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In Richard K. Morgan's 'Thin Air', Mars feels almost familar

In Richard K. Morgan's 'Thin Air', Mars feels almost familar
The Gale Crater on Mars. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA / CNG)

If you are a Netflix viewer, you might recognize Richard K. Morgan’s work — the popular series “Altered Carbon” was adapted from his debut novel 16 years ago. He’s won a number of awards for his work since then. “Thin Air,” set in a future where humanity has colonized Mars, is his first science fiction novel in eight years.

People have been dreaming of Mars since before the beginning of modern literature and it’s a dream that is becoming increasingly popular. Despite the wealth of fiction about colonizing the Red Planet, it’s only really in the last few years that there have been hinted promises that it might actually happen. Both NASA and Space X have promised to send people within the next few decades, despite some reports suggesting it might be trickier than they think. Maybe they should read this book — it shows in some detail how we could live in such an environment.

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Like “Altered Carbon,” “Thin Air” is set in a future that has embraced technology to such an extent that people “upgrade” themselves with various modifications that change their appearance or improve their abilities. That includes alterations to adapt people to the harsh rigors of space, to be more effective soldiers or to survive more easily on other planets.

Hakan Veil was modified before he was even born to adapt to the stresses of long space flights and fitted with military-grade body-tech that makes him a human killing machine. One of a modified group known as “hybernoids,” he spends four months of the year in hibernation but when awake has superhuman reflexes, strength and intelligence. Essentially sold by his mother to the company who provided these modifications, he worked as a corporate “enforcer” before being marooned on Mars for 14 (Earth) years. He now spends his time as hired muscle with a dream to escape the Red Planet.

"Thin Air" by Richard K. Morgan
"Thin Air" by Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey)

Opportunity arises when Earth sends a team to clean up the corruption on Mars. Veil finds himself the bodyguard of Madison Madekwe, one of the investigators. Madekwe is looking into the mysterious disappearance of a lottery winner who won a trip to Earth. It isn’t long before the investigation begins to spiral into a path of murder and deception and they find themselves buried in secrets that could get them killed.

When Morgan writes, the vision he creates is a vibrant and meticulously detailed world that feels so real you could reach out and touch it: “The Strip loomed around me — five-story settlement-era facades in scarred antique nanocrete, repair protocols long exhausted. These days the inert surfaces are lathered by decades of storm-wind and grit into something that looks more like flat expanses of coral at low tide than anything you’d call man-made.”

The city of Bradbury, where the story is set, is a living and breathing place filled with intriguing characters. You could easily imagine that people really were living in a city named for a science-fiction author on Mars, it seems so complete, so real.

If you have heard the term “cyberpunk” but not known what it means, this book is a great example — lots of technology in a dystopian setting where private corporations rule everyday life. Usually with “cyberpunk” there is a juxtaposition between advancements in science and setbacks in social order. While Morgan does show a society that is changed and is ruled by the rich, it isn’t as dark and dingy a setting as you might expect. Given that this is a relatively new colony, a new country even — there is more than a touch of a modern “frontier” feeling to the way the city behaves.

The protagonist, Veil, is a colorful character, not the easiest of people to like (a deliberate choice by the author); he isn’t exactly a do-good hero but does have some likable qualities and his heart is in the right place. He is a kick-ass character in more than one sense of the word. The supporting cast is all just as imperfect and just as relatable.

The book has an almost tangible quality, it’s fast and frantic with a lot of action — not just the violent kind either with some racy sex scenes included. Morgan doesn’t hold back when describing sex and violence, this is not a book for the younger reader or the fainthearted. Mixed in with the thriller-esque action and cyberpunk backdrop is a hard-boiled noir story (think Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade) complete with a twisting and turning plot that keeps readers on their toes.

It was William Gibson who popularized cyberpunk with his debut novel “Neuromancer” back in 1984, and you can see the influence that seminal novel has had since, up to and including “Thin Air.”

Another clear influence is the work of Philip K. Dick — specifically, the novels “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” adapted into the film “Blade Runner,” and the short story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”, adapted for the film(s) “Total Recall.” Both these stories have a gritty, everyday-life quality with rainy streets set in shadow and a government that is run by commercial corporations.

“Thin Air” highlights how depictions of Mars have evolved over time: the planet had indigenous life in the turn-of-the-last-century writings of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs; Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles,” published in 1950, told of escape from Earth to the Red Planet; and the “hard-science” depiction of colonization in “Red Mars,” “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” (1992-1996) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

“Thin Air” is the natural extension of this journey, blending the hard science of Robinson with the dreams of Dick — we have not only colonized Mars but have reached the point where it’s just another place where people live. It’s closer than ever to our own lives, and perhaps a glimpse into a possible future. It’s also an exploration on the march of technology and just how far we may go to change our ourselves in the pursuit of progress.

Jones is a writer and editor of sfbook.com.

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Richard K. Morgan

Del Rey: 544 pp., $28

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