Broken Angels, by Richard Morgan
Broken Angels is Richard Morgan’s second novel, published in 2003 and the sequel to his first novel Altered Carbon which I discuss here.
Like Altered Carbon, it features his protagonist Takeshi Kovacs, here working as a mercenary in a bitterly fought war taking place on a planet with valuable alien artefacts, remnants of a race humans refer to as Martians – as that was where we found the first trace of their relics.
Altered Carbon was a work of updated cyberpunk fiction, but a work that went back to the genre’s roots and which was infused with a distinct noir sensibility. Here Morgan is writing something closer to military SF (a sub-genre I have little personal familiarity with) and the tone is therefore quite different. Morgan expands his setting, filling in details such as how humanity came to colonise the worlds it has (following Martian maps, in short) and how wars are fought and fortunes made over the artefacts this seemingly long dead race left behind them (though whether they really are dead, or simply no longer in this part of space, is not known). As Kovacs reflects:
In the end, we’re not much more than a pack of jackals, nosing through the broken bodies and wreckage of a plane crash.
It’s not giving too much away then to say that before too long, Kovacs is involved in a scheme to lay claim to what may be the greatest find in xenoarchaeology ever made, a scheme that could make his fortune and the fortune of all involved. Naturally, with a prize so valuable, other interests are involved and the result is a fast moving and exciting novel but a novel which is plot rather than character driven.
As a rule, I don’t discuss plot details on my blog, to do so can after all damage a book for a future reader quite badly. Happily, plot isn’t that important to most novels I read, so that generally leaves me quite a lot to say still. Here, the plot is so central that in avoiding spoilers I’m left unable to discuss a lot of what makes this worth reading, that said Morgan is an interesting and intelligent writer and there are some themes in this work that are I think worth bringing out.
Morgan continues to explore the mind/body problems created by his fictional future, in which human minds can be digitally stored and transferred body to body. Bodies are referred to as sleeves, and the wealthy or the useful can be resleeved on death, placed in a new body. At the novel’s start, Kovacs and the mercenary company he is attached to are sleeved in bodies genetically tweaked for combat and with elements of wolf dna included in their makeup, to encourage aggression but more importantly team bonding (pack behaviour). In the first novel, Kovacs’ sleeve causes him to be attracted to an ex-lover of that sleeve’s original inhabitant, the chemistry between them being a matter of biology rather than mind. Here, Kovacs is fiercely loyal to those he works with, a loyalty born again of his body rather than his mind. Later in the novel, at the archaeological site, Kovacs is suffering from severe radiation poisoning and the implications of being in a dying body but with a mind which can escape it are explored to good effect – the tensions between the signals the body is sending and the intellectual (but not visceral) knowledge that the poisoning is a problem of logistics, rather than mortality.
Morgan also expands his setting, perhaps less successfully. His future is one that, to anyone who has read a decent amount of SF, will seem very familiar. Machiavellan corporations use covert ops against each other while within them executives compete through dirty tricks (including assassination) as much as by more normal business techniques. A long vanished and little understood civilisation grants humanity access to advanced technology it doesn’t understand, faster than light travel is employed though without raising issues of causality. All these (particularly the precursor aliens’ concept) are SF staples, the corporations a cliche of cyberpunk fiction.
More curiously, Morgan also introduces in this novel references to Voodoo, it transpiring that some colonies practice this faith and one central character being a Houngan on the side. Although this is clearly a reference to William Gibson’s Count Zero which features Voodoo and seeming-Loa as a major element, it feels bolted on here and the occasional implications that it may have some underyling validity sit oddly in what is otherwise a broadly hard SF novel.
It is apparent from Altered Carbon how much of a debt Morgan owes to William Gibson, the two novels after all have fairly similar core stories (not that I thought to mention it in my previous writeup). The Voodoo element in Broken Angels is a continuation of that debt, and it’s not of course unusual for new authors (as Morgan still was at this point) to wear their influences a little obviously, but in Altered Carbon that influence worked to strengthen the novel where here it feels more of an intrusion.
