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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer

Red Planet Blues 
by Robert J. Sawyer
Alex Lomax, PI, investigates two mysteries. First, the disappearance of Joshua Wilkins (covered here in "Identity Theft") and those still after the transfer Pickover's Alpha deposit--a highly sought-after deposit of Martian fossils that Pickover wants to preserve for humanity while treasure-hunters want to exploit it for profit. The original deposit discoverer, supposed dead, turns up as does his diary, which many will kill for. Yet another mystery underlies these: The Bowman of the ship B. Traven unfroze and molested its passengers for months.

The tale is full of Analog escapades--thrust into difficult situations that require scientific or engineering ingenuity to resolve tricky scenarios.
Commentary with Spoiler Clues:
Sawyer expands the scope of the original novella admirably. The idea of identity, however, melts away--at least, to a degree no more than most mysteries.

What's left is the idea of fossils on Mars, which assumes life propagated to a degree big enough to have, presumably, something the size of trilobites on Mars. Maybe we could grant microbes, but fossils seem something of a leap--not just a multicellular organism, but one with specialized features that can fossilize. It would be a huge discovery though Sawyer doesn't fully explore this idea (it is, after all, a mystery and not a dig). Maybe in a sequel?

The novel is intense, and the frequent problem-solving creativity is amazing, astounding, Analog and, otherwise, impressive. Sawyer pulls several tricks from seemingly empty sleeves. One nit, though, is that climax does have a semi-deux-ex-machina although it does resolve well in other regards.

Another nit can be examined by comparing the ending of "Identity Theft" to the novel. First, let me talk about the first season of Monk, which I just finished. The show lasted an impressive eight seasons, with one show temporarily holding the record for most watched episode. The conceit, an OCD former homicide hetective turned consultant, is clever and holds one's attention... until familiarity breeds.... well, not contempt because we still like the guy. How about over-familiarity? He's like an old friend you like, but not enough to keep him living in your basement. He's got to maintain our interest. Usually, that involves change.

"Identity Theft" does involve change. We take a detective, Alex Lomax, who starts down on his luck and finally comes into some money. He helps out a guy who shouldn't exist and gives him a new identity. We like Alex. He has problematic habits but has a good soul. His past, though, is mostly veiled as it does not pertain much to the present at hand.

Meanwhile, the novel takes a character who was supposed to be dead, springs to life to resolve the plot, and Alex invites her to join his team. This might have been satisfying but come off as too pat. Sawyer rejected it. But nothing comes in to replace it. The novel's events don't appear to shape Alex. "It's a mystery," you might say. True, and because of that, this qualifies as a nit. Still, good mysteries allow for protagonist change, however slight. The novel might have garnered more attention had it done so.

It is worth reading, especially if you like mysteries and floundering in other worldly environments versus strange antagonists. Definitely read "Identity Theft." Be forewarned that if you do, you will likely read the novel as well, a delicious entree of wonders.

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