Red planet blues

Robert J. Sawyer is one of our best science fiction writers, and here he tackles one of the genre's bigger challenges -- the SF/mystery hybrid.

The potential pitfalls in mixing the two, I think, have to do with reader expectations. SF readers enjoy -- and yes, this is a broad generalization -- the surprise of new gadgets, gizmos, concepts, technology. They'll let an author introduce something new six pages from the end of the book if it makes for an exciting finish. Mystery writers, to make an equally broad generalization, want a fair chance to solve the puzzle, so they're going to be annoyed by some unknown bit of technobabble appearing in the final chapter.

Sawyer's solution to this dilemma is to introduce only one big new idea for his mystery readers to absorb; by SF standards, it is neither a very big nor a very new idea, but Sawyer finds variations on it that are particularly effective in a mystery story. That idea is "transfers," artificial bodies into which human minds are transferred for enhanced beauty, strength, vision -- whatever might be helpful.  The original human body is destroyed immediately after transfer so that there's only one copy of a particular person at any given time.

Throughout the early chapters of the novel, Sawyer explores the possible complications and ramifications of transfers in a crime-solving context, so that when we reach the climax, the reader has all the necessary information to stay one step ahead of the detective.

That detective is Alex Lomax, the only private eye in the Martian city of New Klondike; Sawyer fans will recognize him from the novella Identity Theft. An altered version of that story makes up the first quarter of Red Planet Blues; it's been given additional characters and details to set up the rest of the novel, which centers on the search for the great mother lode of Martian fossils, the location of which was kept a secret by its discoverers.

All the things you love about private eye novels are here -- cops, both honest and corrupt; beautiful dames, naive and worldly; the local powerbroker who knows where the bodies are buried (often literally). They're set against an appealing Martian backdrop; New Klondike sits under a large dome, and spacesuits are required to venture outside (unless you're a transfer, and don't actually need oxygen).

Sawyer's prose, as ever, is crisp and clean; his ideas are interesting; and his characters are a bit more fully developed than is often the case in either SF or private eye fiction. Red Planet Blues is a tautly written, suspenseful story that should please fans of both genres.