Novel Review: Red Planet Blues

The prolific Robert J. Sawyer’s 2013 offering puts a hardboiled detective on Mars.

Title: Red Planet Blues
Author: Robert. J. Sawyer

First published in January 2013.
The first ten chapters were published (in variant form) in 2005 as “Identity Theft.”

ISBN: 0425256820, 978-0425256824

Available from, and, and as a Kindle.


A hardboiled gumshoe encounters mystery and danger on Mars’s frontier colony, populated by both biological humans and transplanted consciousnesses. And the heart of the mystery—the location of a prized deposit of ancient Martian fossils.

High Point:

This novel has its origin in Sawyer’s 2005 Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella, “Identity Theft,” which Red Planet Blues incorporates as the first ten chapters. Everything that works well about this novel appears in those chapters, with no room for excess or repetition. It’s an entertaining and often funny page-turner, it combines idea-driven SF with the mystery genre, and it deftly spans the adult and YA markets. Sawyer wrote himself a tough act to follow.

Low Point:

While I enjoy pop culture references and puns as much as the next nerd, Lomax’s need to continually make them, and then explain them, grew tiresome.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 We’ve seen the hardboiled detective in space before, though Sawyer puts his own spin on it. Of course, the novel has its origin (and initial chapters) in work Sawyer published previously, and some of the technology has been explored in his previous novels, most notably Mindscan.

Imagery: 5/6 Mars as the Yukon, with a futuristic colony that combines the old frontier towns with the parts of big cities that hardboiled detectives roam.

Story: 5/6 Sawyer’s greatest strength (other than his prolificacy) is his ability to develop exciting, page-turning plots from speculative concepts. Many hypothetical technologies appear in this novel, and each one influences the world and the plot in ways that make sense. Of course, since this is a noir mystery, the ending becomes deliberately convoluted.

Characterization: 4/6 The people of Red Planet Blues, while believable, have not been presented with a lot of depth. I recognize that Sawyer deliberately imitates the classic hardboiled detective here, but, in a novel of 300+ pages, the characterization falls short of expectations.

Emotional Response: 4/6 I greatly enjoyed “Identity Theft”—it’s one of Sawyer’s best. The rest of the novel, while entertaining, does not live up to its excellent first third.

Editing: 5/6 Sawyer writes in a straightforward, highly readable style.

Overall score: 5/6

In total, Red Planet Blues receives 31/42