The joys of trickledown

Woken Furies, by Richard Morgan

I noticed recently that I don’t read much science fiction any more. I don’t seem to enjoy it as much as I used to. There are always exceptions though, and for me Richard Morgan made ideal Christmas reading. If Christmas isn’t about bloody tales of vengeance and left-wing politics after all, what is it about?

Woken Furies is Morgan’s fourth novel and the third (and so far final) in his Takeshi Kovacs sequence. I’ve written up his previous books here, here and here.


Altered Carbon shook up the dead genre of cyberpunk and reinvigorated it. It went back and drew on the same sources of inspiration Gibson had – hardboiled and noir fiction – and used them to craft a genuinely exciting story that mixed crime, politics and hard sf.

Broken Angels also drew on Gibson, but was much more inspired by the traditions of military sf than cyberpunk. It was good and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it wasn’t as original as Altered Carbon. What was most surprising about Broken Angels was how different it was to its predecessor. Morgan wrote a novel set in the same world, but arguably not quite in the same genre.

After that Morgan wrote Market Forces – his satire on contemporary neoliberal politics and market philosophies. I almost didn’t read it, but when I did although I had criticisms I found a lot in it to like and much in it that I recognised from my own life working in the City.

With Woken Furies Morgan returns to his Takeshi Kovacs character. The action takes place on Kovacs’ homeworld, Harlan’s World. It’s a planet ruled by its equivalent of the Founding Fathers and their families. The nobility here, the first families, are of course immortal because in Kovacs’ universe everyone has digital stacks implanted in them which record a person’s thoughts and experiences. On death, anyone with the money (or decent health insurance) can be resleeved – their stack excised and placed in a new and youthful body.

If you have the resources or someone else is willing to pay you can also be resleeved while alive. You can trade in your existing body for one better suited to your lifestyle. The poor though live with the bodies they’re born with and when they get old they just die. For the poor the future is not that different to all the long centuries that have gone before it.

Morgan has always been a political writer, and this is a highly political book. 300 years previously Harlan’s World saw a revolution. A Che Guevara-like figure named Quellcrist Falconer led an uprising against the first families. She lost, and was destroyed along with her datastack leaving no possibility of her return.

As the book opens, Kovacs is back on Harlan’s World. He’s temporarily sleeved in a cheap body which he’s using to carry out what are essentially acts of terrorism against a local fundamentalist religious movement. Why he’s doing this is unclear, but what is clear is how much trouble he’s in when after slaughtering several priests he finds the body he’d planned to go back into has become unavailable. Worse, he falls foul of the local Yakuza which leaves both the church and the mob looking to kill him. He needs to get out of town, and fast.

Here’s Kovacs in action, intervening in a bar fight that’s got out of hand:

She’d killed the one on the floor, let the others alone for time you could measure. The nearest priest got in close, lashed out with power knuckles and down she went, twisting, onto the ruined corpse of the officiator. The others closed in, steel-capped boots stomping down out of robes the colour of dried blood. Someone back at the tables started cheering.
I reached in, yanked back a beard and sliced the throat beneath it, back to the spine. Shoved the body aside. Slashed low through a robe and felt the blade bury itself in flesh. Twist and withdraw. Blood sluiced warm over my hand. The Tebbit knife sprayed droplets as it came clear. I reached again, dreamlike. Root and grab, brace and stab, kick aside. The others were turning, but they weren’t fighters. I laid open a cheek down to the bone, parted an outflung palm from middle finger to the wrist, drove them back off the woman on the floor, grinning, all the time grinning like a reef demon.

Kovacs falls in with a team of deComs. These are technologically augmented mercenaries fighting a war of aggression to reclaim a continent abandoned by humanity after that centuries-old revolution and which is now inhabited by the intelligent war machines of that era. The deComs use their skills and technological edge to wipe out the machines. The morality of this is, to put it mildly, questionable.

