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Werthead

Thin Air by Richard Morgan

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Thin Air by Richard Morgan

Bradbury City, Mars. Hak Veil used to pilot ships through the blackness between worlds, acting as a highly-trained combat operative. After a few things went wrong, he's wound up abandoned on the Red Planet, trying to find a way of getting back to Earth. His unique abilities allow him to find work in the most unlikely of places and his new job is a doozy: playing bodyguard to a pen-pusher, one of a team sent to audit the colony's finances on behalf of the colonial authorities. But things soon start going south and Veil finds himself on the line, with the promise of a ticket home being the only thing keeping him going...

Rewind a decade or so and Richard Morgan was one of the hottest new voices in science fiction. His Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (now a Netflix TV show under the title Altered Carbon) was a vital, angry work of cyberpunk meshed with hard-edged, military SF. Market Forces was a corporate thriller with an SF angle and the even angrier, dirtier Black Man (Thirteen in the US) was a gripping and increasingly prescient story of nations collapsing amidst a tidal wave of rising social discontent.

Morgan then took a hard-right turn into the grimmest end of the fantasy genre (albeit SF-tinged) with his Land Fit For Heroes trilogy (The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands, The Dark Defiles), an accomplished work but one where, it turns out, his sensibility was perhaps a little too familiar, with writers like Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence achieving greater success in that end of the market. Morgan's voice and sensibility felt a little redundant in that field at that time, despite his obvious writing chops.

Morgan is now back in the field of science fiction and it feels like the return of one of SF's prodigal sons. SF is ready for a new, scintillating book that tears the genre a new one and does fresh, exciting things.

Thin Air is not that book. That is not to say that Thin Air is a bad novel, as Morgan's skill with prose, with ideas and with violent action remain undimmed. It is, however, a novel that is not so much in his comfort zone as it is one clad in a Richard Morgan dressing gown and slippers. We once again have an ultra-competent, alpha-male protagonist with near-superhuman technological abilities whom everyone underestimates repeatedly, whom women want to have sex with and men want to have a beer with, who is constantly living on the edge of either death or bankruptcy (despite his clear and unique skillset), who gets in over his head but comes out on top through his superior skills and intelligence and ability to murder literally everyone in a room in seconds. When Morgan did that with Takeshi Kovacs, it was fresh and exciting. When he did that with Carl Marsalis, the racial angle added something fascinating to the mix. When he did that with Ringil, the fact he was an angry and unapologetically gay man made that work. With Hak Veil, it's starting to feel a bit less fresh and a bit more like a retread.

It doesn't help that there isn't really a great hook in the story. Mars is being audited and some people are unhappy with that and that's really kind of it. The Martian angle is also not tremendously distinctive either, the odd mention of the weaker gravity and the tall walls of Mariner Valley aside, the book could be taking place in pretty much any SF metropolis on or off Earth. Kim Stanley Robinson's position as the author who has brought Mars vividly to life as its own place better than any other remains unchallenged. Also, most of the characters are distinctly unlikable and the plot makes frequent pit stops for increasingly non-sequitur random sex scenes (rather more than in most of Morgan's prior novels, in fact, including the distinctly late-Heinleinian use of the phrase "pneumatic breasts").

On the plus side, Morgan's writing crackles with kinetic energy and no-one does a brutal turn of phrase better than him. If this novel is Morgan-by-the-numbers, it at least brings the author's talents as well as his weaknesses. There's some pretty good action set pieces, Veil putting together the clues to the mystery is fun (even if, as with his previous novels, there's zero chance of the reader solving the mystery themselves) and there's a wry sense of humour that occasionally surfaces. Whilst virtually all of the characters are unlikable, they're also mostly at least interesting and well-drawn (the major exception being Veil's stripper neighbour whom he also has a no-strings relationship with) and the novel's finale features an appropriate amount of clever plotting and visceral carnage that makes for an explosive ending to the story, even if the stakes never feel hugely engaging prior to that.

Thin Air (***) is a fairly solid Richard Morgan novel. It's far from his best, but certainly readable and it's nice to see him back in the science fiction thriller genre. But it feels like he's capable of far more. Readable, engaging but ultimately perhaps a little too ordinary a novel for an author who should never be ordinary. The book will be published on 25 October 2018 in the UK and USA.


