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.