any Raymond Chandler fan. Our guide to the planet is a seedy detective who makes constant wisecracks at the expense of a police force that gamely tolerates his presence. He takes us through the usual societal underbelly, eschewing the boring middle class. There are many gorgeous dames and a single fedora. The plot is utterly convoluted and the number of twists may exceed the number of dames. Everything was complicated enough that I couldn’t easily spot the villains, which was nice. I would quibble that, despite the familiar plot beats, the story lacked some of the gray edginess that initially defined noir. The main character in particular is too nice for my tastes – he plays at having moral failings and a dark past, but mostly is just a nice dude who investigates mysteries. A bit more darkness would have given Blues more weight.
Oddly though, the setting bears little resemblance to traditional noir. Instead of the usual urban landscape, especially the distinctive SoCal vibe of Los Angeles, Blues borrows more from Westerns. New Klondike, the scene of various crimes, is a faded boom town on the Mars frontier that bears more resemblance to Colorado or the Yukon that any typical detective haunt. The seams between SF, noir, and Western aren’t jarring or uncomfortable, just unexpected. It’s harder to disguise Mars though, when various plot points surround androids, uploaded consciousness, and people sucking hard vacuum. I will say, and this is a reference that Sawyer is probably unaware of, that I am most reminded of an early episode of Galaxy Express 999, a late seventies anime, wherein the characters spend 20 minutes plus commercial breaks in a Wild West-inspired Mars.
This was a fun read and a nice break from the heavier stuff I’ve been tackling lately. It’s not one for the ages, but Red Planet Blues is just complicated and just original enough to repay the small investment I made reading it. (“Original” might not be the best word, but is easier to type than “amusing jumble of tropes.”) I will give it this much: Sawyer has inspired my first soccer-related rating in several months. That deserves at least a fist bump.
Rating: Fulham, circa 2004. Or any year, really. Good enough to stay in the top rank, but never enough to overshadow the titans of English football, Fulham is about where Sawyer’s book lands.