Static Hiss. The general channel was wide open.
‘Look,’ said the scorpion gun reasonably. ‘There’s no call for this. Why don’t you just leave us alone?.’
I sighed and shifted cramped limbs slightly in the confines of the overhang. A cold polar wind hooted in the eroded bluffs, chilling my face and hands. The sky overhead was a standard New Hok grey, the miserly northern winter daylight already past its best. Thirty meters below the rock face I was clinging to, a long trail of scree ran out to the valley floor proper, the river bend and the small cluster of archaic rectangular prefabs that formed the abandoned Quellist listening post. Where we’d been an hour ago. Smoke was still rising from one smashed structure where the self-propelled gun had lobbed its last smart shell. So much for programming parameters.
‘Leave us alone,’ it repeated. ‘And we’ll do you the same favour.’
‘Can’t do that,’ Sylvie murmured, voice gentle and detached as she ran the crew link-up at combat standby and probed for chinks in the artillery’s co-op system. Mind cast out in a gossamer net of awareness that settled over the surrounding landscape like a silk slip to the floor. ‘You know that. You’re too dangerous. Your whole system of life is inimical to ours.’
‘Yeah.’ Jadwiga’s new laugh was taking some getting used to. ‘And besides which , we want the fucking land.’

The Sylvie mentioned there is the leader of the deCom group. She has a new form of software interface technology embedded in her head. It goes wrong and she starts manifesting a second personality. A personality that appears to be Quellcrist Falconer. One theory is that Sylvie’s been infected with an ancient computer virus designed to sow confusion and programmed to believe it’s Falconer. There’s always the possibility though that somehow, impossibly, it really is Falconer’s personality and a recording of her somehow survived after all.

Kovacs takes Sylvie/Falconer to friends of his some of whom are old enough that they were part of that 300 year old revolution. They don’t necessarily care whether she’s really Falconer or not. For them she’s their revolution reborn. Their desire to believe is enough and events start moving towards a new insurrection.

All this and someone has got hold of an illegal backup of an earlier version of Kovacs himself. It’s illegal to have two versions of the same person alive. That earlier Kovacs has been well paid to hunt down his later self, and has the added incentive that legally only one of them can exist at a time. Kovacs isn’t just fighting the yakuza, a militant priesthood and the government of a planet. He’s fighting himself.

It’s high octane stuff. Morgan fills the book with his usual blend of hyperviolence, explicit sex and solid sf worldbuilding. The plot is twisty and complex, but not so much so that it can’t be followed. As a story it’s very enjoyable though it’s straight sf and so unlikely to appeal to those who haven’t already some interest in that genre.

Along the way Morgan takes diversions into a surfers’ community populaced by retirees who’ve bought themselves surfing-adapted bodies and who spend the long centuries seeking the perfect wave. He explores Kovacs’ abused childhood and adolescence as a petty criminal and what it was that made Kovacs into what he is (essentially a monster). He brings the deComs to life and stops off for an exciting battle among some alien ruins where an unarmed Kovacs takes down a party of mercenaries trying to kill him. There’s an awful lot of rock climbing. It’s fun stuff.

The key though is the politics. The revolution 300 years previously happened because the conditions of the poor were genuinely appalling. Afterwards things improved. The first families spread their wealth around a little more and conditions for the working classes became much more comfortable. As time’s gone on though the balance has shifted back and while things aren’t too bad there are signs that the gains won by the failed insurgency may not stick.

Falconer may be back and the revolution may be back with her. Will that make any difference though? The live Falconer seems in some ways quite different to the myth of her and is prepared to use methods that according to history she would never have countenanced. The question arises again, is it really her at all? Does anyone care? If the revolution finally happens will it just change one set of rulers for another?

This is a novel in which some characters make a defence of tyranny and it’s not clear that they’re wrong. Living standards are reasonable. People mostly are doing ok. Does it matter that they have little say in how they are governed? The revolutionaries are prepared to kill to free the people, but they’re not particularly inclined to ask the people if that’s actually what they want. The defence of tyranny is ultimately self-serving, but then here what isn’t?

