Thin Air

Thin Air,
Richard Morgan,
Gollancz

Welcome to Mars, soak.

For the first time in several years, and the first time since the well-received Netflix adaptation of his debut Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan returns to science fiction and, I am glad to report, delivers everything a Morgan fan could want. Since that powerhouse debut years back Morgan has enjoyed – relished, in fact – bringing a Hammett or Chandler-esque Noir quality to his science fiction, and with Hakan Veil, a disgraced former gene-tweaked deadly enforced for a mega corporation, dumped on the Martian colony and making a living anyway he can, he continues that tradition, mixed rather interestingly with elements of the classic Western in this High Frontier colony, but also suffused with a burningly angry take on unchecked market forces and runaway corporate capitalism, the vast inequalities it creates, the needless, grinding poverty and anger, and those who exploit it, on all sides of the political spectrum, from the holier than thou supposed revolutionaries to the oily “man of the people” governor in his superbling mansion (with more than a passing comparison to several contemporary politicians of our troubled times).

The details of the everyday life and troubles, from the disgruntled and often corrupt (some more so than others) cops and politicians in the vast colony city in the great trench of the Valles Marineris (crudely referred to by locals as “The Gash”) and gangs to the everyday colonists – many of whom, being several generations into Mars life, don’t see themselves as a colony any longer, they see themselves as Martians, and bridle at the oversight by Earth authorities (a fact played on by various political operators on Mars). And with an oversight committee coming into town from Earth, feelings are running high – some see it as an overdue accounting to hold the corrupt governor and local authorities to rights, others see it as outside influence in Martian affairs. And some suspect there is far more going on in the shadows than a simple audit and rooting out of corruption (shades of the current corruption crackdown in China), that there may be deeper, more sinister motivations behind the entire enterprise.

Freshly sprung from Bradbury police’s jail, police officer Nikki reluctantly hires Hakan, still “running hot” (his genetic tweaks include a hibernation cycle, from which he awakens sharp and ready for violence, a handy thing for his former employer who may have had him on ice on a ship sent out for months to intercept another ship and needed their people to come awake instantly and at full tilt), to be a minder to a junior member of the Earth oversight committee, Madekwe. She seems curiously compelled to investigate a minor missing persons case from several years before, out on the much rougher uplands (think the Wild West of Mars, complete with a Marshall service trying to maintain a rough law and order), and Hakan, while agreeing to take the job on, is left wondering what she is really looking for.

To discuss the plot any further would lead to spoilers, and besides, as with Raymond Chandler, the plot, which satisfyingly twists and loops around in conspiracies, political and economic intrigues and sheer bloody violence and double-crosses, is only part of the enjoyment here, much of the satisfaction also comes from the way Morgan tells the story. Like Chandler he has a gift for descriptive flair which manages to be both hard-boiled yet elegant and evocative. As with most of his previous works Morgan delivers some remarkable – and often very violent and bloody – action scenes, and yet this is no mere action-thriller, even the violence has a subtextual layer to it, from the political to the personal levels. And the view of life in the colony for the many is no mere adornment for background colour, there’s a feeling of authenticity, of a real community, of real people struggling to get by, and great empathy for the situation created by those at the top of the heap, over which the many have little control, despite the illusion of elections, and they all know it.

Despite the length this is a tight, fast-paced, high-octane read, with intelligent use of action mixed with some fine science fiction elements, adorned with colourful clothes from the Noir and Western genres for added atmosphere, unafraid to offer us main characters who are not heroic and commit questionable (or downright awful) acts, and yet beneath the powerful action segments, beneath the science fiction of a future Mars and genetically enhanced trained corporate killers, as with most of Morgan’s work it is about fallible, flawed people in a bad situation, trying to get through situations they didn’t ask for.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction

Richard Morgan on IO9

One of my favourite authors and all round good eggs Richard Morgan, gives a fascinating interview over on SF site IO9. If you’ve read some of Richard’s work before it won’t surprise you to know that he touches on sensitive subjects like morality, race, religion and other areas of contention (Richard has a gift for being able to make comments on heavyweight subjects while still delivering high octane action), as when he refers to the reception of his attack on the rampant free market in Market Forces:

The book was really written as a critique not so much of the systems but of the mindset of this kind of boorish American businessman asshole machismo. I didn’t really think I was saying anything spectacularly unusual. I thought anybody who looked at would say, “Oh. Yeah, that’s right.” I ran into an awful lot of people for whom market forces are a kind of religious faith. I hate to caricature, but I do think American culture has a faith problem in the sense that there’s much more of a willingness on that side of the Atlantic to take things on faith, and just accept stuff.and believe in something wholeheartedly.

