Posts Tagged ‘Robert J. Sawyer’

Red Planet Blues – Robert J. Sawyer (2013)

January 13, 2017

red-planet-bluesAuthor Robert J. Sawyer is obviously a film noir buff based on the many references, both overt and surreptitious in his novel Red Planet Blues. The noted science fiction author is no stranger to mystery fiction as several of his novels focus on courtroom drama as plot elements but here he takes it up a notch as his protagonist is an old school gumshoe who has to solve several enigmas on Mars starting off with a good old fashioned murder.

The cover of the novel states that it contains Sawyer’s highly lauded novella “Identity Theft” which I had not read prior. But reading the plot arc of the first few chapters it was clear that that first section was the novella, which I found to be both a source of great pleasure and at the same time a mild annoyance as I’ll explain.

In the not too distant future after a pair of explorers discovered fossils of ancient life on the planet, Mars now sports a dome city of New Klondike that operates much like the Dawson City which once rose from the ashes of the Gold Rush. Like gold, the commodity of highly valued fossils is now a scarce resource of riches – meaning that New Klondike and it’s denizen have seen better times. With transformance technology available to those rich enough to afford it people can discard their frail and eventual terminal bodies and migrate their consciousness into android bodies. These so called Transfers are not only durable and stronger and may have optional specialized upgrades, but they can also be manufactured to look like anyone. Some opt to look like their former selves – perhaps with a few esthetic ‘touches’ – or they can be any celebrity, or just a complete redesigned human.

When a woman enters Alex Lomax’s dingy detective agency seeking help to find her missing husband we may as well be seeing Ingrid Bergman meeting Humphrey Bogart but without the cigarettes. The simple case turns out to be much more complex as Lomax learns that a physical Transfer can really have any former person within the new shell.

But once past the “Identity Theft” plot arc the novel takes up where the novella left off and delivers a much more complex story regarding the rediscovery of the long lost ‘mother lode’ of fossils which created the initial frenzy. From there we get many twist and turns to secure that knowledge, a bevy of new characters – both human and transfer, good and evil – all vying for different personal goals. This extension of the original storyline, while not altogether inadequate is not as intriguing. Like any good mystery it does have a number curves in the plot and and does tackle some new ground, but at the same time it does stretch elements to the point of incredulity.

The “Identity Theft” portion is a great tale, full of suspense and serves a great plot twist at the end. As a standalone whodunit story it is easy to see how it garnered both Hugo and Nebula nominations and is worth the price alone of the book. As for the rest, it’s interesting but certainly not Sawyer’s best. The character of Lomax was really what kept me going on as he certainly was a likeable yet imperfect character that perfectly fits the film noir mold and one I hope Sawyer gets back to him at some point.

Last but not least, the novel has many notable ‘nods’ that I always find enjoyable. The brief ‘tip of the hat’ include one to Ray Bradbury, and even the oft forgotten Raymond Z. Gallun. More interesting is naming one of the spaceships Katherine Dennings which makes me wonder if Sawyer is a fan of the actress (not that that is a problem as I’m a fan myself). And finally, Planet of the Apes fan, Sawyer being an avid one, will be sure to get a particular short descriptive sector that certainly had me smiling.

Here’s looking at you Rob, as I tip my fedora until the next adventure.

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Mindscan – Robert J. Sawyer (2005)

July 13, 2015

Mindscan-SawyerChances are that if you’ve read a few other novels from Robert J.Sawyer you may have discovered that he likes to add court room conflict to his stories (Illegal Alien, Hominids). He also likes to play around with the definition of human, or more accurately, what constitutes human souls and sentience (The Terminal Experiment, Rollback). In his 2005 novel Mindscan, he tackles both and, as always, with a special twist.

In a near future where mankind has just developed the capability to place a person’s consciousness into a robotic body, some of the affluent but elder begin taking up Immortex corporation’s new Mindscan process. Basically a snapshot copy of your brain is deposited into a robot body mimicking your own (or a slightly improved version). They idea is that your consciousness in the robot becomes an immortal instantiation of yourself. People signing up remain in their current bodies, but they go to pasture on the Moon in a specifically isolated Eden-like community to live out their remaining days. Meanwhile, their new robot selves take up the lives on Earth of the former flesh and blood versions.

No problem, right?

Of course there are problems. When wealthy young Jake who has a brain condition that may turn him into a vegetable at any moment takes the Mindscan plunge he doesn’t take into account certain factors that will make him regret his decision. Unfortunately for Jake, he soon realizes there are obstacles to coming back and resuming his own life. Is it really even his to take back? Meanwhile, his robotic self has also hooked up with a woman who has undergone the process. But when her ‘skin’ dies of natural causes on the lunar surface, her son decides that he is entitled to his inheritance, robot copy be damned.

While a precedent setting court case investigates all the science and philosophical implications on Earth to decide the issue of the inheritance, Jake is staging a showdown of his own with the Immortex cronies on the Moon.

Coming off the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hominids, Humans, Hybrids) one and the overlapping plot points, one can easily imagine that this novel was conceived while writing the latter series. The characters are interesting enough, the science is cool, but as always it’s the deeper implications that are driving factors in the story. Sawyer always provides interesting (and cool) stories even if the prospects aren’t exactly ‘near future’.

One problem I had was that those undergoing the procedure gave little thought to the fact that their current entities would indeed remain in their current bodies, thus really negating any benefits for the current ‘self’. The procedure makes a copy that lives on, but the original is left right back where they were before the procedure. Indeed, it’s clear that they are agreeing to being shuffled off (literally) to the far side of the Moon for their remaining years. This seems to come as something of a shock for our protagonist Jake which seems outlandish.

