The Martian Motherlode

Red Planet Blues

If ever evidence of extraterrestrial life is found on Mars, humans may react to that in a manner quite contrary to how we think they’ll respond. The development may not trigger awe, euphoria, panic, or fear—but greed, as Robert J. Sawyer reckons in “Red Planet Blues.”

A blend of Raymond Chandler and Isaac Asimov, it’s a hard-boiled fiction in an off-Earth setting, where everyone wants to get a piece of the action, and they’ll duke it out on a cold, dusty, plain inside a very old crater on Mars. Which makes it a science-fiction, of course. To this end, Sawyer weaves morsels of astronomy into the storyline, but they neither elude grasp, nor dampen the non-top excitement the novel delivers.

In the early phase of the planet’s colonization, the serendipitous discovery of a virgin fossil field by two private explorers had set off a scramble. Hordes of goggle-eyed treasure-seekers flocked to the planet next-door, with the zeal of gold prospectors, who’d migrated to the Klondike region of the Canadian Yukon, when miners struck gold there at the turn of the 19th century.

Around that influx, sprang the Martian town of New Klondike, a domed outpost with radial streets and concentric avenues. Everyone hoped to strike it rich with their pickings of the most exquisite pieces of “paleontological gold.” In the future, when nearly everything could be 3D-printed and replicated, there was no “greater status symbol” than to own the genuine remains of an alien vermin, turned to stone.

No one had been able to locate the fabled geological bed, though. Its coordinates remained a secret, known only to the pioneers—both of whom died, when their spaceship burned up on their trip back home—and one other person: a milquetoast paleontologist, who’s fighting tooth and nail to protect the ore for the benefit of science. Everyone else is out to get rich, quickly, and live happily ever after. The lure of the money-spinning mother lode is so great that it makes characters emerge out of the woodwork, among them a daring writer from India; a Japanese heir to a prized journal.

Presently, the Great Martian Fossil Rush is long over. The stampede has petered out. The streets are paved with the shards of shattered dreams. Martian life is cheap, but monotonous and humdrum. Petty crime is rife. Business is brisk—but in one downtown establishment.

Alex Lomax, the sole private eye on that world, is in business when a putatively immortal “transfer”—an individual who’s had his mind uploaded into a humanoid body—is found dead. It gets even odder, when the autopsy reveals that this body had no mind, literally: the gray matter had no matter.

What fuels the plot is the procedure of “mind transfer,” by which a human brain converted from cells into circuits, and stored in a non-biological device, till it’s then “pasted” seamlessly into a facsimile body.

This clip demonstrates that concept. LIFE is a fictive firm that deals in the preservation of human consciousness after a person has ceased to exist in matter. Like any other technology, this too, is prone to be exploited by charlatans and crooks.

The killer is someone who’s inserted his or her mind into a body intended for somebody else’s mind, leaving him to wonder what he or she did with the other mind.

Sawyer, a Hugo and Nebula award-winning writer, has a provocative take on the age-old crime of homicide, and the relatively modern one of identity theft. That isn’t surprising. He told Kirkus Review in an interview that the novel is an expansion of his earlier novella, “Identity Theft.”

The thieves of tomorrow won’t steal personal data, but a person’s face and body. A criminal may play a game of mix and match, and plug his or her consciousness into the body of an innocent person; the innocent person’s, into his or hers, and acquire a safe and permanent disguise.

But anyone with an access to a free-floating consciousness may do worse. By altering a few lines of codes, a person can not only move his or her consciousness into another body, but also “delete” the other person’s consciousness, which, in essence, would be tantamount to murder.

Lomax’s investigation has a domino effect. Over and above a dead body, there’s a disembodied mind and a pirated edition of a clever mind, the ultimate invasion of privacy.

The trail leads him to a lander, buried deep in the frozen red soil. When he opens its hatch, and clambers down into it, he stumbles into yet another corpse. That alters his knowledge of past events: an astronaut thought to have perished in an accident is found to have been marooned by his gay partner, in the heat of a lover’s spat; what was understood to be a long, routine flight from Earth to Mars, turns out to be an odious drama of sexual abuse of passengers by a member of the crew. Sawyer likely named the spaceliner B. Traven after Bruno Traven, who penned the 1934 novel, “The Death Ship.”

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