Urban decay, as only the British know how to do it

Market Forces, by Richard Morgan

Science fiction is often thought to be about the future. Sometimes it is. Sometimes though science fiction is about seeing the present through different eyes. About putting our own situation in another context so that we see it without our everyday preconceptions.

HG Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds is a good example. It generally gets treated as being a simple SF tale of an alien invasion. Really though that’s not what it is at all. What it is is a novel about the experience of imperialism from the perspective of the colonised. It’s taking what Britain did in Africa, India and elsewhere and bringing it home. Here’s what we did to them it says, how does it feel when someone else does it to us?

Wells’ science fiction generally is about his present day. The Time Machine is about class division. The First Men in the Moon about the different ways in which science and business can both forget the human in their respective quests for knowledge and profit. Wells tends to be read very literally today, but he was far from a literal writer.

Market Forces is that sort of science fiction. Ostensibly it’s about a Britain 50 or so years from now in which corporate executives kill each other in prearranged duels using their cars as weapons. That’s not what it’s about though. What it’s about is contemporary Britain and how in Morgan’s view neoliberal capitalism depends on inequality and suffering for its profits.

Market Forces features Chris Faulkner, a young and rising executive in the conflict investment space (I’ll return to that in a moment). He lives in a Britain divided between rich corporate enclaves with private security forces and gleaming streets on the one hand and decaying “zones” in which the poor live amidst squalor and gang violence on the other. Faulkner is a rare escapee from the zones. He made it out and into the corporate world, and that background has given him an aggression and drive that has put him firmly on the fast track.

He emerged from the tunnel into an unexpected patch of sunlight. The road vaulted, climbing onto a long raised curve that swept in over the expanses of zoneland and angled towards the cluster of towers at the heart of the city. Sunlight struck down in selective rays. The towers gleamed.
Chris accelerated into the curve.

Faulkner is essentially a niche investment banker. Conflict investment is the business of funding small wars (a common toast in the CI industry; “small wars” they cry as they clink champagne glasses). The specialists in the field fund conflicts and regime changes; arms and surveillance equipment sales; they make it possible for those fighting to carry on doing so.

So far, so largely credible. What’s incredible is the other key element of the setting. In this future corporate promotions are gained and contract tenders awareded by literally killing your rivals. A challenge is issued and the economists, lawyers, bankers or consultants meet on the road in specially adapted cars and the one who survives gets the job or the deal. The book explains how that situation came about. The worldbuilding is all in place if you want to read it at that level. As I said at the outset though, books set in a future aren’t aways about that future.

What Morgan is doing here is something quite interesting. He’s literalising metaphor. In today’s corporate world we talk of road warriors, of taking the other guy down, of dodging a bullet. Morgan takes these macho phrases and makes them literal. His executives really are road warriors, they do take each other down and often they literally do dodge bullets. Morgan is making explicit the violence implicit in the current language.

Let’s go back to conflict investment for a moment. Faulkner works for a boutique investment house by the name of Shorn Associates. Here one of the Shorn partners gives a speech to the CI division:

‘All over the world, men and women still find causes worth killing and dying for. And who are we to argue with them? Have we lived in their circumstances? Have we felt what they feel? No. It is not our place to say if they are right or wrong. It is not for us to pass judgment or to interfere. At Shorn Conflict Investment, we are concerned with only two things. Will they win? And will it pay? As in all other spheres, Shorn will invest the capital it is entrusted with only where we are sure of a good return. We do not judge. We do not moralise. We do not waste. Instead, we assess, we invest. And we prosper. That is what it means to be a part of Short Conflict Investment.’

(There’s some italicisation in that passage which shows up when this blog entry is printed but not on the screen. The same applies to the next quote further down the page too.)

What’s interesting about this speech is its accuracy. As some readers of this may know, offline I’m by background an infrastructure finance lawyer (these days mostly working on energy and low carbon financings). I’ve heard speeches just like that one quoted above on several occasions. Not about conflict investment obviously, Morgan made that up. But I have heard it made about investments in other sectors where arguably ethical issues arise. Hell, I’ve probably made that argument myself in the past.

