I put this review up on Goodreads, as it is more slapdash and less coherent than what I usually post here, and a lot of things I should have said are missing (either I’m too lazy or too busy). But I guess it is worth placing here as well anyway, considering how lame Goodreads is as a platform.
Richard K Morgan has long been one of my favorite science fiction writers. This book marks his return to science fiction after writing a fantasy trilogy. That trilogy was pretty good, but I found it intrinsically less interesting than his science fiction work, so this new novel is a welcome return to form. Thin Air takes place in the same universe as Morgan’s last SF novel, THIRTEEN (US title; it was originally called BLACK MAN in the UK), but it is not a sequel; the two books are entirely independent from one another. Morgan pulls off a difficult feat in all his texts: he gives us a central character who is essentially an ultra-macho superman (due, in the sf novels, to different varieties of technological body enhancement, as well as character), yet combines this with a degree of sensitivity to social and political concerns that one would not usually expect in this subgenre. For instance, Veil, the narrator and protagonist here, is emphatically not in the least misogynistic, even though this usually comes with the territory of ultra-violence and frequent sexual opportunities. The women he meets have agency, and sometimes the sex is… just bad. All of Morgan’s sf novels have interesting takes on the way neoliberal economics and governance work, extrapolated into various futures. Here Morgan again pulls off an impressive and difficult feat: he is sufficiently clear-eyed not to gild the lilly to the slightest extent, but instead to present financial domination and corporate/governmental impositions without even the slightest hint of redemptiveness; he wants to give us neoliberal capitalism in its full feral horror, even to rub our noses in it. There is nothing in this world besides rich people, and the corporations and governments they control, willing to go to any degree of destruction, torture, murder, and oppression in order to augment their profits. There is no line between criminal corruption, grand political manipulation, and totalitarian control; they are all the same thing. Yet at the same time, he resists the all too common temptation whereby this would slide into total cynicism. Morgan suggests that the worst speculations of Machiavelli and Hobbes are correct in how they view politics; and yet he maintains a sense of outrage about it all. His protagonists enjoy perpetrating violence, and their skills are largely for sale to the highest bidder; they don’t really have the stubborn integrity of those hardboiled noir detectives in novels and movies of the mid 20th century; and yet they aren’t simply amoral monsters, but suggest that there is at least a slim hope of getting beyond the atmosphere of atrocities that they inhabit (and do their bit to perpetrate). In Thin Air, Veil doesn’t really have a conscience, and yet he remains convinced (even if he himself doesn’t quite understand why or how) that something better than given social world is still possible. I am being vague here to avoid spoilers; this pattern is one that we see in all of Morgan’s science fiction in different ways. I am not sure Thin Air is quite as good either as the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (with its surprising meditations on the slim but not entirely in existent possibilities of socialist revolution in this neoliberal capitalist hell, or as Thirteen, with its fascinating meditation on the powers and limitations of genetic engineering as a technology of capitalist control; but it is still a powerful book because of the way it posits the worst, almost revels in it, and yet allows us to think about the possibilities of things being otherwise than the way the text depicts them… which I take to be Morgan’s overall accomplishment as an SF novelist.
It may sound as if I am describing Thin Air as a cyberpunk novel, but it’s not. Cyberpunk is long dead and gone, and this is what comes after: the deglamorized residue. Most specifically, Thin Air is about neocolonialism under neoliberal conditions, or about what has been called Combined and Uneven Development . It takes place on Mars, in the aftermath of the Earth attempt to populate a new world. Things are grim and rundown; despite over 200 (Earth) years of colonization, Mars is still a crappy place to live, though there is a lot of money to be made from exploiting it. Of course, this rundown state, with the project of terraforming having been abandoned, rather than a glorious new settlement, is what we can actually expect if Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos ever should succeed in their projects for colonizing Mars. Capitalist cosmopolitanism always requires backwaters. Capitalism always needs to underdevelop the very places it milks or exploits for profit, and the people there are just collateral damage (if they aren’t among the very few who are joined with the corporations back in the center – Earth in this case – in skimming off the surplus). Veil, the protagonist of Thin Air, is a former corporate goon who now sells his labor (and the corporate implants for killing and surviving that the corporation didn’t manage to deprive him of when they got rid of him) as a mercenary to the highest bidder. It’s the only work he can get on Mars, and he doesn’t have the money to get back home to Earth. Under such circumstances, everything is a set-up of which we are right to be suspicious – every bit as suspicious as Veil himself is. The novel succeeds because it already anticipates, pre-empts, and discounts in advance whatever we might be tempted to think about it. The novel shows us that everything is in fact even worse than we were prepared to think; and in continually outrunning us in this way, it also earns the barest whiff of the possibility of an at least slightly less awful world with which it entices us, but withdraws from whenever we get too close.