Much more successful are Morgan’s dead aliens, the Martians (not that there’s any evidence, thankfully, that they come from Mars). Little is known of them, but what is is subtly alien, their psychology unlike ours in ways I found convincing and interesting. Each of their maps places has its place of discovery at the centre, each Martian colony considering itself the most important site of their civilisation. There is little evidence of cities, as a winged predator species the Martians seemed not to possess the herd instincts of humanity, spreading out and following settlement patterns very different to our own.
More interesting yet, is how Morgan shows that the beliefs about the Martians say far more about those holding those beliefs than they do about the Martians themselves. So little is known of the Martians, and so much of what is known ambiguous, that they become a canvas on which are painted the desires of all who consider them.
In real life, there is a fascinating direct parallel for this. Theories of the psychology and behaviour of Neanderthal man have varied dramatically through history, even now some hold views on them that bear little resemblance to what little we can deduce from their remains. Just as the Victorians considered them ape-men, and some modern day utopians herald them as beings who lived peacefully in harmony with nature, our lack of knowledge of them allows them to become what we need them to be.
In Morgan’s future, the nature of the Martians is politicised, espousing the wrong theory of their character can lead to imprisonment or worse. While academics argue (surreptitiously) over the facts, others hail them as spiritual beings since passed beyond but who could – were they still here – teach us much. Again, the lack of real evidence makes them both politically and theologically convenient, a secular receptacle for our myths.
As the novel progresses, as the artefact at the core of the plot is explored, more is learnt of their natures and the meaning of the title becomes clearer. The Martians are the broken angels, advanced beyond us to an unimaginable extent, but still for all that flawed and mortal creatures, perhaps not up to bearing the weight of belief now invested in them.
Like its predecessor, Broken Angels is in places an extremely violent novel. It also contains some explicit sex scenes, the language of which is scarcely less aggressive than the battles. The novel is written in Kovacs’ voice, and Kovacs has no metaphors to hand which are not violent ones. He thinks in terms of killing, destroying, even when engaged in sex with someone he cares for:
…she fed me into herself with the confidence of someone chambering a round.
or when asked to contemplate what it would mean to have faith:
‘You’re wrong, Hand,’ I said quietly. ‘I’d love to have access to all this shit you believe. I’d love to be able to summon someone who’s responsible for this fuck-up of a creation. Because then I’d be able to kill them, slowly.’
That violence of language makes this still a surprisingly bleak novel, characters die (some permanently) with shocking suddenness, interludes of peace are interrupted by passages of horrific brutality, Kovacs is an engine of destruction when called on to act and his opponents are no less savage. This is a novel in which largely amoral people act from greed and have no compunction about killing those who get in their way, it’s not a noir work but a noir influence does remain, including sometimes in reminders of the cost that violence carries for those not at all responsible for it:
For fragments of a second, standing in the hatch of the Nagini and staring across the expanse of sand, I thought it had been snowing.
‘Gulls,’ Hand said knowledgeably, jumping down and kicking at one of the clumps of feathers underfoot. ‘Radiation from the blast must have got them.’
Out on the tranquil swells, the sea was strewn with mottled white flotsam.
Ultimately, this is for me a less successful work than Altered Carbon. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, I thought this in fact an extremely good science fiction novel, but Altered Carbon I thought reinvigorated and pushed forward the cyberpunk genre while this is happy to be an excellent example of its genre. That said, Count Zero isn’t as good as Neuromancer, so perhaps here too the Gibsonian influence is showing…
Morgan later wrote a third (and apparently final) Takeshi Kovacs novel, before that however he wrote a novel called Market Forces which is the next of his I shall read. Of Morgan’s entire output, Market Forces tempts me least being an apparently rather heavy handed satire of capitalism and featuring more of his trademark violence but without the Kovacs’ voice to account for it. After that (and Market Forces isn’t that high on my current tbr pile), it’ll be back to Kovacs for Broken Furies and then on to Morgan’s more recent works which look very interesting indeed.