Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
The Science of Wonder
  Book Reviews by Jamie Todd Rubin
March 2013

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

The grandfather of science fiction editors, John W. Campbell, once claimed that it was impossible to write a science fiction mystery. In order to solve the mystery, he argued, the author could invent a futuristic gizmo to aid his detective. To prove that this was pure nonsense, Isaac Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel, his first robot mystery novel. In that novel, Asimov demonstrated how a well-executed mystery novel could live within any setting, without needless concern of deus ex machina interference from the author.

I preface with this little anecdote because I think Robert J. Sawyer has taken up Asimov's banner in this respect and once again demonstrated that a good mystery is independent of the setting. And Red Planet Blues is a good mystery novel, and as the title suggests, it is set on Mars.

Alex Lomax is a private investigator who makes his living scraping the bottom of the barrel in the Martian prospecting town of New Klondike. But when he is hired to find the missing husband of a "transferee," he is unknowingly swept up into a larger drama -- the search for the mysterious "Alpha" site where early Martian prospectors found fossils of ancient life on Mars that kicked off "The Great Martian Fossil Rush." It turns out that many people are looking for this mysterious dig site as a pathway to riches. But there is one man, another "transferee" (a person whose consciousness has been uploaded into what is essentially a robot) who wants to protect the site and the fossils. He hires Lomax to help him do that -- and the action is just beginning!

Red Planet Blues touches on themes that have appeared in many of Sawyer's past novels. Mindscan went into great detail on the philosophical implications of uploaded consciousness. Sawyer's interest in fossils and fossil-hunting also emerge in his early Quintaglio novels. And in Frameshift, Sawyer displays his talent for mystery. All of these come together in Red Planet Blues with less of the philosophy of the previous novels, and more tongue-in-cheek.

Indeed, unlike many of his novels in which the protagonists are generally nice, well-meaning people (I'm thinking particularly of Rollback and the Neanderthal Parallax), Alex Lomax is perhaps best described as a not-so-nice, well-meaning person. He is a scoundrel at times, thinking only of himself, but you still can't help liking him.

Red Planet Blues resurrects the noir mystery, the gold rush western, and the science fiction adventure and the result is a unique, fun story that keeps you guessing, keeps the pages turning, and manages to put a smile on your face every few pages, in spite of the pulse-pumping action and adventure.

Title: 11/22/63
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner

There are only a handful of time-travel stories that I have found truly stunning. Robert Silverberg's Up the Line is one. Connie Willis' Blackout/All Clear is another. And now Stephen King joins the list with his late 2011 novel, 11/22/63. I first read 11/22/63 when it came out in November 2011. The paperback edition was released in mid-2012. I recently finished reading the book for a second time and found it to be one of the few books I've reread that is even better upon the second read.

On its face, 11/22/63 appears to be a well-worn time travel story about the time traveler who goes back in time in order to prevent the assassination of John. F. Kennedy. Dozens of stories have attempted this trope, to the point of cliche. But 11/22/63 is not what it appears. For while it is indeed Jake Epping's mission to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination, something he considers a "watershed moment," it is also the story of Jake Epping trying to make up for his own past mistakes -- something out of his control -- by correcting the mistakes of others -- something that is entirely within his control.

King establishes some intriguing ground rules for his time travel tale. The time tunnel -- what Jake refers to as "the rabbit hole" is inside a burger joint in a small town in Maine. It was first discovered by Jake's friend, Al, who runs the burger joint. Passing through the rabbit hole, Jake arrives in the same Maine town, on the afternoon of September 9, 1958. Indeed, each time he goes back through the hole, it resets all of the past. So, if you change something in the past, and come back to the present, that change will remain intact. But the instant you pass back through the rabbit hole into the past, you are back on the afternoon of September 9, 1958, and everything you did on your previous visit has been reset.

The other quirk to this is that no matter how long you are gone in the past, when you return to the present, only two minutes have passed. This is important because Jake's friend Al is dying and before Jake can take over Al's mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination, he first must prove to himself that the past can change. He does this by going back to Derry, Maine, to prevent the crippling of one of his adult education students. Fans of Stephen King's work will enjoy the return to Derry and the encounters with some familiar characters. (Can you remember what was happening in Derry, Maine in 1958?)

Jake spends two months in Derry before successfully completing his mission. He returns to the present to report to Al before going back to the past in order to take on the real mission -- preventing the Kennedy assassination. Of course, in going back, he resets everything and feels compelled once again to prevent the crippling in Derry. Eventually, Jake makes his way to Texas where he becomes a teacher in the town of Jolie, while he scouts Dallas and spies on Lee Harvey Oswald.

And then something completely unexpected happens to Jake: he falls in love. This becomes the real power of the novel. In the midst of his trying to manipulate history, Jake falls in love and this love becomes something both wonderful and distracting. Certainly is jeopardizes his chances of doing what he came to do.

When the novel first came out, I saw complaints that it was slow in places, that it dragged on. I supposed this depends on your perspective. Stephen King spins a fantastically complex tale, and he delves deeply into the characters involved. If you've read It then you have some idea of what that means. There were probably one or two passages that seemed slow on my original read. But that was more than made up for by the spectrum of emotions the story pulled from me, from wild laughter to painful tears.

11/22/63 is an absolutely breathtaking time travel novel, one that lingers in your mind for days and weeks after you've finished. It had the same powerful effect on me as Connie Willis' Doomsday Book. And like really good leftovers, it was even better the second time around.

Read more by Jamie Todd Rubin


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