THIN AIR by Richard Morgan
Gollancz, 538 page HC, £20.00
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
In a year that has been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of man landing on the moon, it is a shame that the exploration of the solar system has stagnated. The colonisation of our nearest neighbours has been left to the writers of Science Fiction. While Mike Ashley has collected classic stories of visitations to the Moon (Moon Rising) and Mars (Lost Mars) published by The British Library, there have been more modern explorations. Ian McDonald’s Luna Trilogy has Brazil as the main exploiters of Luna resources (climate change has made much of Earth uninhabitable) while in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars the Chinese are the main players. Richard Morgan takes his exploration further out, to Mars.
In Thin Air, Mars has been colonised more than two-hundred years ago. The people chosen for the job of beginning the process of terraforming (the end product still a long way off) were Peruvians and Nepalese under the principle that they would adapt better to the thin Martian atmosphere. Morgan doesn’t make the mistake of early writers in assuming the air is breathable but scarce. The colonists have all been gene-manipulated to adapt them better. Huge trenches, kilometres wide have been dug and roofed over to keep the atmosphere in but there are now thriving centres of population.
The main character, Hakon Veil, is an Earth-born tweaked human whose original job was as an overrider. As such, he travelled between planets on transports in a state of hibernation. He expected to be woken in an emergency as since these could be potentially disastrous he awoke ‘running-hot’, reflexes on high alert, adrenalin running high. Decisive action, fast might be all that lay between safety and catastrophe. When something went wrong, he was abandoned by the company, exiled to Mars. To function he still needs to go into hibernation for four months in twelve.
As the novel opens, Veil has been awake for three days. He is mentally and physically dangerous. He has been hired by a triad to take out a club owner. Veil is intelligent and resourceful. The hit has been planned carefully and he expects to spend a short time behind bars while the evidence of his involvement collapses. He is surprised then when a local cop releases him for the return favour of acting as bodyguard to one of the members of the Earth Oversight Committee who have sprung an unexpected Audit on the planet. The woman he is assigned to seems very reluctant to have him at her back all the time but has declared an interest in finding Pablito Torres, a man who won a lottery for a ride back to Earth but who disappeared before he could take up his berth. The given reason for the Audit is to check that everything is running smoothly, yet most people believe that there is a hidden agenda – probably to take down Mulholland, the Governor, who is, by general reckoning, corrupt.
When Madison Madekwe, the woman veil is supposed to be guarding, is publically kidnapped, he gets the blame – for not being there. She had disobeyed his instructions to tell him when she was leaving the secure building in which she was working. Veil now has the task of finding her. Torres seems to be pivotal to the situation so he concentrates in finding out what happened to him eighteen months ago.
Against the backdrop of the precarious colony on Mars, this is a dark, political crime novel. Despite Veil being a violent man, especially when just out of hibernation, he has an integrity that makes him, if not likeable, understandable. You don’t particularly want to meet him but you can accept what he is and his motivations in the context of this novel. Readers who like hard-wired action films should also enjoy this.