Rating: 7.2 (out of 10)
In John Varley’s Eight Worlds novels, alien invaders have treated the humans of Earth much like the Europeans treated the First Peoples of North America—after killing off nearly all the planet’s population, they tolerated humankind’s presence on any of the other planets and moons in the solar system, provided they stayed out of the way of Earth’s new masters. The largest of the human settlements is on Luna, where the cradle of humanity remains in sight but depressingly out of reach.
Irontown Blues is the fourth novel Varley has set in the Eight Worlds backdrop, its guiding assessment of humanity’s course—big guy squashes little guy, little guy survives and adapts, bigger guy comes along, repeat and rinse—living at the tortured core of its hero, ex-cop turned private eye Christopher Bach. Like most of human society on Luna, Bach obsesses over the popular culture of pre-invasion Earth, especially the hard-boiled film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. He self-consciously models his speech patterns after classic noir heroes like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and sometimes other people are amenable enough to play along.
Bach also has a partner: his dog Sherlock, a Cybernetically Enhanced Canine (CEC) who has the intelligence level of a low-IQ human. A CEC’s thoughts translate to human language via computer, but present as incoherent babble until interpreted by a human intermediate, and Bach has neither the cybernetic implants nor the training to do so. Sherlock can only communicate with Bach through typical dog noises, though he understands far more human speech, and human behavior, than a non-enhanced dog can, and is often a greater help to Bach than even Bach is aware. Sherlock is no mere sidekick/foil for his nominal master—in many ways he is the novel’s co-protagonist. The chapters in Irontown Blues alternate between Bach’s perspective and Sherlock’s, with an interpreter named Penelope editing and providing a meta-commentary on his thoughts.
The novel begins the way any classic noir film would, with a woman and a case for Bach to solve. Someone who calls herself Mary Smith breezes into Bach’s office with a tale of woe. She had recently gone on a date with a man who wore genetically engineered leprosy like a fashion accessory. Unfortunately for Mary, he was also part of a sub-subculture of disease carriers who had illegally infected himself with a communicable version of the disease, so he could pass it on to unsuspecting people like her, a shits-and-giggles trend known as “exporting”. Mary nearly died from the attack and, badly crippled and disfigured, needs expensive therapy to repair the damage. She wants to find the sick bastard who did it to her and get the justice she deserves. The one problem is, the guy disappeared into the murky depths of Irontown, a refuge for outsiders and antisocial malcontents who distrust authority and prefer to stay off the radar. People who live in Irontown don’t enjoy being looked for, and the residents there work to keep it that way.
Irontown is to Chris Bach what Chinatown was to Jake Gittes, an allegory Bach explicitly makes for the reader. He was once a member of the police strike force that infiltrated Irontown as part of the nervous government’s crackdown on a group of separatists known as the “Heinleiners”, an invasion that quickly went south. The disaster was compounded by the fact that the circumstances were manipulated by the Central Computer, the once benevolent AI overseer of Luna that fractured and went partly insane, which also sent in its genetically enhanced foot soldiers in the Charonese Mafia. Historically, the incident is referred to as The Big Glitch. During the invasion, Bach is near-fatally wounded saving the life of a 10-year-old girl named Gretel, who in turn rescues him from certain death.
Anyone who has read Varley’s 1992 Hugo-nominated classic Steel Beach recognizes what’s going on here. Irontown Blues functions as something of a standalone sequel to that novel; Hildy Johnson, the reporter hero of Steel Beach, even makes a cameo in Bach’s Big Glitch flashback. It’s unnecessary to have read Steel Beach to understand what is happening in Irontown Blues, though having done so may provide a greater context for appreciating the events that spin out from it. After making the connection to Steel Beach, the narrative’s trajectory alters dramatically. Steel Beach was also something of a mash-up of classic cinema styling and Heinleinian libertarian political transformation (Hildy Johnson is the main character of the news media satire His Girl Friday; the Central Computer recalls “Mike”, the sentient supercomputer of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and Irontown Blues packs a lot of common sci-fi tropes (uplifted animals, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, generation ships, military SF, colony narrative, and so on) into its compact word count. It’s no wonder it veers off course as a crime novel halfway through.
The new course it takes offers something of a mixed bag for readers, especially in the last third of the story, when the explanation for the plot’s inciting incident gets a little flimsy. The strongest elements of Irontown Blues come in the long, traumatic flashback to events of The Big Glitch, and in the tender, affecting relationship between Bach and Sherlock. This novel will most likely be as appealing to dog lovers as it is to sci-fi nerds, and a boon to people who are both. Luckily, the heart of Irontown Blues outlasts the sometimes too obvious, but still modestly effective plotting.