More than any other SF story I have read recently it is strongly informed by the cultural concerns of this decade right now. A subplot, for instance, is tied up with the 'Left Behind' Eschatology that I have been following via Slacktivist, and I would be very surprised if Richard Morgan hasn't dipped into that blog from time to time. In fact the whole book feels like a lively engagement with the bloggy/booky world in which I do a lot of my thinking these days. To tie the ends together nicely one of my lj-friends, ninebelow, recently interviewed Richard Morgan about this book.
The book is set almost 100 years from now. Mars has been partially terraformed. A major concern of the global community is that a few decades earlier, in a burst of optimism, a number of 'human variant' sub-species were created by genetic engineering. These subspecies are genuinely inhuman, in various ways, and the United Nations and other groups are unclear about how to deal with them. A major protagonist is a member of such a subspecies.
Using this mechanism Morgan addresses some of the arguments that are being thrashed out right now, in a way that I like. For instance he demonstrates determinist ideas of race to be silly, by showing us how strange society would be if they were true in special cases: while simultaneously exploring the emotional implication of being excluded from the mainstream view of what is fully human - either as a black person, as a woman, or in other ways.
I think it is fair to say that if we ever get the technology to modify what it is to be human, these modifications will reflect the fantasies and assumptions of our society. Therefore by showing how it wouldn't work, he shows how those assumptions are diminishing and demeaning to us right now.
Two of the main genetic variants are the 'thirteens' who are modelled on Hollywood-type ideals of the hyper-male, or the perfect masculine warrior; and the 'bonobos' who are modelled on the current view of what women are supposedly 'really like' - only the new bonobos really are like that. They are sexually submissive, for instance, nymphomaniac, and attracted to money and power in a quick-fix way that real women noticeably aren't. Anyway in both cases the ideal men and ideal women don't have place within actual human society. The supposed ideal is far from ideal when it is made actual. Both sub-species are contained or excluded from normal society. The 'thirteens' in a burst of satire, have been sent to Mars.
For quite a while I thought bonobo was a crappy name for the hyper-female. Female bonobos are less sexually constrained than female humans, but they are nothing like this manufactured prostitute-class of sub-women. Also the very name is too geeky and specialised to fit in with the marketing world in which this type of human has been made as a toy. The only people who would know what it meant would think it was inaccurate.
But I have come to think that instead the name 'bonobo' has been chosen as part of the dialogue with the current real world, at the expense of plausibility in the pretend world. This makes sense if the book (as I think) engages with the bloggy/booky world of now. I think the name engages with the people who are discussing right now the extent to which women are excluded from the human mainstream by some sort of inherited genetic disposition. And as such I think it quite a forceful argument.
In the book there is a theme of the male strength being used to engage positively, in a protective and non-smothering way, with female strength. It's a pleasant and romantic theme in a book which is quite meaty and violent. I think the book is also an example of that type of engagement in itself.
as far as I’m concerned, politics is a part of life, and any novel which has any hope of describing human existence in a halfway decent fashion will have to have a political context. If your characters and situations are apolitical, then they just aren’t realistic. Politics is what humans do, it’s practically our defining characteristic as a species.