It’s thin air on Mars, the atmosphere held over the city of Bradbury sufficient to support life but it’s not a pretty life, a frontier land viewed with romance from the distant Earth but dirty and grim up close, as petty and corrupt as any remote outpost of humanity, violent, depraved and debauched, any lofty ambition long given way to the harsh reality of remaking a hostile world on a government contract budget and cheap labour.
Hakan Veil is an overrider, a former employee of Blond Vaisutis TransSolar Enforcement and Security Logisitcs whose contract was terminated under less than ideal circumstances, stranding him on Mars and eking out a living. Genetically adapted for strength and endurance and with an accompanying on-board interface and database with a personality more friendly than his own, Osiris, he is a one-man hit squad and cleanup team.
Hibernating for four months out of every twelve, Veil has only just been revived and is in his most volatile and dangerous “running hot” state when the mother of all storms lands in his lap, assigned to act as personal guardian for Colony Initiative agent Madison Madekwe, on Mars as part of the Earth Oversight audit into Martian affairs, seeking out corruption.
Specifically, Madekwe is interested in the unsolved missing persons case of one Pavel Torres, a low-rent no-hope lowlife who made the big time when he won the lottery and earned himself an all expenses ride back to Earth before vanishing into thin air when the time came to depart the red planet. He was nobody, so why should anyone back on Earth care what happened to him? He was nobody, so why would somebody go to all the trouble to make him vanish so thoroughly in the first place?
It’s been four years since Richard Morgan last published a novel, the conclusion of his fantasy trilogy A Land Fit for Heroes, and eleven years since he last published a science fiction novel, Black Man, known Stateside as Th1rte3n, in which universe Thin Air is also set, and during the interim his first novel, 2002’s Altered Carbon, has been adapted by Netflix, bringing his cynical worldview to a new audience.
This passage of time has not mellowed Morgan; as fascinating as Veil is, he is a man best witnessed from a safe distance as he ploughs through the Martian underworld leaving a trail of broken bodies and bloody footprints and entrails as tangled as the local politics where a blind eye can always be turned when there is money to be made.
When on a mission he doesn’t question his orders, just how best to achieve them, and he is ruthless both with his targets and with whoever he has to go through to reach them, though this doesn’t mean he will automatically kill an obstruction; he doesn’t need to when blowing their leg off will put them out of action and also tie up their friends as they try to stop him from bleeding out while Veil goes for the real target.
The Mars envisioned in Thin Air is as complex and wide as the Valles Marineris, dense, detailed and hip deep in dust and factions and divisions each with a finger in a diminishing pie of high technology as they jostle against each other to maintain or improve their position then scatter like cockroaches when Earth Oversight shines a light their way, every motivation questionable and allegiances open to negotiation for the right price; the question is, what is Veil’s price?
His past coming to light slowly over the course of the weighty novel as he cashes in the favours owed for the good deed which saw him punished and ostracised, Veil has predictably few friends but to those chosen he is loyal, among them the cyborg goat god Hannu Holmstrom, hacker extraordinaire, and similarly while Morgan’s uncompromising style may not be to everyone’s taste those who enjoy him will welcome his overdue and explosive return.