 

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5 hours ago, Werthead said:

Well, that was disappointing to hear.  Oh well, still looking forward to reading it asap, loved how Black Man interpreted our near future and was hoping for something that took it to the next level from there.  

On the other hand, I totally thought this was coming out this winter, so this is fucking awesome.  

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Was looking forward to this. Shame it doesn't live up to his best.

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11 hours ago, larrytheimp said:

Well, that was disappointing to hear.  Oh well, still looking forward to reading it asap, loved how Black Man interpreted our near future and was hoping for something that took it to the next level from there.  

On the other hand, I totally thought this was coming out this winter, so this is fucking awesome.  

Looks like Oct 23 in the US. 

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I guess I enjoyed it more than Adam. Not as good as Altered Carbon and Black Man, but a compelling read nonetheless. 

Will review it soon.

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I just finished Thirteen the other day.  Morgan can write well sentence to sentence, but this book was incredibly flawed beyond that.  This book takes itself completely seriously and thinks it is saying profound things but the center of it is evopsych nonsense and world building based on memes.  Adding to that a completely generic thriller plotline with twists you see coming a mile away and ends up being a mediocre read that is at times deeply silly.

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12 hours ago, Lord of Rhinos said:

I just finished Thirteen the other day.  Morgan can write well sentence to sentence, but this book was incredibly flawed beyond that.  This book takes itself completely seriously and thinks it is saying profound things but the center of it is evopsych nonsense and world building based on memes.  Adding to that a completely generic thriller plotline with twists you see coming a mile away and ends up being a mediocre read that is at times deeply silly.

I'd argue its more subtle than that, there's a pretty strong critique of the evopsych stuff in the the text.  

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I don't see it.  I think the Afterwards shows quite clearly that Morgan knows the book doesn't have a leg to stand on scientifically.  Even the most basic knowledge of humanity will make a reader realize that the idea behind Thirteens is silly.  The novel wants us to believe that they are some sort of throwback from the past, that before humans become Agrarian men where hyper violent and macho loners that were a step away from being sociopaths.  But that doesn't describe hunter gatherer societies at all.   Social relationships are the core of hunter-gathering societies and violence has strong societal guidelines.  Which makes clear that the idea behind the book is ridiculous.  Humanity has never been in a position where such behavior would be considered acceptable.  

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6 hours ago, Lord of Rhinos said:

I don't see it.  I think the Afterwards shows quite clearly that Morgan knows the book doesn't have a leg to stand on scientifically.  Even the most basic knowledge of humanity will make a reader realize that the idea behind Thirteens is silly.  The novel wants us to believe that they are some sort of throwback from the past, that before humans become Agrarian men where hyper violent and macho loners that were a step away from being sociopaths.  But that doesn't describe hunter gatherer societies at all.   Social relationships are the core of hunter-gathering societies and violence has strong societal guidelines.  Which makes clear that the idea behind the book is ridiculous.  Humanity has never been in a position where such behavior would be considered acceptable.  

Yeah, all that stuff is on there but I don't think that's really where Morgan's going with it.  Could be totally wrong but I didn't feel like we were supposed to buy into the book society's conception of 13s.  Considering the pistaco stuff and the fact that Marsalis clearly doesn't fit that mold, and the Jacobsen report chapter headers, and Sevgi's partner's (I forget his name) behavior with his brother and his brother's wife, I find it hard to believe we're supposed to take the in-universe depiction of genetic variants as mutants as endorsement of evospsych or shit like the Paleo diet.  

I think there's a critique of romanticizing the human past and trying to recapture a proto-human, uberman ideal.  Will have to peruse the book again and see if I can find something a little more concrete to back this up.

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It's been eight years since I read Black Man, but my memory of it follows larrytheimp's description, which is that the text itself suggests in a subterranean way that the Über-masculinity of the 13s was the result of a modern misinterpretation of the past and is a reification of an ahistorical and corrosive understanding of human nature, as in the kind of things that MRAs and incels spout. But I can understand the surface narrative of the book overpowering that critique, and it has been eight years, so maybe my memory is playing up on me.

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I don't think there's much of a critique going on nor does it matter if there is.  Like I said before the concept of Thirteens is ridiculous at a glance.  Setting up a unscientific premise that no one believes and then critiquing it isn't going to cause anything more than a "no, duh" reaction from me.  Neither side of the debate about things like paleo are founded on the genetics argument that this book is putting forth.  If it is trying to critique these ideas than it badly misunderstands the arguments being put forth by the people involved. As it is we hear the unscientific BS from different sources and the book is quite clearly asking the readers to take it seriously.

