Category Archives: Morgan, Richard

‘The way I see it, anyone who’s proud of their country is either a thug or just hasn’t read enough history yet.’

Black Man, by Richard Morgan

One of the very few book awards I bother following is the Arthur C. Clarke award. One of the very few science fiction writers I bother following is Richard Morgan. In 2008 he won the Arthur C. Clarke award for his fifth novel, Black Man, which makes it slightly ironic that it’s the first of his I’ve not enjoyed.

Black Man is a novel that uses SF techniques to comment on real world racial  and gender politics, showing how people can be demonised and caricatured. In the US the book was published under the alternative title Thirteen, a fact that makes Morgan’s points more effectively than his own text ever could.

The novel takes place in a dystopian future in which genetic engineering has allowed us to create human subspecies, bred to purpose. As with any new technology, the early applications focus on new ways to get people off and to get people dead. Sex and war, driving human development since 4 million BC.

Black Man

Carl Marsalis is the black man of the (original) title. That’s true in two senses: he’s black British, which in his future isn’t particularly important as Europe is largely post-racial; and he’s a variant thirteen. Variant thirteens are one of those new subspecies, bred from early human hunter-gatherer stock for size, strength, aggression and charisma. They’re genetic sociopaths, engineered hyper-alpha males.

Variant thirteens are the nearest this future has to monsters. They’re everything Western culture tells us men should be. They’re naturally dominant, and they don’t care who knows it. They’re so feared that generally they’re only allowed to exist on the offworld colonies on Mars. Marsalis is an exception – when a variant thirteen somehow escapes the colonies and makes it to Earth it’s his job to hunt them down and bring them in.

If you’re thinking of Blade Runner at this point you should be, the book contains clear elements of homage:

he carried his suitcase along broad, bright concourses lined with ten-by-two metre holoscreens that admonished Think it’s all Red Rocks and Airlocks; Think Again and We only send Winners to Mars.

Now one of these nightmares has made it to Earth in a crashed spaceship, and worse it’s killing people according to a pattern nobody can understand. The NYPD and colonial administration officers on Earth team up to track the rogue down, but they need help. They need an expert. They need, obviously enough, Carl Marsalis.

‘You don’t understand what you’re up against.’ The smile came back, fleeting, as if driven by memory. ‘You think because Merrin’s killed a couple of dozen people, he’s some kind of serial killer writ large? That’s not what this is about. Serial killers are damaged humans. You know this, Sevgi, even if Tom here doesn’t. They leave a trail, they leave clues, they get caught. And that’s because in the end, consciously or subconsciously, they want to be caught. Calculated murder is an anti-social act, it’s hard for humans to do, and it takes special circumstances at either a personal or a social level to enable the capacity. But that’s you people. It’s not me, and it’s not Merrin, and it’s not any variant thirteen. We’re not like you. We’re the witches. We’re the violent exiles, the lone-wolf nomads that you bred out of the race back when growing crops and living in one place got so popular. We don’t have, we don’t need a social context. You have to understand this; there is nothing wrong with Merrin. He’s not damaged. He’s not killing these people as an expression of some childhood psychosis, he’s not doing it because he’s identified them as some dehumanised, segregated extra-tribal group. He’s just carrying out a plan of action, and he is comfortable with it. And he won’t get caught doing it – unless you can put me next to him.’

Black Man is essentially an SF thriller with a philosophical underpin. That could be said to varying degrees of all Morgan’s novels so far, but here it doesn’t quite come off. Almost everyone in Morgan’s future buys the genetic determinist viewpoint. They believe that the variant thirteens represent an extension of male traits, just as another much more submissive variant represents an extension of female traits. They ignore the fact that every variant thirteen was raised from birth by the military, trained to be what they were bred to be.

For much of the book it’s easy to miss how Morgan undermines his own characters’ viewpoint, which is very close to a modern pseudo-scientific Anglo-American viewpoint. Marsalis believes his own press – as far as he’s concerned he is genetically predisposed to certain behaviour patterns. He’s paired with an ex-NYPD detective named Sevgi. She finds herself attracted to Marsalis which doesn’t surprise her as she considers herself no less subject to genetic predisposition than he is. This is genetics both as destiny and excuse, but more as a seemingly apolitical justification for the status quo.

Looking around the real world today what Morgan’s talking about is much in evidence. I saw a while back a newspaper story about how scientists in the US were working on understanding the genetic underpinning for why girls prefer pink. They seemed unaware that in the 19th Century pink was seen as a colour for boys, blue was then the preferred colour for girls. Those scientists had assumed a genetic basis for what is clearly a cultural phenomenon, and a very recent one at that. That’s fairly harmless in that instance, but it’s a tiny step from that to assuming that under-representation of of women in engineering or of men in nursing is due to irrevocable genetic differences.

In my own profession it’s striking how few black lawyers there are, and of those who are almost all are of African rather than Caribbean descent. If we see that as a societal issue then it suggests that something has gone wrong at some point in the training and recruitment process. If though we reach to genetics (which hardly anyone does now for race thankfully, but which increasingly seems to be the default answer for gender-based outcome differences) then we can sit comfortably in our privilege reassuring ourselves that we find ourselves where we are not because we benefit from an unfair society but because that’s how nature made us.