As market professionals, there is a genuine question as to whether it’s for us to second guess our clients. If a client wants to build a rail connection that you personally think is a waste of their public funds, would it mean anything to refuse to do the deal? It would probably mean losing that client, perhaps losing your job, but would the rail connection stop? Would the world be better if people like me decided what was needed in place of local governments?

But then, Richard Morgan would probably say it’s already people like me deciding what’s needed by deciding what gets funded. And he would also likely say that while the connection might happen even if I personally refused to work on that deal, that doesn’t absolve me of personal responsibility when in fact I do choose to work on that deal.

Personally I tend to think the power of the markets is overstated, often by politicians keen to avoid responsibility for the consequences of their own decisions. I don’t go as far as some in seeing the markets as an ethical positive – a force for good in the world – but nor do I see them as being anywhere near more powerful than governments.

But then, nor entirely does Morgan. His target is not simply financial institutions which put shareholder value above ethical values; his target is also governments that adopt free market principles in areas where arguably they don’t really apply.

It’s no coincidence that this novel refers to Thatcher, that characters meet in a bar called the Falkland and at one point go to the Tebbit Centre. This is a Britain where the philosophy of the markets has swollen beyond the financial sector and become the governing philosophy of the nation. It’s a Britain where there is a market value, or no value at all. It’s a Britain where the concept of public service is seen as laughable, because it lacks a profit motive.

Hm, nothing being said about Britain in the 2000s there then.

Although Morgan clearly has an agenda and a target with this book he does present the other point of view. Faulkner’s best friend, Mike Bryant is a believer in the new system. He argues with Faulkner that anyone good enough can leave the zones on their own merits, he cites examples that (to Morgan’s credit) are good examples of people who have done just that and under their own power alone.

As with that speech above, Bryant makes the points I’ve heard made in real life and it’s refreshing to see him not turned into an utter caricature as he does so. That said, Bryant is also a savagely violent man with a callous disregard for human life. But then, arguably so is Faulkner.

At the end of the day though this book is firmly opposed to the neoliberal globalisation agenda. Here, our prosperity is necessarily and structurally built on others’ poverty.

At risk of giving the impression the book is nothing but anti-capitalist speeches (it isn’t, I’ve just picked those out for this writeup), here’s Shorn’s senior partner talking to Chris Faulkner on just this point:

‘Do you really think we can afford to have the developing world develop? You think we could have survived the rise of a modern, articulated Chinese superpower twenty years ago? You think we could manage an Africa full of countries run by intelligent, uncorrupted democrats? Or a Latin American run by men like Barranco? Just imagine it for a moment. Whole populations getting educated, and healthy, and secure, and aspirational. Women’s rights, for Christ’s sake. We can’t afford these things to happen, Chris. Who’s going to soak up our subsidised food surplus for us? Who’s going to make our shoes and shirts? Who’s going to supply us with cheap labour and raw materials? Who’s going to store our nuclear waste, balance out our CO2 misdemeanours? Who’s going to buy our arms?’
He gestured angrily.
‘An educated middle class doesn’t want to spend eleven hours a day bent over a stitching machine. They aren’t going to work the seaweed farms and the paddy fields ’til their feet rot. They aren’t going to live next door to a fuel-rod dump and shut up about it. They’re going to want prosperity, Chris. Just like they’ve seen it on tv for the last hundred years. City lives and domestic appliances and electronic game platforms for their kids. And cars. And holidays, and places to go to spend their holidays. And planes to get them there. That’s development …’

Again, I don’t think it’s really possible to read that and think Morgan is writing about the future.

Does Morgan offer solutions? No. This is a furious book and it offers no consolations. In one scene Faulkner, his wife, father in law (a left wing journalist) and a UN ombudsman are talking when they realise a next door neighbour is beating his wife. Faulkner is the bad guy in that lineup. His wife, her father and the UN man are all on the side of the poor and of justice. Faulkner though is the only one who takes action against this specific injustice, the rest just talk of systemic wrongs. The right may be selfish and brutal, but it does something. The left is more civilised, but offers nothing beyond words.

I was reminded of the Italian film, Il Caimano, ostensibly an attack on Berlusconi but really an attack on the Italian Left’s failure to take him on. All that is needed for evil to flourish is for good men to write opinion pieces about it.