Politics here is just something else to get people killed. Another means by which the few take power over the many. The personal though isn’t much better. Kovac’s campaign against the fundamentalists gets explained, but it’s deranged in its savagery and cruelty. Kovacs wants to rescue Sylvie from those who would use her for the personality she carries, but does she even want rescuing? Everyone here acts for others, but really everyone is acting for themselves.

I enjoyed Woken Furies, but I wasn’t sorry to know that it’s Kovacs’ last outing (at least for the moment anyway, Morgan hasn’t ruled out returning to him). All the Kovacs novels contain references to William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) and though they’re less obvious here they’re still present (mostly in ways I can’t discuss without spoiling this and MLO). In that sense there’s nowhere further for it to go but also I thought Morgan had made his points. The essence of Kovacs’ universe for me is technological immortality and what its implementation tells us about ourselves.

The people of this future have access to science we can only dream of. They have settled alien worlds and conquered death. For all that though nothing has really changed. Those in charge rule through control of force. The poor distract themselves with drink, religion and cheap entertainment. The existence of immortality just means that when people are murdered care is taken to destroy their datastacks so that they can’t be brought back.

This is a society that could build a heaven for everyone. They could build a utopia in which nobody need ever die. Instead they use their wealth and brilliance to benefit a handful while the majority live in squalor. The parallels with our own world are all too obvious.

Woken Furies

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12 Comments

Filed under Morgan, Richard, Science Fiction

12 responses to “The joys of trickledown

  1. leroyhunter

    It sounds packed alright Max. A little too packed, perhaps? I’ve never really been an SF reader so I don’t feel I can offer much of a useful opinion. Writing action well is a definite skill, though, so if he’s got that it’s a big plus.

    I take your point about Morgan using his imagination to comment on real situations, but I just don’t much like allegory as a reader, at least not when it’s the main purpose of the book. It’s probably why I’m allergic to writers like Saramago as well. Although, I guess you’d argue, Morgan is hoping to entertain first and draw parallels second so I’m not saying it’s not a valid approach.

  2. Possibly. A lot of online reviewers seem to think it’s one of his best. I don’t quite agree, but it is well done.

    He can definitely write action, which as you say is a genuine skill and while I don’t generally read for the action there are times it’s welcome.

    Morgan does I think look to entertain first and draw parallels second. You could to be honest wholly ignore the parallels, and I suspect a great many sf fans do. It’s not thinly disguised parable.

    That said, the social comment is there. It’s not as strong here as in Market Forces but that book’s very much about the social comment.

    I don’t think Morgan is a writer who’ll appeal to those who don’t like sf. He’s not like say Philip K Dick where if you choose the right title a non-sf reader could find a lot to really enjoy and engage with (choosing the right title with Dick is essential, he wrote a lot too of what is just straightforward pulp sf though that tends to get ignored a bit now by critics). He is one of the few sf writers I still enjoy, I think because his prose has an immediacy and freshness and because of his sheer energy. The social comment certainly doesn’t hurt either. He’s an intelligent writer.

    I’m on Jim Crace’s Quarantine now which is a massive contrast. Deft and subtle are words I already have noted for the writeup and I’m not that far into it. I wouldn’t really call Morgan subtle as such. The Morgan was for me definitely refreshing. There are times one wants meticulous use of language and psychological depth, and there are times one wants more to be entertained. I have a lot of literary fiction stacked up that I want to get to grips with soon, a breather is important otherwise it all gets stale.

  3. leroyhunter

    Ah, Quarantine, saw you were reading that and looking forward to your thoughts. “Massive contrast” would sum it up all right.

    Fair point about mixing up the litfic, I guess I turn to crime or non-fiction when in need of a total change. Generally I find though that even within the “litfic” pseudo-category there’s a lot of distinction…one of the feeble justifications I use for my inordinate TBR pile.

    Funny, Philip K Dick was in my mind as I wrote the earlier comment. I didn’t know about the tactfully ignored stuff though.

