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Irontown Blues
by John Varley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

I received a free e-book of this title from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

It's been at least twenty years since Varley mentioned this title in an interview, and a few years after that he admitted he was having difficulty finishing it, perhaps hadn't decided on the style he wanted to use. Varley being one of my favorites, and this being another addition to his Eight Worlds sequence, I've been looking forward to it for much too long. Unfortunately it did not live up to my expectations.

It's enjoyable enough, written in a somewhat noirish style, while also being a quick, breezy read, with quite a bit of humor in spite of some darker elements. Perhaps he should have worked on it some more, altered the style a bit. As it is, there are three different first person narrators, when two would have sufficed with slight revisions, or even just one. The first to speak is Christopher Bach, a private investigator in Luna, fascinated with detective fiction in book and film versions. Luna is home to many unique neighborhoods, with Central Computer able to recreate almost any style of housing and cityscape, as long as there are enough individuals wishing to live and work in such an environment. Bach lives in Noir Town, in a block reminiscent of 1930s Los Angeles on Old Earth. The next block along is patterened after the 1940s, then the '50s, etc.

As most hard-boiled private eye tales begin, a mysterious woman comes to Bach, pleading for him to investigate a man who purposely exposed her to a designer disease...leprosy. There is a segment of the population that is fascinated by such Old Earth perils, since they can experience it for a thrill, all the while knowing modern medical techniques can reverse the condition quickly. Except this time, the leprosy is apparently not curable. Who would do something so despicable, and how can Bach track them down? Why he doesn't trail 'Mary Smith' when she leaves his office is one of the first clues Varley will be playing with the narrative. He has a bloodhound named Sherlock, a Cybernetically Enhanced Canine, who could easily track her, but Bach waits several days for that, and by that time the scent has diminished. Sherlock alternates as narrator, or I should say his comments are translated and relayed by a CEC whisperer, Penelope Cornflower. Sherlock is a very smart dog who thinks most humans are stupid, including his owner. Most of the humor is provided by Sherlock.

Everything is being related after the fact, not while the events are happening. I'm not sure if it would have been better to eliminate Penelope and let Bach and Sherlock narrate, or whether it should have just been Sherlock. Bach isn't cybernetically enhanced himself, as almost everyone else in Luna is, so he can only communicate with Sherlock the conventional way, with the exception they have a system of Bach asking questions and Sherlock barking either once for yes or twice for no. There is a reason Bach doesn't have an implant, it is important to the plot, so Penelope may have been necessary...except for something that happens at the very end of the book, which should have allowed Bach and Sherlock to communicate directly and co-narrate the story. Another incongruency is the true identity of Mary Smith, who turns out to be someone Bach knew many years before. Several sections of Bach's narration are flashbacks to the Big Glitch, events that overlap the story in the 1992 novel Steel Beach. That was at least ten years prior to the current events, maybe as much as twenty, so it is understandable Bach would not recognize a woman whom he first met when she was only ten. But there is no reason that Bach would not have helped her without question if she had only revealed her identity. But then the book would have been even shorter.

I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads. A more accurate rating would be a bit more than that, but not quite 3.5. I'm glad it's finally been published, and the basic story is interesting, but the ending is too rushed. It mainly made me want to re-read Steel Beach. It's been over 25 years, and I know I've forgotten much about it, except that I liked it a lot then, so I'm wondering if memory is correct and it is better than this book. Unfortunately, I have too many other new books to read now, that will have to wait.


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