Red Planet Blues by Robert Sawyer

Book CoverA sci-fi hard-boiled detective story? I could imagine many ways in which this mash-up could go wrong. So I was a little reluctant to read it. Boy was I wrong. This story works at many levels. Like all hard-boiled detective stories, it begins with a beautiful woman entering the PI’s office. Alex Lomax, also known as “double X,” wonders about her because she is a “transfer.” That is, she’s transferred her consciousness to a new, mechanical body. I told you, it’s sci-fi.

The action takes place on Mars in a colony called New Klondike that exists under a large dome. Unlike most sci-fi cities on other planets, this is a scruffy, rough place, full of prospectors who are trying to find fossils of the early creatures that inhabited the red planet. The entire city is a private enterprise, so the cops only get involved if someone threatens the business. Hence Alex Lomax’s detective agency.

The beautiful woman hires Alex to find her missing husband. That sounds strange to Alex. How can anyone go missing in a small town where access is tightly controlled? The woman and her missing husband run the local franchise of “New You,” the corporation that transfers people to their new bodies. By law, there can only be one copy of a person. Once you transfer, your human body is disposed of. But the law can always be gotten around if the price is right.

Writing a hard-boiled detective novel in 2013 is a tricky business. The times and mores have changed since the Chandlers and Hammetts penned their stories. What sounded okay in the forties, sounds off seventy years later. That’s especially true when it comes to gender.

There are also some odd discrepancies to the transfers’ bodies. On the one hand, they are machines that don’t need food or oxygen. They are nearly unbeatable, gun or otherwise, as Alex finds out more than once.  But, on the other hand, they can be tortured, kicked in the crown jewels, if they are male, and have luscious sex. That seems odd to me, but not odd enough to spoil the story.

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