Rouge Noir

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

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

Advertisements

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night…

A Review of Ian Rogers’ SuperNOIRtural Tales (Burning Effigy Press, 2012).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo for SuperNOIRtural Tales courtesy of the author

Cover photo for SuperNOIRtural Tales courtesy of the author

I was so excited to see that Ian Rogers had collected a number of his Felix Renn Black Lands novellas into one volume and published it as SuperNOIRtural Tales. I had reviewed his novellas Temporary Monsters (https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/performing-the-monster/), The Ash Angels (https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/spectres-spooks-and-supernatural-s-a-d/ ), and Black-Eyed Kids (https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/when-death-is-better-than-continuing-fear/) and was happy to see that they were brought together with extensive new materials on the Black Lands and a new story titled The Brick into this fantastic volume that blends the supernatural with a detective noir novel.

Ian Rogers twists and warps the natural world in his Black Lands stories, taking normal experience, normal reactions, and normal people and placing them into contexts where they are forced to face trickles of the weird drifting in from otherworldly portals from the monstrous Black Lands. This is a world where children, for generations told that the monsters that they imagined under their beds are now real and are taught how to cope with the monstrous in their school. A world with governments like ours who are coping with a populace afraid of invisible, sudden, and unexpected threats and are coping (much like ours) by keeping details secret and doing horrible things in their belief that they are preserving the public interest. Where in our world, government secrets, the policing of people, and militarism are focussed on issues like ideas of global threats like nuclear militarisation, the spread of viruses, environmental degradation, and ideas of border security, the borders of Ian Rogers’ world are that of the Black Lands, a realm of the monstrous where everything is potentially a predator, where secret agencies cover up public dangers, where disappearances could be related to the supernatural or to those who might be considered a public threat, where military groups are sent into the ‘enemy territory’ of the Black Lands, and where the Black Land portals can be considered a spreading taint that can appear without warning. Like in our world where the permanent, nascent fear of catastrophe has permeated aspects of social and political life, the Black Lands is highly politicised and represents the anxious currents of the world surrounding unknowable threats.

But, like in our world, the nascent anxiety of potential danger becomes a background noise, fearful whisperings in the dark, and people in the world of the Black Lands novels learn to ignore the reality of the monstrous threat that stands a thin reality line away in order to cope and live normal lives. They know that the world as they know it can change at a moment’s notice, that constant interruptions to the world that they view as normal are possible, likely, and increasing, but they cope with the low-level anxiety in order to maintain their thin conceptions of a normal world.

Rogers plays with the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary, illustrating how ordinary people can learn to cope with the introduction of the Weird into their everyday lives.

In the newest Black Lands story in this volume, The Brick, Ian Rogers focusses the idea of disruptions interrupting the norm on a place that most of us most associate with safety, security, and normal existence: The Home. Felix Renn is brought into a case involving a girl who disappears suddenly from her home, and, in his search to find her, encounters a real estate agent friend who specialises in buying and selling haunted houses. The house becomes an unsafe space, its insecurity and lack of safety exposed: Ian Rogers ‘Weirds’ the home, disrupting the safe blanket of domesticity that has become the foundation for Western modernity. Houses become things that can attack people, that can kill, that can be possessed… and even the bricks of the home itself can become infused with the ‘Weird’. They can be tainted spaces, infused with the miasma of the Black Lands.

Even people in The Brick can become tainted, contaminated by exposure to the Black Lands in a syndrome that has been labelled by society as “The Influence” and dubbed by Health Officials “Black Lands Syndrome”. The body, the most fundamental particle of our identity structure, can be changed, touched by darkness, and can become unfamiliar…. and more frightening…. the monsters can sense this taint and some like to keep their privacy enough to hunt the people who have contaminated THEIR world…

You can explore more about SuperNOIRtural Tales at Burning Effigy Press’ website at http://www.burningeffigy.com/ . To find out more about Ian Rogers and his other books, check out his website: http://www.ian-rogers.com/ . And, to feed your love of the Black Lands, there is even a Black Lands website at http://theblacklands.com/