That’s meaty stuff. The question is whether an SF thriller is the best place to explore it. Morgan spends most of his frankly rather fat book driving the plot along. The characters don’t see how their own assumptions are questionable, which means that for the vast bulk of the book nobody questions them and it’s very easy to miss the fact that they’re not actually supported by the text.

More problematically, it’s all very well showing that Marsalis isn’t as unique as everyone likes to think he is, that without genetic engineering we’ve produced more than our fair share of charismatic monsters anyway, but all of that pales when put against Marsalis beating up everyone in his path and getting the girl. The book’s plot undermines its philosophy. There’s a sense here of Morgan having his cake and eating it, treating the reader to exciting action scenes then saying that violence is bad, m’kay.

More successful is the portrayal of Marsalis’ partner Sevgi. She’s a moderately observant muslim who takes her faith seriously but who isn’t very good at it. That’s actually quite revolutionary. It’s a sympathetic depiction of what it’s like to practice a faith at the everyday level even though you’re not some paragon of virtue. She has a drink and substance abuse problem, she’s attracted to the wrong kind of men, she has all sorts of issues but none of that changes her faith or her hope that it might make her a better person than she is.

Morgan clearly isn’t religious himself, but here Sevgi’s faith is no worse than any other belief system, and since hers is a particularly progressive strain of Islam it’s arguably better than many:

‘Angels and demons, heaven and hell, god, morality, law and language. Sutherland’s right, it’s all metaphor. Scaffolding to handle the areas where base reality won’t cut it for you guys, where it’s too cold for humans to live without something made up. We codify our hopes and fears and wants, and then build whole societies on the code. And then forget it ever was code and treat it like fact. Act like the universe gives a shit about it. Go to war over it, string men and women up by the neck for it. Firebomb trains and skyscrapers in the name of it.’

You could read that as being about religion, and it is, but it’s about politics too, nationalism, and of course the absurd belief that somehow evolutionary theory tells us not just how we came to live but how we should live – the idea that girls like pink because their genes tell them to (to be fair this is a trap Dawkins himself has never fallen into, but plenty of his followers have).

In the end, the problem with Black Man is that it’s just far too long. My copy came in at 644 pages. That allows for an ocean of plot, of action scenes, twists and turns. The thematic underpin gets lost in all that. This should have been a 300 page novel. That would mean losing well over half the plot and likely entire characters and storylines, but the result would have been a book that had a much better balance between adrenalin and social critique. As it is the book risks celebrating exactly that which it sets out to challenge, and for that reason I think it ultimately fails.

There’s a very good review by Martin Lewis at Strange Horizons here which I recommend both for analysis and for a better explanation of the plot than I’ve sought to provide.


Filed under Morgan, Richard, SF

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


Filed under Morgan, Richard, SF

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

Broken Angels

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:

Clotted white.
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.

Broken Angels


Filed under Morgan, Richard, SF

The long habit of living

Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

Originally posted 25 June 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.

So, yesterday I finished Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan’s first novel.

Altered Carbon is, at its heart, a work of hardboiled fiction in the vein of the holy trinity of hardboiled (Chandler, Hammet, Spillane). In particular, it employs a number of stock scenes from writers such as Chandler and Hammet, although neatly updated and without at any point descending into pastiche. Prosewise and in terms of the nature of its protagonist, one Takeshi Kovacs, it’s closer to Spillane’s Mike Hammer with all the brutality which that implies.

It is, however, not a crime novel in strict genre terms. It’s science fiction. It’s set in the 26th Century, and posits a technology in which every human has implanted in them shortly after birth a device which records their thoughts and memories and which on death can be transplanted into a new body (usually either the body of a convicted criminal or an artificially grown one). Accordingly, in this brave new world nobody need ever die. An individual’s mind can be recorded, stored, copied, backed up and as such mortality can be remedied.

As a piece of SF worldbuilding, this is used well and Morgan really thinks through the implications of the technology and its effects on society. That is classic SF, positing a what if and then thinking through the consequences.

It is as a device for hardboiled fiction though that it really shines. In Morgan’s future backups and new bodies are expensive things. Although potentially everyone could live forever, although the technology to abolish death exists, in practice most people live out an entire life into old age saving up the money for a second life, and then by the time they’ve lived that are so exhausted by a second bout of old age and so impoverished in paying for it that they literally cannot afford to buy another body and yet more life. Most people in Morgan’s world die not because death is inevitable, but because they cannot afford the technology that would keep them alive.

So, in many ways Morgan’s world is deeply familiar. The ultra rich live longer lives, literally centuries, while the poor die for lack of treatment. It’s hard not to see this as a commentary upon the logic of our own world. The technology however brings this injustice into sharp relief. In real life, poverty affects life prospects and indeed health and longevity, but it does so statistically – looking at populations it can be seen that there is a link between wealth and longevity but it is difficult with any given individual to see precisely the impact it had on them. In Morgan’s world this link is made very explict, and so more comprehensible at the personal level and the consequences of income disparity are made very plain. The rich, in this world, are personally guaranteed longer lives than the poor.

