Broken Angels, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2003, 400 pages, C$24.99 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07324-1

Few SF readers were left unimpressed by Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan’s enviable debut novel. A dazzling mixture of pitch-black detective fiction and hard-edged extrapolation, Morgan’s first book immediately announced the arrival of a promising new author, one who could build upon the genre’s traditions and bring them forward in the twenty-first century. While Broken Angels is a conventional side-step in a different genre, it offers plenty of rewards to anyone who won’t mind a bit of action-packed futuristic adventure.

Takeshi Kovacs, the hero of Altered Carbon, is once again the star of this follow-up novel, but whereas his first adventure was modelled on crime fiction, this one is straight-up military SF served with a touch of treasure-hunting. Stuck on a remote planet fighting a war he never believed in, Kovacs begins the novel in rehab after a particularly nasty battle. He’s soon contacted by a man with a tall story of alien artifacts and a lost starship. Pages later, Kovacs can be found leading the retrieval effort, making deals with amoral corporations and training his crew of intrepid special forces soldiers.

It’s no insult to Morgan to call him a white-knuckled writer of upscale men’s adventures. Altered Carbon‘s mix of hardboiled sex and violence made even jaded reader wince in shock. Broken Angels follows in the same path, even finding (not always successfully) a surprising amount of sex into a situation custom-made for action. Mercenaries, traitors, body-destroying weapons and humans sins are the norm in this thrill-a-chapter roller-coaster.

Perhaps the best thing about Broken Angels is how it builds on the hints left in Altered Carbon (Martians!) to create a far more complex universe featuring a long-lost alien race, dirty wars galore, complex power plays between governments and corporations, factions within factions and enough grittiness to make it all feel real despite the plot contrivances. Clearly, Morgan has made himself a playground rich enough to serve as the setting for a few more novels if he so chooses. (Early word suggests that Kovacs will return in 2005’s Woken Furies) Kovacs himself is far more in his element here as a gun-for-hire, thanks to top-notch UN Envoy training and tons of hard-won experience. You can’t ask for a better narrator, even despite his tendency to keep the emotional side of what he does carefully locked away from his tough-guy personae. (Which often works at the novel’s disadvantage —especially when he flips out and starts shooting in chapter thirty-nine.)

Perhaps just as interesting is Morgan’s explicit political positioning. After a number of rather heavy hints in Altered Carbon (where only the rich can exploit the advantages of “sleeve” technology, etc.), Kovacs’ reluctant-warrior reflections place Morgan squarely alongside other newish writers (Miéville, etc.) whose left-of-centre politics fully inform their fiction. Some will undoubtedly find this tiresome, but in many ways it’s a welcome shot in the arm for a genre who should be asking questions and upsetting the status-quo. In Broken Angels, the merciless portrayal of the corporations running the show is as nasty as the worst cyberpunk had to offer, but it’s partly influenced by the new anti-globalisation movement and developed with a great deal more skill and complexity. (More on this in the singleton Market Forces… at least if I understand the cover blurb correctly.) Despite the sex, the violence and the big guns, Broken Angels doesn’t have much in common with stereotypical military-SF nuke-em-ups. Imagine cyberpunk spliced into an anti-war novel.

Cynics will be quick to point out Morgan doesn’t innovate much when plotting Broken Angels: “Explorers of various backgrounds banding together to explore an alien environment” can date back all the way to Burroughs’s The Lost World and earlier. But Morgan succeeds reasonably well in updating this template to current standards. Every weapon description is peppered with enough techno-jargon to make you see the serial numbers. The last chapter has as many twists as an entire noir novel. As alluded above, even the generic “war is awful and corporations are bad, m’kay?” message is developed with enough skill to be palatable, maybe even engaging.

Nothing in Broken Angels is broken. Familiar, maybe, but in the end, what’s left is a fine slick read, with steady forward momentum and enough action to satisfy anyone looking for faster SF. Yes, Broken Angels suggests that Morgan could become a one-trick action/adventure writer if he so chooses. But it’s too early to tell: In the meantime, Broken Angels is a whole lot of fun, especially for reader who like stuff blowing up, but can’t face the prospect of yet another generic Baen military-SF book.

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