One of the sweetest utopian thrills of cyberpunk fiction has always been that it makes software upgrades exciting: a process that can magically grant the hero new powers to defeat the forces of evil, rather than just pointlessly move things around, if not break them. For some reason, Windows updates never quite deliver the same kick.
So it is for Hak Veil, the protagonist of this super-fluid action thriller set on a colonised Mars a few centuries from now. He has a military-grade AI system called Osiris living in his head, which can offer tactical advice, hack taxis and doors, and make sarcastic comments about his romantic liaisons. At a certain point his relationship with this secret sharer is surgically enhanced, and the reader inwardly cheers, because a lot of bad guys are now going to go down, and all that remains is to see how it happens.
Veil used to be an “overrider”, employed by the amusingly named gigacorporation COLIN to lie holed up in cryogenic stasis aboard commercial spaceships in case of mutiny or other profit-endangering emergency, at which point he would emerge from his hatch and kill all the troublemakers. Now down on his luck and living in a Mars district colloquially known as the Gash – like everything in the future, its streets look like those of Blade Runner – he gets a job as a bodyguard for a visitor from Earth, part of a delegation conducting an “audit” on the troublesome colony. What follows is a dazzlingly intricate game of political double- and triple-cross, spiced with tastily kinetic battle sequences.
Veil, admirers of Morgan’s work will recognise, is a spiritual cousin to Takeshi Kovacs, the cynical supersoldier beamed around the galaxy to wake up in new fleshy “sleeves” and put out fires – or, if required, start them. Altered Carbon, Morgan’s first novel and the first of the Kovacs trilogy, was recently made into a decent Netflix series, which is perhaps the reason for his return to SF after a trilogy in the fantasy genre. For readers who like amped-up Chandler in space but don’t fancy castles and monsters much, it’s a very welcome homecoming.
Veil, like Kovacs, is essentially a robotically enhanced Jack Reacher: wisecracking, irresistible to women, nearly invincible in a fight. But Morgan’s political-allegory circuits are always on overdrive. In Thin Air he draws a detailed satirical picture of a multitude of conflicting interests on Mars, always plotting under its “paprika sky”. There is the local police department, but also the independent force of marshals. There are “frockers”, citizens who want independence from Earth and protest against “end-stage capitalism”, and the rest of the masses huddling under the atmospheric dome and going to and from their “shitty friction-free economy jobs”. And there is local governor Boyd Mulholland, charismatic and overtly Trumpish: he runs on a campaign slogan of “Harsh Conditions for Bad Hombres”.
Extrapolating from current trends with evident glee, Morgan envisions a Mars society where everyone has an embedded tracker called a “citizen’s locational”; where video is totally fakeable and bacon is “cheaply printed”; and where the supposedly benign COLIN, with its slogan of “Quality. Choice. Freedom”, makes astronomical profits from selling Martian biotech skin creams back on Earth.
This being a space noir, there are also various femmes who are more or less fatale, primary among whom is the Earth visitor Veil is assigned to protect, Madison Madekwe. But Veil also hangs out with a sex worker with a heart of gold, a tough streetwise cop, and an elegant Triad gangster. I regret to report that there are several scenes of physical congress of the type that employ the word “mound”, but they do advance the plot in an HBO sexposition sort of way.
Luckily most of the action happens outside the bedroom, and it’s expertly written. Morgan is very good at the mild, pleasurable alienation of unexplained but workable-out vocabulary items: “immies” are VR entertainments; a very powerful gun, of the sort Veil used to wield against troublesome ship mutineers, is a “deck broom”.
Most of all, Tak Veil’s first-person narration is addictive and deceptively highly wrought: it’s casual and coarse, as befits a former mercenary, yet highly imagistic and sensuously attuned. He’s the hero who has seen it all before and didn’t much like it the first time round: in his jaded refrain of “So forth” there is an echo of Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” in Slaughterhouse-Five. Same shit, different planet. By the end, rather unkindly, you hope he gets sucked back into it in a sequel.
• Thin Air by Richard Morgan (Gollancz, £20). To order a copy for £17.20 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.