Review: Thin Air

Thin AirBritish speculative fiction author Richard Morgan’s latest novel Thin Air demonstrates science fiction’s colonialist roots as well as anything I’ve read recently. Set on an imperfectly-terraformed Mars, it follows one Hakan Veil, a former overrider (a genetically enhanced human created to act as security on corporate-owned spaceships) who’s blackmailed into bodyguarding a high-status visitor from Earth. The visitor is Madison Madekwe, an auditor for the Colonial Oversight Initiative who’s investigating the mysterious death of the winner of a lottery offering Martians a once-in-a-lifetime ticket to Earth. Inevitably, Hakan finds himself collaborating in the investigation, diving into the murky, corrupt underbelly of corporate scheming that passes for Martian politics.

So the key dynamic powering the novel is the uneasy relationship between Mars and Earth: the Martian colonists both despise Earth’s bureaucrats and see Earth as an unreachable, far-off vision of home. Morgan’s Mars is a bit Wild West and a lot Victorian colony: originally a penal settlement, its inhabitants are still, 200 years later, barely subsisting on the barren red planet, ruled over by a corrupt local governor, with Earth hopelessly distant in terms both of travel time and of what it would cost financially to get there. The corporation stuff tracks too, European colonialism historically being based on trade (think of the East India Company, which essentially ruled the subcontinent until the mid-nineteenth century).

What’s missing, of course, are the main victims of historical colonialism: Morgan’s Mars has no indigenous inhabitants to be slaughtered and oppressed by exploitative Earthlings. In fact racism appears to be largely absent from this imagined future: the well-off Earth auditor Madison is Black, whereas Martian Hakan has Arabic ancestry. Morgan’s point seems to be that the forces of capital depend on the existence of an underclass, and that therefore the social conditions that enabled imperialism will continue to operate in colonialist-like ways even when the problem of racism has been solved. (Although the extent to which it has in fact been solved in the universe of Thin Air is dubious: as in Martha Wells’ Network Effect, which I reviewed last week, the novel’s worldbuilding is thoroughly Western despite the characters’ different cultural backgrounds.)

This argument would, I feel, be more convincing if there was actually anything on Mars for Morgan’s fictional corporations to be interested in, but there isn’t, particularly: no significant resource extraction, no desirable markets; the only commercial activity that is uniquely Martian is, for some reason that I don’t think is ever adequately explained, skincare development. Furthermore, Morgan’s Martians are analogous not to the relentlessly exploited indigenous populations of lands colonised by Europeans but to the colonisers themselves: the convicts shipped out to places like Australia and North America to establish a Western presence there. Of course it’s difficult to describe a transported Victorian peasant as privileged, but the comparison I think Morgan is reaching for here doesn’t quite work, and moreover obscures the actual harms capitalist colonialism did, and is still doing, to real communities across the globe.

This is a shame, because the attempted critique of capitalism is what elevates the novel above others in its genre; without it, it’s merely violent, male gaze-y and, on one jarring occasion close to the beginning, randomly transphobic. Like, I don’t want to imply that I hated reading it: I quite enjoyed what it was attempting to do, as well as Morgan’s prose, which is stylish in a sort of sub-Rajaniemi way, noirish and efficient. But it wasn’t an entirely pleasant reading experience, let’s just say, or an entirely successful one.

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