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14 hours ago, Lord of Rhinos said:

I don't see it.  I think the Afterwards shows quite clearly that Morgan knows the book doesn't have a leg to stand on scientifically.  Even the most basic knowledge of humanity will make a reader realize that the idea behind Thirteens is silly.  The novel wants us to believe that they are some sort of throwback from the past, that before humans become Agrarian men where hyper violent and macho loners that were a step away from being sociopaths.  But that doesn't describe hunter gatherer societies at all.   Social relationships are the core of hunter-gathering societies and violence has strong societal guidelines.  Which makes clear that the idea behind the book is ridiculous.  Humanity has never been in a position where such behavior would be considered acceptable.  

It's been over 10 years since I read the book but I thought the 13s had strong kinship to those immediately surrounding them which would fit clans of a dozen people? The book works better as that societies version of what they wanted cavemen to be (but can't remember if the book itself states this). A bit like how if the Victorians had brought dinosaurs back they'd be slow, plodding and have arched necks that would year ligaments, or how Jurassic park in the 90s had no feathers whereas now they do.

I've forgotten the name of the author but the book "blindsight" has a more outrageous but easier to handle because if its outrageousness concept of bringing back vampires in the future. Vampires are a human offshoot from caveman times that evolved as individual predators (like most cats) whose sole food source are humans. They died out once farming came about and humans became organised enough to kill the vampires. It's all very silly but at least isn't projecting hyper masculinity/predatory behaviour on our own ancestors.

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55 minutes ago, red snow said:

II've forgotten the name of the author but the book "blindsight" has a more outrageous but easier to handle because if its outrageousness concept of bringing back vampires in the future. Vampires are a human offshoot from caveman times that evolved as individual predators (like most cats) whose sole food source are humans. They died out once farming came about and humans became organised enough to kill the vampires. It's all very silly but at least isn't projecting hyper masculinity/predatory behaviour on our own ancestors.

Peter Watts.

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1 hour ago, Yohn said:

Peter Watts.

That's the one. I need to check out his other books as he threw a lot of ideas into the book I read. Think Richard Morgan is a fan too.

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Is this book as hyper-detailed as the previous SF volumes? It makes re-reading Morgan's work rather tedious... I couldn't get through a 2nd go on Altered Carbon because everything is so glacially described, a trait that seriously affected the pacing of his later Kovac & fantasy novels.

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2 hours ago, red snow said:

That's the one. I need to check out his other books as he threw a lot of ideas into the book I read. Think Richard Morgan is a fan too.

They're well worth a read.

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Posted (edited)
On 10/1/2018 at 12:40 AM, Lord of Rhinos said:

I don't think there's much of a critique going on nor does it matter if there is.  Like I said before the concept of Thirteens is ridiculous at a glance.  Setting up a unscientific premise that no one believes and then critiquing it isn't going to cause anything more than a "no, duh" reaction from me.  Neither side of the debate about things like paleo are founded on the genetics argument that this book is putting forth.  If it is trying to critique these ideas than it badly misunderstands the arguments being put forth by the people involved. As it is we hear the unscientific BS from different sources and the book is quite clearly asking the readers to take it seriously.

Well I guess it comes down to your ability to suspend your disbelief.  .  To be clear, I don't think the bolded is an accurate description of the book.  I'd say that he's using the 13 concept he made up to  explore what it means to be human, nature vs nurture, where ideas and behaviors come from, with a bunch of sex and violence thrown in for entertainment.  For me, I'm ok with accepting that the genetic premise behind 13's in the book isnt particularly science-based, particularly when it's scientific accuracy doesn't seem to be central or even canonical in the novel.  To me it's not that different than say the laying on of hands to transmit cultural memory in the book the Giver or the 'stack' concept in Altered Carbon.  I understand this is a very subjective metric, so YMMV.

Edited by larrytheimp
Clarity

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Been reading some sample chapters of this, not very good IMO.

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I think at some point Richard Morgan was simultaneously one of my favorite writers, and a writer only one of whose books I'd ever managed to finish. (Market Forces.)

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