Thin Air by Richard K Morgan

8/10 Spectacular visuals, outrageous savagery... deliciously dark and entertaining

Most of the people that want to kill me barely have the budget for a nice knife.

Hakan Veil, an ex-Overrider and now muscle for hire, is running hot after coming out of his four month hibernoid sleep rotation. All systems are cranked high, with emotion and aggression responses dialled right up to max, and that’s before everything turns to shit. Someone in the criminal underworld has aggressively disappeared a client he stepped in to protect on his last waking cycle and that’s the kind of disrespect that needs to be addressed in this town. On top of that, the COLIN oversight committee has arrived from Earth, here to investigate possible corruption following yet another person gone missing, this time of a ticket-home lottery winner. And guess who’s been ‘assigned’ (read: given zero choice) the task of protecting one of the high-ups, Madison Madekwe, by Bradbury PD? Yep. The guy with serious impulse control issues and a very problematic attitude towards authority. Drawn into her investigation and placed on somebody’s hit list, he’s right in the middle of the storm as all kinds of nasty secrets and underhand dealings emerge from the dark. Cue what seemed like a relatively minor task morphing into the mother of all fuck-ups, ably accelerated by brutal violence, deceit, and not a little death.

Given the recent Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon, the spectacular visuals, outrageous savagery, and another level tech on show here was exactly as expected. Except for the detail of this imagined frontier type Mars colony was beyond what I could have envisaged, utterly meticulous and all-encompassing. There’s no other choice but to believe wholeheartedly in this world, to see every aspect of it with blinding clarity, because it’s all there. All of it. I may be a newbie to sci-fi, but it boggles the mind when authors know their creations to this extent, whatever the genre. It did take me a long time to get to the end, because whatever else it is, it’s also hard work. The layers of assumed knowledge, technical vocab and Mars slang means that there’s sometimes a stutter in the flow, with sentences overloaded and bereft of sense. I had to reread often at the beginning, though maybe that’s a personal failure rather than an authorial one. It gets better for two reasons. The first being that Morgan does explain it all, specifically or in context so that reader understanding grows exponentially. The second that the staccato rapidity of Veil’s language and thought processes slow to match his physical status, running less hot as time moves forwards, changing the way he is presented. Everything is connected, not just the labyrinthine plot unfolded via Veil’s investigation, but the way it's all done. The author has a knack for character and expression that never ceases to surprise and amuse: I think you’d cut the laugh out of a toddler’s throat with a blunt scalpel if you thought you could sell it for cab fare. In fact, the commentary as a whole is deliciously dark and entertaining, but the themes and issues underlying the book have an unmistakeable contemporary relevance, a forceful questioning of the ways in which the masses are manipulated by business and government. It's a book that punches you in the face and then makes you think about why it happened.

As well as being ultra-violent, it’s also got some er… in-depth sex scenes. Yet the presentation of women is representative of the larger picture: as individuals with agency. It’s just another way the book surprised me. Veil might be an arsehole but he’s not entirely Mr. Misogyny. Sure, he’s got the attitude that women’s lives would be improved by a ride on what he’s got going on, but whether they decide to do so is all up to them. And he’s not afraid of putting in a bit of work, their pleasure is something he thinks about, but whether they enjoy it or not is entirely relative- this is not one of those books where women explode into orgasm as soon as the guy looks at them with purpose. There’s a great section where he’s interviewing a series of women about someone they’ve all chosen to have sex with and they all mention the impressive size of this guy’s dick. Veil gets more than a little irked by it, but is fully aware of his fragile ego, and so is the author, making the whole thing into a comedic episode that's genuinely funny. So there’s this effective clash between the way I expected Veil to be, how he thinks of himself, and how the women in the book respond to him. All of which has clearly been considered by Morgan. Women’s sexual choices are theirs to make, mistakes and all, same as the rest of their lives within the confines of whatever larger problems they have going on. It's well done. And the depiction of various ethnicities follows the same pattern. You're either being an arsehole or you're not, race and gender have nothing to do with it.

Overall, this was one of those books that made choosing a rating difficult. Sometimes it was a push to get through, but was fun and most importantly, memorable. Other reviewers have mentioned their disappointment that Hakan Veil is too similar to what Morgan has done before, but since I haven’t read anything else he’s written, I could just sit back and enjoy. And anyway, if that’s the case, it means that I have the benefit of a whole back catalogue I know I’ll appreciate too. Saying that, I did picture Joel Kinnaman as Veil, but I may just see him as every male sci-fi lead from now until the end of time so… it might just be a coincidence. Who knows?! While the noir style investigation/Mars colony corruption story is all wrapped up here, I’d be up for seeing more. There’s certainly scope for it. In the meantime, Takeshi Kovacs beckons…

ARC via Netgalley

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