Space Noir! A review of John Zakour’s The Blue Haired Bombshell.
The Detective is an archetype.
The fun thing about storytelling is how it draws from a collective cultural knowledge, giving authors the opportunity to work with a set of ‘stock’ characters, settings, and situations. Far smarter people than I have written far more eloquently than I can on the subject, so I won’t try to go into the academic theory of it all.
One of the easiest ways to twist any stock plot or character is to relocate the setting, and one of the most common ways to do that is to put it IN SPAAAAACE. Which brings us to John Zakour, who specializes in putting a sci-fi spin on noir-ish detective stories. I’ve read a few of his books before, so I snagged The Blue Haired Bombshell on a whim when I stumbled across it in one used bookstore or another.
Starting with The Plutonium Blonde, Zakour lays out the adventures of Zach Johnson, the last freelance PI on Earth. As befitting someone in his profession, he gets into all kinds of trouble, with noir and sci-fi tropes thrown together in a blender. So you have android femme fatales, cloned killers, that sort of thing. And along the way, Zach is helped out by HARV, his supercomputer AI sidekick that lives in his brain (but is holographically projected by his watch) for some reason.
As you might guess from the titles, these books are kinda silly.
Zakour tosses a bunch of little throwaway gags into his books. Just to name a couple from The Blue Haired Bombshell, you’ve got a vapid socialite named Madrid Ramada, a tabloid gossip channel called Vixen News, and a luxury hotel on the moon called the No Seasons. They’re cheap jokes, but I kind of admire Zakour for making them. On the whole, the tone is just short of Futurama- though without quite the satirical teeth.
Funny thing is, while Zach Johnson Earth’s last Detective, he doesn’t do all that much detecting. Oh sure, he runs into various femme fatales and criminals and so on, but it seems like Zach spends most of his time getting into fights, rather than searching for clues. It’s all very actiony, and Zach has access to a bunch of sci-fi gadgets, including GUS- the “Gun User System” AI built into his Colt 2062 omni-weapon. GUS is actually kind of fun, due to his ridiculous enthusiasm for shooting things. I kind of envisioned him as sounding like Yes Man from Fallout: New Vegas. (You guys should all go play Fallout: New Vegas, by the way).
So yeah. The Blue Haired Bombshell has an almost arbitrary plot, in which Zach goes to The Moon, where he gets chased around by various killer robots, genetically uplifted gorillas, and malevolent psychics while he tries to figure out who assassinated several members of Earth’s World Council before they could make a vote for Moon Independence.
The problem with The Blue Haired Bombshell is its thin setting; the entire premise of the novel’s plot falls apart once you look at it too hard. So, fair warning, I’m getting vaguely into Spoiler Alert territory here, in the slim chance you wanted to read this book for yourself. But still, here are a few questions I asked myself while reading the book:
- The Moon has a bunch of ridiculously powerful psychics on it (more on this in a bit). The Moon also wants to be independent from Earth. You’d think the ridiculously powerful psychic ladies would get the bright idea to mind control people into doing what they wanted.
- Oh, and the President of The Moon has a harem of a bunch of hot psychic women. Because, you know, as a politician, having nearly a dozen women who can read your mind and kill you with a thought is such a good idea. But the psychic women line up for him anyway! Because … reasons.
- Likewise on the “who thought this was a good idea?” front, Earth’s government has decided to put a giant tractor beam on the Moon in order to act as an Asteroid defense system. And then people are surprised when the Moon Separatists (Mooninites?) hijack the system in a supervillain-esque attempt to chuck an extinction level rock at Earth. Seriously, it’s like if the US went to Cuba and said “Oh hey, we’re just gonna leave these missiles here. Is that cool?”
And as if the paper-thin plot wasn’t enough, Zakour seems to have a thing for ridiculously powerful psychic women. With one exception (two, if you count the talking Lady Gorilla), every woman Zach meets in the book has mutant brain powers. Oh, and they’re gorgeous, of course (except for the talking Lady Gorilla). At least things don’t come off as too leering in terms of sexuality, since Zach has a fiance who he’s faithful to. That’s the main thing keeping me from wondering if Zakour has a weird mind control fetish or something.
Because there’s a lot of mind control shenanigans. And this isn’t even subtle stuff, either- as a rule, psychics can throw people around with telekinesis, control people’s minds with a word, and even throw around hadoken-like energy fireballs, as you do. If this were a video game or tabletop RPG, this would be where I’d start complaining about how broken the psychic class is. I’m all for powerful antagonists for a character to overcome, but when three fourths of the supporting cast in a book can literally solve their problems by thinking about it, to say the plot is ‘strained’ is a bit of an understatement. Especially since psychics on both Earth and the Moon seem to flaunt their power enough to make themselves an obvious threat to society as a whole, and yet nobody thinks to do anything about it (possibly due to all the mind control).
I understand what Zakour is going for in The Blue Haired Bombshell, and really in all of his Zach Johnson books. All he wants to do is write some rollicking adventures in which a dude shoots a raygun at robots and space gorillas. The thing is, with most of the focus on the action, The Blue Haired Bombshell isn’t much of a mystery. And with such a flimsy setting, it’s really not even good science fiction, either. Zakour’s definitely going for an absurdist setting, but his ‘satire’ doesn’t have any edge to it. The various gags about celebrity and consumerist culture pretty much boil down to “hey! This is a thing! Get it?”
It’s been at least two or three years since I last read any of John Zakour’s novels. Now I’m wondering if the earlier books in the series were better, or if I just forgot about whatever flaws they had? Either way, while I enjoyed The Blue Haired Bombshell, I still wasn’t particularly impressed.
Then again, at least it didn’t actively piss me off like the last Dresden Files book did, so that’s progress, maybe?