The other effect of the technology on the novel is to make death when it does occur more shocking. Early on in the novel it is established that nobody needs die, so when the protagonist kills someone then stops to destroy the internal machine on which their mind is stored, making a restoration to a new body impossible, it makes the act of killing particularly significant. In this world, a person who dies can be restored to a new body if the implanted device is recovered, but Takeshi Kovacs on several occasions stops to ensure it is destroyed so that death is irrevocable. Of course, in most hardboiled fiction death is irrevocable because this technology is not in most novels, but the effect of it here is to underline the finality of killing – by creating a real choice about whether death needs to be final at all.

For example, in one relatively early scene, Takeshi Kovacs breaks into a brothel to find out who killed a young girl forced into prostitution (a classic hardboiled motif incidentally). Kovacs ends up shooting several people, and in one particularly shocking scene stops to destroy one’s implant in order to show that he means business. In a classic hardboiled novel, the fight itself would have led to men dying, here it has not as they can all be restored. And so, the choice by Kovacs to kill what is ultimately merely a bouncer doing his job is shown for the terrible act it is, by making it a two stage process (shooting him and then destroying the implant) the reader is forced to face the nature of what Kovacs has just done. The technology means that a decision to kill is a much more purposive, a much more deliberative, thing.

The technology is also used to comment on the ways in which our bodies affect our minds, and the question of what makes us us. Takeshi Kovacs is housed in the body of a convicted criminal, a (possibly) corrupt police officer named Elias Ryker. Kovacs is forced to work with another police officer, Kristin Ortega, who used to be Ryker’s lover. While in Ryker’s body, Kovacs finds himself increasingly drawn to Ortega and she to him, as their bodies react to each other at a chemical level causing them to fall in love even though the mind in Ryker’s body is not his own. Later, when Kovacs is housed in a different body for a period, his feelings for Ortega are largely lost, the feelings were generated by their bodies, not their minds. This raises interesting questions about the nature of self, about what makes us who we are and the extent to which mind and body really can be meaningfully separated.

In terms of plot the book clearly owes a great deal to early hardboiled writers, as mentioned above. We are in San Francisco (renamed at some point in the intervening 600 years as Bay City, but the Golden Gate Bridge is still there). Kovacs is manipulated by a wealthy and powerful old man into finding out who killed him (the old man was restored from backup post-mortem). The old man has a family at least one of whom is in psychiatric care, and is found during the course of the novel to have a taste for particularly degrading and upleasant sexual practices. The plot is convoluted, with powerful and rich figures manipulating those around them and using other people without compunction. Nobody is clean, nobody is a good guy, the most guilty are protected by money and political connections. Other than the restoration from backup all of the above could have been found in any classic hardboiled novel.

Kovacs himself is something of a monster, but a monster with a personal code. He keeps to his word, he helps out the only seemingly genuinely innocent people he encounters (who are themselves criminals for all that), he is not a moral figure but he is a consistent one. In this he is again in the classic mould of the hardboiled hero, who typically is motivated either by a sense of morality that others lack or by an idiosyncratic sense of personal honour. He is closest to Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane’s protagonist, in being a man of savage violence prone to horrific acts of vengeance who is motivated in large part by a personal code from which he does not deviate, regardless of the cost.

So, we have a hardboiled protagonist, a plot involving the rich, powerful and decadent, San Francisco as a setting. It’s very faithful to its genre roots, while at the same time managing the difficult task of working as good science fiction with a well realised and internally consistent future.

It is also a violent novel. It’s not so much that there’s a lot of violence in it. But when there is violence, and equally when there is sex, it is described in intimate and explicit detail. This makes the scenes of violence particularly powerful, and gives the impression of a novel in which there is more violence than is actually present. The visceral in this novel is never glossed over. Interestingly, in a novel in which the mind/body problem has been conclusively answered and in which the mind is easily separable from the body, the needs of the body and the fragility of it are frequently given close attention – even when we seem to be able to leave the body behind, it still tethers us in bonds of sex and mortality.

Overall, I thought this an excellent novel. A great piece of hardboiled fiction, a great piece of science fiction and a novel with a great deal to say about society, justice, mind/body duality and (like all good hardboiled fiction) how to live in a world where god is if not dead at the very least on an extended holiday.

Hardboiled fiction is fiction born of existentialism, and Altered Carbon uses its posited technology as a tool to really explore the issues which existentialism raises and what it means to live in a world in which all there is, is us. Richard Morgan is a Glaswegian writer, and it is interesting to note how once again the interesting writing in contemporary science fiction appears to be coming predominantly out of Scotland, which in recent years has seen a renaissance in this area. I have some thoughts on why that should be, but those will have to wait for another post.


Filed under Hardboiled, Morgan, Richard, Noir, SF