Book review: Thin Air by Richard Morgan

Thin Air is Richard Morgan’s 2018 return to the SF genre. Morgan has recently become a household name, with the release of Altered Carbon on Netflix. Here’s the blurb on Thin Air:

“An ex-corporate enforcer, Hakan Veil, is forced to bodyguard Madison Madekwe, part of a colonial audit team investigating a disappeared lottery winner on Mars. But when Madekwe is abducted, and Hakan nearly killed, the investigation takes him farther and deeper than he had ever expected. And soon Hakan discovers the heavy price he may have to pay to learn the truth.”

Altered Carbon was well-received, although there were some reviewers who were offended by the ultra-dark, gritty vision of a post-human future. I personally thought that the Netflix version of Altered Carbon did a good job of realising Morgan’s novel. I really enjoy Morgan’s extreme darkness – an approach that makes the odd flash of bright something to be grasped and cherished – although I can also appreciate why some might think otherwise. 

Although he has been published in the fantasy genre, it has been almost eight years since Morgan’s last SF novel. Air is actually a continuation of the Thirteen storyline, though it isn’t necessary to have read Thirteen to enjoy Thin Air. However, given the fact that Altered Carbon is fact in the public eye, it’s inevitable that Air is going to be compared to Altered Carbon. Suffice to say, if you enjoyed Takeshi Kovac’s story arc, then it’s safe to say that you will also enjoy Thin Air too. Morgan’s trademark style is present here in spades: from the ultra-violence, to lurid sex scenes, to a blistering noir-style plot. 

What I find most remarkable about Morgan’s writing – and what really makes his books stand above those of his contemporaries – is his world-building. It really is second to none. In Thin Air, we’re presented with a dilapidated and post-expansion Mars – a world that is crippled by corporate greed and has become the resting ground for so many human dreams and ideals. Morgan effortlessly twists so many themes and elements into the setting, introducing characters who present off-shoots of this dark and empty world, while also threading elements – sometimes only very slender – of hope. It’s often the throwaway lines that stay with you: those asides that have no real relevance to the plot, but which really epitomise the setting. For example, Veil nonchalantly discusses the fact that alien signals have been detected by an observatory – but the observatory has fallen into disrepair because of lack of funding. There are far more pressing social and economic concerns for the people of the Valley than alien signals of unknown origin detectable from far-off stars… 

Morgan’s style is dense and brutal. The violence isn’t non-stop – far from it, as Veil often investigates first and acts later – but it is always present. Hakan Veil was made for this: he doesn’t shirk from a fight. This might put some readers off. It’s just as – if not more – gritty than the Altered Carbon trilogy. As a narrator and protagonist, Hakan Veil isn’t a particularly likeable or decent individual either. At the start of the story, he is more or less driven entirely by self-interest. He’s done some terrible things in his career, and he won’t let anything stop him from achieving his objective. In some ways Veil is a contradiction. He might detest the corporations, but they created him, and their ethos runs through his veins. Veil does soften through the novel, and (much like Kovacs in Carbon) he find a moral compass by the end of the story. 

In all, Thin Air is a triumphant return to the genre for Morgan. If you’ve enjoyed his SF or his fantasy novels, I think that you’ll enjoy Thin Air. Morgan’s style won’t find favour with everyone, but if you’re a fan of fast-moving and insight SF, then Thin Air is also a great start to reading this author. 

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