A review of Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues (Ace, 2013)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer
Once again Robert J. Sawyer b(l)ends genres, adding a touch of detective noire and paleontology to science fiction. Set on Mars of the future, where gold and other precious minerals are easily replicable, Red Planet Blues portrays a human society that has invested their interest in Martian fossils, the new markers of wealth. Rare and unable to be replicated, these fossils are valued not only for their uniqueness but also for the underlying fact that they prove that we are not alone in the universe… even though indigenous Martian life has expired.
The town of New Klondike, Mars, has become a frontier town like those inspired by the gold rush on Earth, and like many frontier towns, New Klondike has an element of lawlessness and corruption. Alex Lomax walks these mean, red streets in classic gumshoe style, seeking out secrets for his clients and exposing the criminal underbelly of the city and the little seeds of corruption in those around him.
Identity is not an easy thing in this future world – with the invention of technology for “transferring”, moving one’s consciousness into a simulated body, the personal is flexible and unrelated to the body. Traditional biometric means of determining identity are obsolete for those wealthy enough to transfer. Like the society of the present, identity issues have become a huge issue for the future and people rely on complex passphrases instead of simple passwords. Genetic forensic techniques are obsolete when it comes to bodies that aren’t biological and therefore leave no biological traces behind, no DNA to analyse. Finding out “whodunnit” requires a lot more legwork and a deep grasp of the human consciousness and human greed… something Lomax shares to a degree with the people he pursues. Without a DNA magic bullet, psychology becomes a greater key to finding out the root of the criminal mind.
Our modern society’s fear of identity theft is magnified in this novel, where, it is discovered, transfer bodies can be hacked and one’s innermost thoughts can be revealed. Transfers can even be made in the image of other people – copying their facial features, body, and tone of voice. So appearance is no longer a means of distinguishing a person. Biometrics can’t be used to determine identity because the transfers are non-biological. They can’t be finger-printed, retina-scanned, or DNA tested. Identity has become flexible and something that can easily be taken. And passphrases don’t work if a copy can be made of one’s cognition when they are transferred to a new body.
Sawyer also plays with the modern fascination with identity and appearance. People who decide to become transfers feel an almost compulsive need to “upgrade” their bodies, changing aspects of their appearance to fit with society’s ideals around bodily perfection. Characteristics are smoothed out to get rid of all of those self-perceived bodily flaws. This is plastic surgery taken to the extreme, where the entire body becomes molded and changed under the hands of societal ideas of attractiveness.
Identity itself is flexible and transfers can not only change superficial aspects of their appearance, but aspects of appearance that we attach tremendous ideas of identity-formation to such as gender, and race, illustrating how illusory these categories are. With synthetic human beings around, even the nature of humanity itself becomes a debatable category, questioned, interrogated… and ultimately legally defined. A court case has ruled transfers to be human and therefore they are strictly identified as individuals.
Unlike the detective in Red Planet Blues, Robert J. Sawyer uses his novel as a means to open questions, rather than answering them, challenging his audience to debate and speculate on issues of identity and human experience rather than forcing readers to accept his conclusions. Sawyer calls on readers to open their minds to new possibilities of what it means to be human and what it means to be a human separated from our Earthen home.
You can explore Robert J. Sawyer’s website at http://www.sfwriter.com/ and see what upcoming projects he is working on. To find out more about Red Planet Blues, visit http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9781101622216,00.html?Red_Planet_Blues_Robert_J._Sawyer