While it has a few logic flaws there is never a boring moment and with his ever present touch of Canadiana, this is another fine novel that Sawyer fans will be delighted with. Oh, and given that Rob is a devoted fellow Planet of the Apes fan, be sure to be on the lookout for a nice nod to the original movie.

Hybrids – Robert J. Sawyer (2004)

November 10, 2010

The final installment in the Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax seemed to just be coasting along and just continuing the storyline rather blandly and I felt I was only reluctantly reading it at first. But somewhere near the middle, the pace and intrigue picked up as a formidable plot started to unfold. With the inter dimensional portal between our universe and the parallel neanderthal universe firmly in place, the established characters (see Homonids and Humans) begin to make some long term plans and more permanent living arrangements.

Unfortunately, having seen the picturesque and pollution free neanderthal world as a veritable paradise, the Rand corporation financed team leader gathering research data from the alternate universe begins to see more than just a friendly neighbor type of a relationship. The prospect of starting with an untainted fresh world leads him to devise a scheme to take over that world and needless to say, our protagonist inter-species couple, Ponter and Mary, find themselves in the middle of it all.

While a second major plot-line deals with how religion as a concept is perceived differently between our two species and whether it is a genetic trait or a developmental one, a third and final plot-line deals with the couple intent on procreating a child, which of course is not that easy seeing as humans have an extra chromosome compared to our neanderthal cousins.

Sawyer manages to tie all these plot-lines together and delivers a satisfying climax that closes all the loose elements to end the series. My one complaint would be with the events at the actual climactic point in the novel that occurs as the New Years count down ceremonial ball descends during the last 10 seconds of New Years eve in Times Square in New York. The reader is forced to suspend belief as a scientific pivotal moment thousands of years in the making happens at that exact time with our protagonists at such location. Overly dramatic and unnecessary.

Humans – Robert J. Sawyer (2003)

August 23, 2010

Humans – Robert J. Sawyer (2003)

Sequel to Homonids and the second installment in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, Robert J. Sawyer’s Humans takes up right where we left off in Homonids.

The temporary portal that had been created in which Neanderthal Ponter Boddit first crossed over from his dimension into our own, and which was recreated for his rescue, has been recreated after much deliberations from the Neanderthal ruling council. Instead of creating a small portal, a much larger and semi-permanent one is created. Ponter, who wishes to return to our world to reestablish his relationship with the human DNA researcher Mary Vaughan, convinces the council that he should be the one to go. They agree, but this time send an official ambassador along as well.

While much of the differences between the two worlds was established in Homonids, this novel focus on the relationships between the two societies as a whole and the deepening personal relationship between Ponter and Mary.

The pros and cons of creating a permanent cultural and technological exchange between the two societies are explored. Much is made of the violence in ours, but also the technological advances with respect to the Neanderthals.

A subplot centers around the courting of Ponter by the female Neanderthal that brought Ponters male companion to trial for his assumed murder in the first novel. Ponter must decide if his eventual future will be one he shares with Mary or his own kind.

While it was a fine novel, the novelty of the cross dimension Neanderthal has worn a bit thin in this second installment. I also found the attempts at intrigue to fall short of the background story presented in Homonids.

I’ll have to get to the final installment, Hybrids, soon, but I confess that I hope it has more to offer than this one.

Hominids

February 3, 2010

Hominids – Robert J. Sawyer (2002)

Hominids is the first book in Robert. J. Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy and was the winner of the best novel Hugo (2003). The story is about a parallel universe in which neanderthals, which for a period in time roamed the Earth along with primitive humans (setting aside the debate as to whether neanderthals were a distinct species or a link in the human evolution tree) ended up as the dominant species. In this novel, in their universe, it was humans and not themselves that became extinct. But their evolution progressed as did our own and they evolved into a civilized society albeit radically different from ours. They have a smaller and more sedate society sharing a landscape with nature (and wholly mammoths!) while at the same time having highly advanced physics and other scientific marvels. They have embedded wrist semi-sentient AI driven devices that also record everything they do to remote archives.These Dick Tracy like devices are communicators/computers/companion/encyclopedia/camera/translator all in one package.

While performing quantum mechanics nuclear experiments in their underground laboratory, something goes terribly wrong for two neanderthal scientists and one of them, Ponter, ends up in our universe. He is transported within the structure of one of our own underground physics labs and is rescued by a group of scientists who enlist the help of an anthropologist to try to figure out exactly who and what the new visitor is. While the newcomer begins to integrate himself in our society, his partner, Adikor, is being put on trial for his supposed murder, as he seemingly was the last person in contact with Ponter before his mysterious disappearance. There is a lot more going on in the story as the neanderthals have a highly complex society dealing with issues of sexual orientation handled in a vastly different manner than our own, as well as a legal system intricately tied into the archives and the personal communicators of all citizens. On our side of things Ponter has to deal with our arcane world, it’s rules, our ghastly history (we did after all appear to have killed of all the remaining neaderthals), as well as a variety of other issues.

The story alternates between the events in the neanderthal world, and our own. Eventually the portal is reistablished, but broken again at the end of the story. But the mere fact that there are two other novels in the series leads on to surmise that the portal will resurface again.

A very entertaining story with significant research into the mechanics and science behind it all, with a few liberties taken to make the events more probable. Sawyer even manages to interject a bit of comedy while at the same time tackling the very serious implications of a horrific rape whose consequences ripple throughout the story.  I’ve already got the rest of the series sitting on my shelves, so I’ll get to them before too long.