Futuristic detective noir. Sound like it’s been done before? From Heinlein to Clarke, Asimov to Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds to PKD, Ian Macleod to Ken Macleod, Adam Roberts to Lavie Tidhar- it has been done, and in fact is a dead horse unless something fresh is done with the motif. Looking to remain stale, ahem, looking to go retro, Robert J. Sawyer read Altered Carbon and decided to put it into the form of a 1950’s vintage pulp story, the 2005 novella Identity Theft the result. Unoriginal and simplistic—to say the least, the cat is out of the bag from the title onwards.
Identity Theft, in classic noir style, is the first-person story of Alexander Lomax, private eye for hire. A ‘transferred’ woman (a woman whose sentience has been lifted from her biological body and placed in a prosthetic body) named Cassandra Wilkins comes to his office on the first page, needing help finding her lost husband. As New Klondike, the Martian colony where the story takes place, is only “three kilometers in diameter, all of it locked under the dome”, Lomax expects to have an easy time finding Wilkin’s transferred husband. But finding the body is only the beginning of the story. Trickery and identity ruses popping up thereafter, Lomax has his work cut out for him to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Genre of old, Identity Theft even copies dialogue of the mid 20th century. "’My husband--oh, my goodness, Mr. Lomax, I hate to even say this!’ She looked down at her hands. ‘My husband ... he's disappeared.’" is one example. Another is: “She was actually wringing her synthetic hands. ‘Oh, Mr. Lomax, please help me! I don't know what I'm going to do without my Joshua!’”. Lomax’s investigation often meeting with other characters, conversation of a similarly delightful/nauseating tone (depending on perspective) is the result.
The desk sergeant was a flabby lowbrow named Huxley, whose uniform always seemed a size too small for him. "Hey, Hux," I said, walking over. "Is Mac in?"
Huxley consulted a monitor, then nodded. "Yeah, he's in, but he don't see just anyone."
"I'm not just anyone, Hux. I'm the guy who picks up the pieces after you clowns bungle things."
Huxley frowned, trying to think of a rejoinder. "Yeah, well..." he said, at last.
"Oooh," I said. "Good one, Hux! Way to put me in my place."
He narrowed his eyes. "You ain't as funny as you think you are, Lomax," he said.
"Of course I'm not," I said. "Nobody could be that funny. I nodded at the secured inner door. "Going to buzz me through?"
That excerpt may say more than can be described, so I will leave it at that.
Normally I’m quite bad at predicting endings, most often because I never invest the effort. But with Identity Theft, I never even had to try—not a good sign for a story that goes all-in on plotting. If the title doesn’t spell it out to the reader, then the gigantic winks and ‘accidental’ reveals from the first page onward leave little doubt. Everything panning out as expected, the novella is like a sample derived from the A-B-C template of sci-fi detective noir with no care taken to improvise.
In the end, Identity Theft is for readers looking for retro genre, and even then they may not be satisfied; the narrative is at times dreadfully simple. It also at times makes dreadful attempts at humor. “The couch was a threadbare affair on which I’d pursued many a threadbare affair” is a line Sawyer actually attempts to pull off. Possessing precious little of significance, the reader must look at the novella solely as an exercise in retro pulp if the time spent reading is to be considered worthwhile.