John P. Murphy’s 2020 Red Noise is a deep-space spaghetti Western. It is his debut novel.
The Miner (who has gone to great trouble to conceal her true name) arrives at Station 35 with a load of nickel-iron. Her plan is simple: sell the metal, restock, renew her asteroid claim, and head back out into space where she can be alone with her books and plants.
She soon discovers that Station 35’s central ethos is not customer satisfaction.
The dead man orbiting Station 35 is the first warning the Miner gets that all is not right with Station 35. The next clue is a message from a fellow spacefarer warning her off from docking at Station 35. Almost out of fuel, and unwilling to accept the offer of fuel from the stranger, the Miner ignores the warnings. She docks at Station 35.
Station 35 is run by Anaconda Consolidated … sort of. Oh, they handle metal purchasing. Their insultingly low bids are the only game in town. Otherwise, the Station is divided between three mutually hostile gangs: Old Man Feeney’s collection of poorly disciplined losers, former Feeney lieutenant Angelica de Rio’s somewhat more polished goons, and Tom McMasters’ private security staff. Easily bribed McMasters enforces a ban on firearms, but otherwise leaves the gangs alone. When the Miner arrives at Station 35, Feeney’s and del Rio’s gangs have settled into a simmering mutual hostility.
The crooked Portmaster sees in the Miner only another sheep to be fleeced. Confident in the leverage that monopoly grants, the Portmaster undervalues the Miner’s metal, forcing her to choose between restocking her ship or renewing her claim licence. The intention is to steal her claim out from under her. The outcome is to annoy a visitor who turns out to be a highly enhanced combat cyborg.
If the status quo means losing her way of life, then the status quo needs to go. Conveniently for the Miner, the situation on Station 35 is unstable, needing only the right catalyst to transform rivalry into open war. The Miner is that catalyst.
I was thrown by the worldbuilding in this book.
- Space craft seem to consume fuel even when docked. I suppose the drain could be for life-support and other habitat systems, but … that usage would seem to be minor in comparison to the fuel used while boosting and maneuvering.
- Why would anyone bother mining asteroid nickel-iron when more valuable ores exist?
This is Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in space. Spaghetti Western fans may prefer Leone’s Yojimbo knock-off A Fistful of Dollars or, if you are of a more literary bent, Hammett’s Red Harvest, to whose plot Yojimbo’s bears much resemblance. The Miner fills the role of Kurosawa’s ronin Yojimbo aka Leone’s the Man with No Name aka Hammett’s Continental Op.
Readers might then wonder: how well does the book riff on the originals? Why read this book rather than rewatching Yojimbo?
Well, Red Noise does recapitulate the originals: opposed gangs, helpless civilians, and a grimly determined antagonist caught between them. But it doesn’t do much more than that. The Miner, homicidal skills aside, is more defined by what’s not known about her than what is, and there’s a stark absence of characters whose demise the reader is likely to much regret. The prose is competent but unremarkable. There’s a Romeo and Juliet subplot, but the book is otherwise same old same old.
In the old days when interplanetary adventures were much rarer than they are now, I’d have been pleased to encounter this. In this modern era, when I am spoiled for choice even in this very specific genre, the bar has been raised. I don’t actively resent having read Red Noise, but I probably wouldn’t reread it.