Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan is the latest book by the author of the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies) and especially Thirteen/Black Man, the last of which is set in the same universe as Thin Air. Morgan is known for his futuristic, noir, sci-fi thrillers featuring ultra-violent, surgically enhanced, anti-heroes who often have a weak spot for the underclass in society. He is one of my favorite authors and I have wanted to read Thin Air since I learned this book was in the work in 2015. I bought it on Amazon and it arrived on its publication date but I delayed reading it until the holidays.
In Thin Air the protagonist is named Hakan Veil, an Earth-born mercenary who has been trapped on Mars for over a decade (earth years) after his last job protecting a space ship for a mega-corporation ended in a way displeasing to his bosses and almost fatally for the nearly indestructible Veil.
One notable feature of all Morgan’s work, which is one reason that it is catapulted to the top of my must-read lists, is his ability to convey a sense of place, culture and history in the settings of all his books, regardless of genre. Typically this feature of novels is referred to as “world building” but with Morgan the term doesn't do justice to the immersive nature of his writing. Although he is primarily known for his hard science fiction, he has also written an epic fantasy trilogy called A Land Fit For Heroes (The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands, The Dark Defiles) which also has a fascinatingly complicated backstory and setting.
The Mars of Thin Air is a compelling, technologically advanced, market-driven dystopia, with a rich history and multicultural, multi-ethnic populace struggling under the stewardship of staggeringly corrupt political and juridical officials. Morgan embeds his story in the long colonial history of the red planet under the forces of COLIN (the Colonization Initiative), an entity which has appeared in several of Morgan’s science fiction works set in the far future of humanity. COLIN is the organization which is responsibility for the expansion of humanity into the solar system and beyond. The author also describes a civilization on the red planet which is buffeted and sculpted by the amorality of corporate greed, organized crime and unregulated capitalism.
Morgan begins Thin Air in medias res as he thrusts the reader into a setting where Veil immediately maims and kills people, some of whom appear to be innocent bystanders but some who are also clearly responsible for horrible acts themselves. The effect is that we as the reader are not really sure if we are to identify positively or negatively with Veil as the protagonist of the story. Is Veil a hero or a villain? Morgan likes his characters to be morally nuanced, with situational ethics and malleable loyalties, and Veil is another example of this type.
Another feature of Morgan’s work are his bewilderingly intricate plots and Thin Air is no exception to this rule. The primary plot is centered around Veil’s task of protecting a COLIN Earth functionary who has come to Mars to investigate the curious case of an Earthbound lottery winner who disappeared before he could collect his prize. This reveals some obvious corruption (cui buono?) and the fact that several powerful forces are trying to control and dominate the future of Mars society. Of course, at some point Veil loses contact with his charge and it becomes clear that she may not be who she appears to be and that there is far more to the disappearance of the erstwhile lottery winner than meets the eye at first blush.
Overall, Morgan’s Thin Air is an exciting, action-filled and intelligent take on a suspenseful mystery thriller set in a dystopian future society on Mars. If you like any of Morgan’s previous work (especially Thirteen) you will almost certainly also enjoy Thin Air. A lot.
Title: Thin Air.
Author: Richard K. Morgan.
Paperback: 544 pages.
Date Published: October 23, 2018.
Date Read: December 30, 2018.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★★ (5.0/5.0).
OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).