Gollancz, 2004, 386 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07567-8
Anyone who has read Richard Morgan’s previous Altered Carbon already knows that the man’s not afraid to pull punches when it comes to sex and violence. Morgan may not appeal to more delicate sensibilities by successfully combining science-fiction elements with big boy toys, but he has managed to carve himself an impressive readership. Now with Market Forces, Morgan one-ups himself and delivers the equivalent of a big Hollywood action blockbuster in book form.
The comparison with a big-budget film is no accident: As Morgan acknowledge in his preface, Market Forces was a script at one moment in its checkered history, and the central premise owes more to studio high-concept thinking than to serious sober extrapolation. What if, in a world where ultra-capitalism is dominant, one takes “corporate warfare” to its logical conclusion… on the roads?
This is not such a new idea. ROLLERBALL 2000 and MAD MAX 2 are also mentioned in the preface, while more experienced readers will remember satiric works such as Alan Dean Foster’s “Why Johnny Can’t Speed” or Harlan Ellison’s “Along the Scenic Route”. Morgan’s newest entry in the infernokrusher canon attempts to be somewhat more sophisticated, reflecting current concerns about globalization, runaway corporations and the widening divide between social classes.
As the novel begins, renowned carfighter Chris Faulkner joins a new employer in their Conflict Investment division, in which he makes deals with third-world civil war leaders in exchange for considerations once the dust settles. Dirty stuff, but not all that detached from current practises. What is different is the way companies vie for contract and corporate climbers eliminate their competition: On the road, with cars and guns. Whoever wins, suggests Morgan, brings back the other driver’s plastic cards.
If that sounds like a perfect excuse to include car chases, gun battles and hot women, well, you’re absolutely right. The universe of Market Forces is one where corporate executive go joy-shooting poor people in the disenfranchised zones, where every woman is either a bland wife, a hot mistress or an icy ball-breaker. It’s hard to take it very seriously, and that eventually becomes a problem: Morgan’s satire is earnest about its left-wing stance (this may be the first guns-and-babes action novel ending with a bibliography suggesting works by Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore), but it requires a lot of suspension of disbelief to work. When Morgan gets down to explanations in the pivotal Chapter Thirty-Four, he doesn’t give the reader a believable rationale as much as an excuse to go along with the whole carfighting concept.
But don’t thing that this makes Market Forces any less than a bang-up read. Morgan writes with an unbeatable narrative energy, and as a result you’ll be hard-pressed to tear yourself away from this novel even as you roll your eyes and mutter that this is all very unlikely. Faulkner’s corporate struggles with competitors, enemies and friends are gripping, and so are the various incidents on his road to moral redemption. A twisted example of Morgan’s skills is found in Chapter Thirty-Three, as an incident of unbelievable violence is felt as a cathartic triumph, and then becomes a comic punchline for the rest of the book.
The book falters near the end, as it tries to reconcile dramatic inevitability and moral considerations with its action-driven atmosphere. The way Morgan is willing to criticize ultra-capitalism and yet deliver an ambiguous conclusion is admirable, but it may also strike some as trying to sell a cake and eating it too. Too bad that in the process, a number of threads are cut abruptly, or left unresolved.
There is no doubt that Market Forces is a remarkable book. At a time where “left-wing” often means “wimpy”, it’s unusual to see a vigorous political argument taking a form more appropriate to the bloodthirsty young males. It’s a fascinating study in the contradictions of satire, with serious themes supporting silly concepts. It’s almost wonderful in its capacity to make fascinating characters out of repellent people, and in creating narrative interest even as the events unfolding are almost unbearably awful. It certainly solidify whatever credentials Morgan has established with his first two novels, and is making hard to wait until his next.