Thin Air by Richard Morgan. Not very thin at all.

Read February 2022
Recommended for Morgan fans
★   ★  ★  ★ 

Brutal and twisty.  Three weeks later, I’m left thinking I liked it, but in the way one likes junk food or quick and dirty sex (which no doubt comes to mind because the lead takes time out for some lurid escapades). There were times I thought it was a little long, but I didn’t actually mind, because I am on board for Mars post-colonization dystopias. Occasionally I felt a bit of pastiche coming through: the ‘Swirl’ is mentioned in much the same way Amos from the Expanse talks about the ‘Churn.’ There’s a lovely and vivid sea metaphor throughout, reminding me of Watt’s Starfish, although Lovecraftian might be an even better reference, and of course, of course, Blade Runner.

“Nighttime towns and transit stations glimmered across the valley floor like phosphorescent deep-sea life-forms, bulking corpuscular, trailing the whip-thin antenna appendages of roads before they faded to dark where the traffic petered out and the lighting systems went to sleep in response. Four hundred kilometers beyond it all, Bradbury was a lurid monster medusa oozing up over the line of the horizon.”

Such excellent writing there. There’s a lot of those moments scattered throughout.

But returning to the setting: are these homages, cultural touchpoints or merely assumption of an already-created universe, much like a hermit-crab assuming a new shell? Hard to say. But it is the kind of feeling that keeps me from thinking excellence.

The lead is pure Takeshi Kovacs, a bio-engineered, hibernation-dependent person optimized for exploratory space flight:

“You want snake-swift situational reflexes, amped-up risk assessment intelligence, full-on fight/flight biochemistry? Fine—but for those options, you’re going to pay a stiff price in antisocial tendency.”

Hakan Veil has been fired and grounded on Mars, he’s bitter, and when he is tapped to be a bodyguard for a woman on the Earth Oversight team, he takes it for the opportunity to earn a pricey return ticket to Earth. There’s a lot of players in this story, and it’s worth noting that a significant proportion are women. The characters, per Morgan usual, are almost universally complicated, full of mixed messages and motivations. Morgan walks a tricky line here–his lead is quite obviously socially impaired and tends to interact in terms of the misogynist classic fuckability-meter. Perhaps he adequately compensates with some very descriptive, female-focused sex? That aside, one of the most intriguing ongoing interactions is with the no-nonsense head of a specialized police department who is as honest as the Martian year is long.

“This woman invited nothing and projected nothing beyond the simple message Listen up, motherfuckers, I’m only going to say this once.”

Morgan goes into detail with the world-building, with the politics that have built up over decades: the festering resentment of a territory toward the long reach of a former homeland, the cheap capitalism, the criminal elements, the international colonial competition, the water and air economies. He tries hard to blend it all together, but I’m not quite sure it works. It’s complicated, to be sure, and I appreciate that. But do we really see the shades of the complexity, or are we fed just enough so we can be appropriately shocked at the plot twists? I feel it was the later, but that’s where a re-read could help me.

“Contrary to all the Mars First rhetoric you hear, COLIN isn’t like a pack of hyenas or a feeding frenzy of sharks or whatever this month’s highly colored predator analogy might be—it’s more like a crown-of-thorns starfish, creeping up on its prey at glacial pace, then vomiting out its stomach to envelop and digest it entire.”

World-building is very in media res, which I’m absolutely okay with, but the voice of the lead is ironic and prejudicial, so it always skews toward editorial commentary versus explanatory. Again, wondering if cultural shorthand is standing in for the reader here. The upshot is that the significance doesn’t hit the feels as hard as it could, even when the reader is hit with an emotional summation. The distance of the narrator ends up bleeding into the reader.

“People don’t want to believe shit like this, they’ll shrug it off if they can. Marstech, the idea of Marstech—hell, even the idea of Mars—makes them feel good, and that’s all that counts. It’s thin air, all of it. But back on Earth people breathe it like it was real, and they won’t let you take that away from them.”

I’m not unhappy to own a kindle copy, because I feel like this is one that I could enjoy even more on re-read. Absolutely on part with Morgan’s other works, so if you are familiar with his style and enjoy it, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

“Eyes on the door ahead, and the long dark path to going home.”


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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6 Responses to Thin Air by Richard Morgan. Not very thin at all.

  1. Ola G says:

    I’m still kind of hesitant whether to pick up Morgan or not. I did enjoy the Altered Carbon series (S01) but even the TV version was on the brutal side, and with palpable delight in violence, which puts me off. I see you’re enjoying the series a lot, carol., would you say the violence/torture porn is very noticeable in the novels?

    • thebookgator says:

      Oh, yes. Yes, very much. I only watched a couple episodes of the series. Of course, what I always liked about reading is the ability to control the pace of my experience. If I didn’t like it (or was bored), that’s where skimming comes in. There’s a fight or three, a definite two-person torture scene and the main character is kind of an ass, careening from violent situation to violent situation.

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