I’m going to allow myself a couple of paragraphs to wrap up. Beyond the ideas this is well written and exciting science fiction. It’s packed with Morgan’s trademark hyper violence and it’s a very fast read. I’ve talked here about the ideas because that’s what interested me, but that’s only part of the book. The large part of it is following Faulkner’s upward ascent at Shorn, his increasing estrangement from his wife and his own moral crisis about whether or not to continue doing what he does so well.

If I were to criticise I would say that Morgan in a sense has two books here. One is an effective SF thriller about a dystopian future. The other is a dark critique of contemporary British neoliberal politics. Arguably the latter would have been better served by less of the former. For me, the excitement of the road duels was a distraction from the ideas about the inequities of globalisation. It’s the same problem the film Rollerball had. Sure, the message is there about the commercialisation of sport and the growing culture of televised violence, but you can’t deny the rollerball fights are why you watch the film.

Market Forces. As a final aside, I have Martin Lewis to thank in part for encouraging me to read this one. I had considered skipping it, but in fact I rather enjoyed it and found the issues much more relevant than I had expected going in.


Filed under Morgan, Richard, SF

17 responses to “Urban decay, as only the British know how to do it

  1. I still don’t understand why literalisation is such a powerful trope. Not only large-scale stuff like in this book, but also small things like House’s leg, which basically hurts more when he’s more anxious/stressed/conflicted.
    I mean, even the great ones look like they ought to be too in-your-face to be powerful, but they are very affecting.

    Btw, as far as science fiction goes, have you read China Mieville? I just recently read his Perdido Street Station, and it was brilliant (though it seems that a lot of people dislike it).

    And, are you sure people read Wells literally? I remember being told about Wells once, by a socialist friend. He told me that I had to read this great book about inequity, and then revealed it was The Time Machine. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy it too much, but that’s for some other comment, probably.

  2. I think I’m going to have to rethink this SF business. This really does sound excellent. Part of the review made me remember a documentary I watched about Brazil. One of the points made was that the country boasted the largest number of private helicopters and the wealthy in the inner cities travel by helicopter from roof top to roof top to avoid the crime (incl. kidnappings) in the street. There was a futuristic element to some of this in my mind at least.

    The car duels reminded me of Death Proof.

    Anyway, it does sound intriguing.

  3. Ronak, I’m not sure but it can be a useful technique.

    On the Wells, there was a program here recently on the BBC about him. The only person commenting who seemed aware of any social element to his fiction was China Mieville. The rest took it entirely literally.

    Rather made me despair at the time.

    I’ve only read King Rat by Mieville. Flawed but brilliant. Or brilliant but flawed. Not sure. I should read more by him, but they’re so long…

    Guy, my only caveat would be that I wrote about that which interested me – the social aspects. As I say at the end, an awful lot of this 450 odd page book is high octane violence and machismo.

    For satirical sf, it’s centuries since I read it but Sladek’s novels Tik-Tok or Roderick at Random come back to mind. Or The War Against the Newts for that matter. They’re also very funny, this doesn’t try for that. Morgan’s a good writer, but he’s not a funny one.

    But yes, that Brazillian element is what this is about in large part. It’s clear that in Morgan’s future it’s not the world that’s like this. It’s Britain and perhaps some other countries following the same model. Elsewhere in his setting we’re viewed with repugnance.

    A last point on that Brazillian bit. Gibson and Sterling both started out writing cyberpunk fiction. Gibson now writes contemporary fiction, as sometimes does Sterling. With both the reason I think is the same. They think we’re now in their future. They’re writing about the same things they always were, it’s just now they don’t need to set it 20 years away.

    Cyberpunk became irrelevant in part because it became true.

  4. SF is not my genre as you know Max but I will be marking this one down for a future read. I think your review effectively captures the contemporary nature of much of what Morgan wants to address — and I think that that is an arugment that deserves to be heard. And I also think that setting those concerns in a dystopian future is a very effective way of isolating his key thoughts. Certainly, I would never have known about this book without this review — so heartfelt thanks.

    Guy: On that Brazil theme, you might want to check out Heliopolis which was on the Booker longlist last year. A decently-written exploration of just that theme — and worth the read, although not a great novel.