  4. Ignored is perhaps a bit strong since they’re well known in sf circles. When he’s marketed outside those circles though the tendency is to talk about say The Man in the High Castle and not The World that Jones Made or Our Friends from Frolix 8.

    He wrote good pulp sf, but good in that context is a rather relative term. He also of course wrote some mind-bending good sf which he’s better known for. It’s odd though that like HG Wells his huge volume of non-sf writing really is ignored. Dick wrote a lot of what we’d now straightforwardly call general or literary fiction with no sf elements at all, but it’s not that easy to get hold of (I’ve never read any of it, but then like most I encountered him as an sf author first).

    I usually turn to crime too, and as you say there’s so much breadth within litfic (whatever that is) that one can mix up pretty well within it. To be honest I just like Richard Morgan and while it’s unlikely anyone who reads my blog will share that liking it’s no reason not to write him up as I would anyone else ultimately.

  5. leroyhunter

    I’d like to read The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly…would you recommend any of his other stuff?

    HG Wells is someone who seems to have fallen right out of fashion – his books I mean rather then the ideas, which obviously still inspire Hollywood especially.

    I read Sam’s Hugo blog at the Guardian about Asimov, as I remember reading a couple of his as a kid (which ones I couldn’t say). And there were those role-play books based on Heinlein, they were all the rage for a while, quite good fun too.

  6. Those are the two I’d start with.

    As you may or may not know (I’ve mentioned it occasionally) my mother and stepfather were part of the UK counterculture and squatters’ scene. By the time I came along that scene had gone pretty sour and a lot of people had got into fairly hard drugs. Several people I knew as a kid got hooked on heroin, which is as bad as it gets.

    The relevance is that A Scanner Darkly is the best novel on addiction I’ve read, regardless of genre. That doesn’t mean it’s the best there is as there’s plenty I haven’t read, but I have read a few. I don’t recall how good or otherwise the prose is, but as an examination of addiction using sf as a means of approaching a difficult subject it’s brilliant.

    The Man in the High Castle is also good. If you take to those there’s others I’d recommend, but those are as good a starting pair as I can imagine.

  7. leroyhunter

    I do remember you mentioning that before Max. I’ve never personally encountered a situation involving things that extreme, but there’s no shortage of folks I know going too far with drink or gambling and the impact on people around them is profound.

    De Quincy is good on addiction but I found his confessions tough going – it was almost too big a change from most else I’d been reading. Took a while to get into, but an incredibly interesting man. One of the most powerful perspectives I’ve read is by a chronic drinker, Frederick Exley, in his memoir-novel A Fan’s Notes.

    Thanks for the opinion on PKD, they’re on the wishlist. I really liked the Linklater movie version of Scanner.

  8. swpmre

    I’ll read this. I enjoyed his earlier novels (both Market Forces and the others in this sequence) but I found the two earlier Kovacs books could be over intensely detailed. Following exactly what was going on and who was who could be difficult. One slight criticism is that I think Morgan wears his politics a little obviously on his sleave. He doesn’t really do subtle and sometimes it can feel a little like you’re being lectured. Great fun though.

  9. sshaver

    So violent.

  10. swpmre,

    I was fine with the detail, but to the extent it’s a fault it’s a fault that remains. Same for the politics really. It’s as fun as the others, but I suspect you’ll have the same criticisms here as you did with the others.

    sshaver, absolutely. I included a violent quote in part as warning of that. For many readers it will simply be too violent, and I think it’s fair I should warn people about that. The same goes for David Peace I’d say.

  11. That’s funny, Leroy that you brought about Dick. Every time Max posts about SF, I remind myself that I need to read one of his novels.

  12. leroyhunter

    Guy: David Thomson is writing about Paul Giametti in today’s Guardian, and he ends his piece with this nugget:
    “Giamatti wants to act in and produce The Owl in Daylight, in which he will play the author Philip K Dick. That sounds like the kind of venture an actor could grow very old and sad trying to set up. But as I told you, Paul Giamatti is surprisingly young.”

    Interesting.

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