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Bookends: Murder on the Mean Streets of Mars December 29, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Murder on the Mean Streets of Mars

By Dan Davidson

August 14, 2013

– 930 words –

 

Red Planet BluesRed Planet Blues

By Robert J. Sawyer

Viking

356 pages

$30.00

 

By the time Robert Sawyer came to spend the summer at Berton House in 2007, he had already written a story set in New Klondike on the planet Mars and was toying with the idea of expanding the adventures of private detective Alex Lomax to book length. Sawyer has always had a fondness for mysteries and one of his earlier books, The Terminal Experiment, actually won him an Arthur Ellis Award for mystery writing. His working title for the Lomax book was “The Great Martian Fossil Rush”, because it was the search for those rare proofs of long since extinct life on Mars that had spurred the creation of the domed town.

That story, “Identity Theft”, had been written in the tradition all the great noir detective stories. There was a somewhat shady first person narrator and even an opening scene where a beautiful woman walks into his office looking for help.

“The door to my office slid open.

“’Hello,’ I said, rising from my chair. ‘You must be my nine o’clock.” I said it as if I had a ten o’clock and an eleven o’clock, but I didn’t. The whole Martian economy was in a slump, and even though I was the only private detective on Mars this was the first new case I’d had in weeks.

“’Yes,’ said a high, feminine voice. “I’m Cassandra Wilkins.”

“I let my eyes rove up and down her body. It was very good work; I wondered if she’d had quite so perfect a figure before transferring.”

That opening scene is reproduced in this novel, the first ten chapters of which (out of 47) are an expanded version of that story, with quite a bit more back-story and atmosphere built in.

The history of the Rush is that two explorers found what came to be called the Alpha Deposit years ago. They made a killing on their high quality find, but they died and no one ever managed to figure out where that deposit was hiding, kind of like the century old search for the Klondike motherlode. Later fossil hunters found enough traces to make some people rich and keep the fossil fever alive, but New Klondike is a boomtown on the downslide, and there’s a shabbiness to this future that isn’t characteristic of Sawyer’s generally more optimistic tone.

The new title is the result of Sawyer’s publisher deciding the book needed something more noirish on the cover. Rob put out a call for suggestions, but my two didn’t make the cut. One was “In the Boneyard with the Martian Dead”, reflecting my fondness for the work of James Lee Burke, and the other was the Agatha Christie influenced “Murder in the Martian Boneyard”.

This book is different from Sawyer’s more recent work in a number of other ways. For instance, it isn’t set on Earth, unlike his last several. Then again, it’s set farther in the future than he has been going lately.  Third, noir narrators are far less likeable people than the usual Sawyer point of view character.

Finally, there’s a great deal more action and violence in this novel (and way more sex, come to think of it) than you find in most of Sawyer’s work. I’m not complaining, mind you. It suits the type of story than he set out to tell, and it suits Alex Lomax.

There are, however, a number of themes that he’s been playing with since the short story “Shed Skin” and the novel Mindscan. Transfer technology plays a major role in this novel. The beautiful woman in question has had her brain shifted to an artificial body so she can be faster, stronger and live longer. Several other characters in the book have made the same choice and some of the story involves the possible death of one of these transfers.

Then there is the possibility that mind transfer technology could inspire a whole new type of crime. Why worry about using electronic bugs and monitoring computer traffic to steal someone’s information when you can simply copy their entire memory and personality without their knowledge and find out what you want to know by torturing the duplicate?

The final three quarters of the book picks up on the Alpha Deposit plot thread that was a secondary note during the murder mystery in the first section of the book, and turns the novel into a different type of detective story, more of an adventure thriller style of story with chases, break-ins, shooting and explosions.

There are a lot of nods to the Klondike in this novel. One of the spaceships from the early days is called the Skookum Jim. One of the major characters in the book is a writer-in-residence, a nod to Sawyer’s time at Berton House.

The last nod is to the cabin across 8th Ave. from Berton House, where Sawyer heard the rhymes of Robert Service recited twice daily for three months. It prompted him to begin the book with a bit of ersatz Service, which he told me was the hardest part of the book to write.

 

There are strange things done ‘neath the Martian sun

By those who seek the mother lode;

The ruddy trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The twin moonlights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the shore of a lake of yore

I terminated a transferee.

 

-30-

 

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