In Europe people just seem to be a lot more cynical about these things, whatever it may be, if it’s religion or politics or whatever. And yet it would appear there are a lot of people for whom free markets are tantamount to a kind of religious faith. And by writing the book I’d stomped on that as if I had written a viciously anti-Christian satire. That may be it, I don’t know. It may be that it was a book in which it’s hard to sympathize with everybody because the characters are all fairly unpleasant.”

Richard Morgan offers support

With the kind permission of author Richard Morgan I’m posting the text of a rather eloquent letter he wrote to my former manager and is copying to Waterstone’s head office:

Dear sir,

I am writing with regard to the dismissal this week of one of your long-time employees, Joe Gordon. As an author who has had dealings with Joe through author events and signings at your branch, I was stunned to learn about the proceedings. I can honestly say that in my experience, Joe has always behaved with the utmost professionalism and enthusiasm, and a brief round of conversations with other authors has only reinforced this impression. He is a valuable member of staff of the sort that any bookstore should count itself fortunate to have.

I understand that this dismissal has been occasioned by comments on Joe’s blog column, which I read on a regular basis and thus am familiar with. While I don’t wish to interfere in company business, I have to say I think this bears comparison with taking disciplinary action based on private conversation overheard in a pub, and raises some disturbing issues of freedom of speech. Waterstones is, after all, a bookseller, whose stock in trade is the purveying of opinion, not all of it palatable to those concerned. You sell books which offer serious critique of the corporate environment and government, but do not expect to suffer punitive action from government or corporate quarters as a result. You sell books which criticise and satirise religious and political groups, but you do not expect to be firebombed by extremists as a result. Surely Joe has the right to let off steam in his free time without having to fear for his livelihood as a result. The action that has been taken so far bears more resemblance to the behaviour of an American fast food chain than a company who deal in intellectual freedoms and the concerns of a pluralist liberal society.

It seems to me that this whole matter has been an unfortunate over-reaction with no positive outcome for anyone concerned. Joe has lost a job he liked and did well, Waterstones the company in general and your branch in particular will attract rather negative publicity from the incident, and there will doubtless now be all the lengthy confrontational unpleasantness of an industrial tribunal. In short it leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Surely there has to be a more productive way to deal with the issue. I worked for many years in management myself, and I understand well the stresses and complexities of situations like this. But given the value that Joe offers as a participative member of Waterstones staff, and given the issues of free speech raised, I would hope that some compromise more in keeping with a civilised society and an intellectually involved company could be reached.

Though I shall hardcopy this letter to you and Waterstones head office next week, I would appreciate your response to this e-mail as soon as you have the opportunity.

Many thanks.

Yours faithfully

Richard Morgan

Another author, Edinburgh-based Charlie Stross has also posted a very considered opinion on his live journal.

Millar on Morgan

In the regular My Sci-Fi column in the new SFX (where a public figure is asked about their genre favourites) comics star writer Mark Millar (Ultimates, Spider-Man etc) picked one of my (and the Alien Online’s) favourites, Richard Morgan. He said: “the best contemporary guy is Richard K Morgan. Reading Altered Carbon was how our dads must have felt when they picked up Carrie and discovered Stephen King.” Nice. Makes me even more eager for the new Kovacs novel.

Broken Angels

On the note of disreputable SF authors I met up with Richard Morgan, author of the stunning Altered Carbon. Richard was signing copies of his Most Excellent new novel, Broken Angels, for the bookstore on Saturday(check the Alien for the double-header review Ariel and I recently wrote). He’d nicely timed his visit with my finishing time so that I could canter off with him and Matthew afterwards for a few chilled refreshments in Harvey’s in the New Town. Deep-chilled Hoegaarden, good company and some good craic – what more does anyone need? Plus another signed book for my collection (thanks, Richard). Matthew getting his colleague Juliet to bring their bookstore’s stock to the pub for a signing was a touch of class. Signings with authors are often fuelled by wine in-store and end in the pub afterwards, but it’s a tad unusual to do the signing there too. Perhaps I should suggest the Oxford Bar to Ian Rankin for the next author event we do with him?

Just finished reading Robert Reed’s new novel, Sister Alice. I first came across him when Tim Holman at Orbit sent me a copy of Marrow a couple of years ago. I went form looking at the cover and thinking it looked like an Iain M Banks wannabe to being utterly hooked within a few pages. So I have eagerly been waiting for this new novel, which Jessica at Orbit kindly sent to me as a loose-leaf manuscript (very easy to read in bed). Huge concept SF spanning millions of years of advanced human evolution – absorbing and gripping stuff. Check out the review on the Alien the do yourself a favour and read the book.