Book Review: Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

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I guess cyberpunk never went away. It may have peaked out a bit in the 80s as a science fiction sub-genre but it did not really go away. Hollywood movies and Japanese anime embraced the visual stylings of its noirish futures and kept it alive. I’m no expert on the genre by any means, but I’m old enough to remember the big wave. Roots of the genre could be found in the writings of Philip K. Dick and John Brunner. When William Gibson’s Neuromancer came it seemed to open up a floodgate for writers like Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Pat Cadigan. Even veteran writer Norman Spinrad dipped his toes into the genre with Little Heroes. Movies like Blade Runner, the original animated Ghost in the Shell, and of course, Akira would be media influences for decades to come.

Netflix recently adapted the first of Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels Altered Carbon. It was a critical success. With its heavy dose of cyberpunk themes, I would argue that if the live action adaptation Ghost in the Shell looked like Altered Carbon then it would have been a much better movie than the generic action film Hollywood cranked out. That was my first exposure to the name of Richard K. Morgan.

Thin Air, the latest book by Morgan, is my first exposure to his writing. Though it is not set in the same universe as the Takeshi Kovacs books, the noirish tones and styling are still present. And it just makes me think that Netflix did a hell of a job visualizing his world. It is supposed to be a standalone book in the universe of Thirteen, first published in 2007. However I could not help but feel a little lost for much of the book especially in the beginning as I am dropped into a decadence soaked Martian city.

Haken Veil is a hard-boiled muscle for hire. After getting arrested on suspicion of killing  some lowlife, he somehow gets drafted into babysitting a Madison Medekwe, a corporate auditor from Earth. The purpose of her particular audit is to find out what happened to a blue-collar worker who disappeared after winning a lottery that would have paid his way back to Earth. True to tropes, things do hit the fan.

The rest of the book involves Veil snarling, swearing, punching, killing, and screwing his way  through the underbelly of the Martian city of Bradbury to figure out the truth. Mix in an overdose of seedy criminals, corrupt officials, prostitutes, and hackers and you get cyberpunk version of a long island ice-tea — a mix of everything on the shelf. Ultimately that mix leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Thin Air is full of atmosphere and has a strong attempt at world building. But Other than a few side mentions about the gravity and being in domes, the book could really have taken place in any metropolis setting. Sure there are healthy doses of Martian politics but frankly it’s the standard Mars independence from Earth that has become a main trope. The city of Bradbury is full of tough talking f-bomb dropping characters with very little to like about them. The protagonist is not only unlikable but unrelatable. Even after flashbacks, we know little of him and thus have little investment in what happens to his character other than to see the novel to the end. An it does come to an explosive end at that.

Whatever failings that Thin Air has, Morgan does good job of making up for it in nice action set pieces that can be bloody and explosive. As graphic as the action is, the sex is even more so. The first time was jarring but by the third or fourth sex scene it does get ridicules in its graphic depiction of bumping uglies.

The plot does relatively tie up neatly in the end with conspiracies uncovered and mysteries solved. One character twist was pretty easy to spot from the start though. Maybe that was not an important twist as it really did not come as a surprise, only the timing of the reveal.

The world that Morgan created is quite an intriguing one and by the end I had hopes that there was more to the lore than vague references to other events o places like Ganymede. In the end the book was entertaining enough overall but a bit long.

Review copy courtesy of NetGalley

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