The Blood Red Sphere
Swimming Kangaroo Books, 2009
I’m not quite sure where or when I came across The Blood Red Sphere in Publisher’s Weekly of all places (I’ve noticed that PW loves to toss in some small press reviews amongst the typical dross, particularly in the genre sections). Regardless, I’m glad I did since this small press pulp sci-fi adventure was a treat to read. The plot is fairly simple: Helios, a recovering addict of a hallucinogenic drug and a man with a haunted past, makes his way by recovering and selling Martian artifacts. The seedy, down-on-his-luck vibe lends a sort of Indiana Jones come Phillip Marlowe vibe to the character; though Helios comes off a bit more straight faced than either of those characters. Anyway, as any good pulp story should, The Blood Red Sphere kicks off with a beautiful and mysterious woman who is more than she appears at first glance. She hires Helios and his “equalshare” (i.e. partner) to recover some artifacts supposedly stolen from her late husband. This seemingly innocuous request spirals outward into a rather complex and expertly woven web of mystery, betrayal, and adventure. Barker, whose only other work I could find is a horror novel called Renfield, has created an exciting tale that hearkens back to classic pulp sci-fi while also managing to create a fascinating world rife with vibrant characters and a surprisingly deep history.In fact the characters in the novel, including Mars itself are perhaps what elevate this novel just enough to make it such a compelling read. Barker has created a deep and fleshed out world with a vibrant, and occasionally, dark history that begs further exploration. Helios’s job takes him across different areas of Mars and his encounters with its various factions and individual denizens means that the slow revelation of Mars itself occurs more or less naturally over the course of the narrative (or, at the least, the info dumps come in small, manageable, bursts). Perhaps my favorite part of Barker’s Mars are the failed experiments in genetically engineering humans capable of thriving in Mars’ atmosphere. They are not unlike Firefly’s Reavers, monstrous bogeymen who when encountered are harbingers of fates worse then death. I was also fascinated by the mysterious Combine, human beings joined into a super-computer collective conscious, or the strange denizens of the Oort Cluster who are forced to wear mechanical exoskeletons when visiting Mars. Barker throws in tons of other fascinating tidbits about his world from the re-emergence of Old Norse religion to the political aspirations of the Oort Cluster syndicates and cold drive to assimilate of the Combine. Barker’s novel is full fascinating denizens that are more fleshed out in terms of back story than one would initially expect.
Barker manages to create a fascinating social system with regards to Martians by marking a clear divide between city Martians and “wild” Martians. The city Martians are a servant underclass to the human colonists; slaves at worst and indentured servants at best. City Martians are smaller in size and frequently kept compliant with San Pedro juice, the hallucinogenic substance that Helios was once addicted to. The subjugation and exploitation of a native population is an element with historical precedence that lends the novel a bit of a frontier feel. The Martians, who communicate via a complicated form of sign language (they are six limbed) and vocalizations, manage to come off as rather distinct characters from the fastidious and jumpy Martian employed by Helios and Barabbas to the enigmatic and mysterious Martian that dogs Helios throughout the novel. The Martians are the novel’s only real native extraterrestrials and Barker manages to use the aforementioned post-humans (Combine, Oort Cluster dwellers, etc.) to create a much more diverse feel to the novel.
While the classic hard-boiled plot elements Barker employs lend the novel a certain level of predictability the short chapters, vibrant world, and all around quick pacing of the novel combine to create an fast paced, exciting read that makes for excellent beach reading. While I don’t see The Blood Red Sphere winning any major awards it is still a solid, well-told science fiction tale that deserves a bit of attention. I’ll certainly be keeping any eye out on future novel’s by Lawrence Barker and hope that one day he returns to his version of Mars.