Irontown Blues (Book Review)

Irontown Blues is a riveting detective story, sprinkling bits of 1930’s neo-noir onto a science-fiction setting. Varley has laid out a smart sleuth tale, complete with a brilliant canine sidekick and a history that slowly unravels a story much deeper than the simple case our detective set out to solve. There’s a lot of brilliance here that begs to be read and imagined.

NOTE: I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest, unbiased review. I only publish reviews of books I enjoy, and this novel meets that criterion.

IRONTOWN BLUES

John Varley
Ace, August 2018

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QUICK SUMMARY

Christopher Bach is a private investigator stuck in the 1930s amidst the sprawling colonies on the Moon. When something smells fishy about a seemingly basic case, he goes to new lengths to solve the mystery. With the help of his faithful bloodhound, Sherlock, Bach travels deep into the underbelly that is Irontown, forcing him to face realities that shake him to his core.

Spoiler

WHY I LOVED IT

A BRILLIANT DETECTIVE STORY

Irontown Blues is a masterful use of the detective genre, beginning as a seemingly simple case and evolving into a many-layered tale of coverups and the bustling underground hiding below the Moon’s cities. The action is evenly paced, pairing current-day detective work with narration of past events. Varley inserts just what we need to know, holding back key details to keep the reader wanting more. I was impressed by the back-and-forth and how quickly I flew through this book. It was exciting, dangerous and thought-provoking.

A GOOD BOY SIDEKICK

At first, the inclusion of a dog named Sherlock seems to be pandering to detective fans. I didn’t mind. Surprisingly, Sherlock becomes integral to the plot as we learn more about him through translation of his thoughts. This plot device gives the book a new perspective I didn’t expect, adding another element that refreshes the ever-popular neo-noir detective settings. As an added bonus, his personality is hilarious and holds nothing back.

A NEW WAY TO THINK ABOUT SMELL

We take our open-aired planet for granted, and Varley makes sure we know it. I’ve never thought about the impact of smell within miles of enclosed space that has no natural air source. The Moon’s smell restrictions are equal part hilarious and fascinating, showing an administrative side I could never have imagined that makes perfect sense. Huge props  for adapting smell as a science fiction plot point.

THE MOON AS A CHARACTER

Varley held nothing back when describing his Moon setting. Gone are the stunted colonies of past literature with angry people trying to adapt to their closet-sized homes and freeze-dried food. He’s imagined a truly unique world complete with manufactured canyons and seasonal roofs that re-create Earth. There’s a unique system of laws, a thriving economy, a culture far beyond the stuffiness of Earth, and enough unique creations to delight the imagination. I began the book for the story and stayed for the brilliance of the author’s creations.

UNBRIDLED ORIGINALITY

I can’t get over how original Varley’s setting is. There’s a lot of imagination here, and these creations keep popping up throughout the book, leaving you excited to discover the next strange invention in this fascinating civilization. It’s a future you want to see for yourself.

To start, the themed neighborhoods are a treat to imagine, with people getting the opportunity to live within their fantasies. Interested in living in Hawaii? There’s a neighborhood for that. Want to stay within the dark and dreary streets of a 30’s detective film? It’s waiting for you.

The inclusion of dinosaurs also made for a novel concept. When I typically think of civilizations on the Moon, they’re cramped with limited power, space and resources. In this version, there are no limits. Dinosaur pets are the rage, and one of the Moon’s oldest inhabitants is an ENORMOUS herbivore living deep under the surface. It’s Jurassic Park without the mayhem and the lawsuits.

Varley’s take on body modification was especially horrifying. This concept has been quite common in the books I’ve reviewed over the past few months, but he takes an approach I haven’t seen. Instead of enhancements that improve a person, it’s popular to scar yourself with diseases of the past. It’s a strange, twisted look at bored people exerting originality.

INDIVIDUALITY UNDER ATTACK

There’s an interesting sub-story here about individuality and the lack of it in a highly enhanced population. People look the same with their body modifications and their similar lifestyles. While the Moon seems like a great place filled with freedom, the past events prove otherwise. True freedom isn’t something most people have, and those who lived on the outskirts were prosecuted for becoming too advanced. It’s a conversation on the dangers of a society that is fully integrated digitally. When we begin to lose what makes us unique, what’s the point of it all?

CONCEPTS

Detective, Neo-Noir, Moon, Future, Technology

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  • Interested in more books like Irontown Blues? Check out our book reviews here.
  • Photo by Ed Leszczynskl on Unsplash
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One thought

  1. It’s a long, long time since I read any John Varley novel, probably not since Titan and Demon. So to read your review I was surprised he’s still out there (I mean, alive) and writing.

    Though I do have to say this one sounds an awful lot like classic Heinlein revisited and upgraded for a modern sensibility. That said, I might look out for a copy to read and review for myself.

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