  5. It’s not one that leaps out at me as one you might take to Kevin, but one never knows. It might be worth your reading my other Morgan reviews, he’s a consistent writer so if those sound offputting this may be too. The SF thriller elements I suspect would leave you fairly cold.

    I’d definitely advise browsing in a shop before buying. See how the style takes you (though there’s a fair bit above).

    I should read Ballard’s Concrete Island soon as a companion piece to this.

    Re Heliopolis, I have a copy and hope to get to it soon, bought in response to your blog actually Kevin. A good reminder, Kevin’s writeup of it is excellent Guy and well worth a look at.

  6. A superb review Max – I can see why it resonates so well with your reading tastes in view of your career. It sounds like George Bush’s America gone rampant and global, and I’m sure it would make a great film. I keep reading reviews of books which I want to add to my TBR pile but alas, its now got too large. I’ll add it to my wishlist and see what happens

  7. Max: re China Mieville – given the pace at which you read, you don’t need to care about the length; Perdido… read like an action thriller.
    And as far as Mieville and old fiction goes, you might enjoy this video (it’s really short, so you don’t have to think too much about watching it): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSxm_nhqDyw

  8. It’s Thatcher’s/Blair’s Britain, inspired by neocon philosophy really.

    There is a question in the book of how much it has gone global, or how much it’s that we’ve gone wrong and are dragging the developing world with us.

    I suspect the film would play up the violence and play down the politics, the opposite of what I did here really…

    Ronak, thanks, I’ll try to watch that tonight.

    Perdido does need reading. I’ll try to pack it for my next big holiday. Fast reader or not, it’s still a big book.

  9. Well done, you almost convinced me to read SF. I’m interested in the genre when used to describe our society but your warnings about the “high octane violence and machismo” part cooled me off.
    Maybe you have another idea to start with SF for someone who knows nothing about it, except names ?

    By the way, for me Wells was in the same category as Orwell: stories with double meaning.

    Your questionning about your responsability as a lawyer is interesting too. I audited investment funds in Luxemburg, which made me meet Fannie Mae a long time before her present fame, so I think I understand what you mean.

  10. I’m still working out how I feel about Morgan’s depictions of women. After I’ve read another one or two I may do a post purely on that, because it’s ostensibly caricatured but actually may be more complex than it appears.

    Stanislaw Lem would be my recommendation for SF. Or Kurt Vonnegut. Lem writes stories full of ambiguity and strangeness. His most famous is Solaris. Vonnegut is a dark and funny writer. I particularly liked Slaughterhouse-Five.

  11. In fact it’s not the “machismo” part which discouraged me, I like Balzac very much. It’s more the violence part.

    Thanks for the ideas, I’ll look for that.

    I have another question for you : why is Naked Lunch considered as SF ? My French copy is in the SF collection. And why is The Ice People classified as literary fiction ? I would have thought the opposite.

  12. I wouldn’t call Naked Lunch SF myself.

    The Ice People?

  13. The Ice People (La Nuit des Temps in French) is a book by René Barjavel. I read it a long time ago and always thought it was SF until recently when I saw it among general literature in my book store.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Nuit_des_temps

  14. It sounds very much like science fiction. It may be very well written science fiction and have literary qualities, but it still sounds like science fiction to me.

    Put another way, I share your puzzlement.

  15. Pingback: The joys of trickledown | Pechorin’s Journal

  16. Are you still taking comments? I came here from Emma’s 2013 post about Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, after she finally got me to read it. I’ll read this book if I can find it. I read a fair bit of SF though I mainly blog about Australian Lit. I’m in arguments with Lit readers all the time about what is SF and the literary value of SF, so I think your first 4 para.s are spot on.
    I’ve always accepted that Naked Lunch is SF but it might be 50 years since I read it. It’s still on the shelf, might be time to pull it down again
    Bill Holloway

  17. Always! Though not responding to them terribly quickly…

    I possibly overstate a bit in those opening paras, because two things can be true. War of the Worlds is absolutely about the experience of colonialism, but it’s also about some aliens invading England (the world I know, but the book focuses on England). If it didn’t pull off the surface level story so well it wouldn’t pull off the underlying issues so well either.

    I tend to avoid arguments about the literary merits of SF because I find most of those arguing it doesn’t have any haven’t read anything written after the 1960s…

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