Tag Archives: Richard Morgan

Black Man, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2007, 546 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-575-07767-6

Anyone can get an idea, but the measure of true professionals is what they do with it. It’s the difference between luck and talent: how an author masters the tools of the trade in order to deliver a satisfying experience. If anything, Black Man shows how much progress Richard Morgan has made over five novels, from a gifted amateur to a solid professional.

At first glance, Black Man struggles to distinguish itself from so many thriller/SF hybrids: It’s a serial killer novel. It’s a genetic discrimination novel. It’s a buddy-cop story. It’s a near-future thriller with chases and fights and mysteries and United Nations operatives. Worse yet: whatever elements do come up in plot summaries are the kind of tedious clichés seen so often seen in naive small-press Science Fiction: a race of men genetically engineered to be killers, an America divided between liberal blue and conservative red states, and so on. We’re far from the high-concept sleeving of Altered Carbon and its two sequels, or the corporate advancement through car combat in Market Forces.

But don’t let any of this fool you: Black Man is written by a professional, and there’s a lot of clever material under the surface sheen of this SF thriller. Morgan is able to take all of those elements and spin them into a thought-provoking, genre-savvy exploration of issues that even seem fresh once he’s done with them.

The hero of the tale is one Carl Marsalis, a genetically-engineered “variant thirteen” whose talents include an innate propensity toward violence. This seems to be a good asset in his chosen career as an enforcer for the United Nations. Though never called a “blade runner”, his job is to track down and take care of unregistered thirteens. Things don’t always go well, however, and within chapters of the opening, he’s in a Florida prison for moral offences against the ultra-conservative government of the “Red” United States. When agents from the “Blue” States come to him with an offer to track down a thirteen who came back from Mars and left behind a trail of partially digested bodies before even landing on Earth, he’s unusually receptive to their offer.

The ensuing chase takes place on three continents and in virtual reality, but Morgan has much more in mind than a simple adventure tale. Before even realizing it, we’re tackling speculations about the feminisation of western society, the need for aggression in protecting metaphorical flocks of sheep, the role of genetic determinism, the place of politics in shaping our futures and the lasting consequences of what seemed like good ideas at the time. As the title of the book suggests, it also has something to say about racism and gender. (Although regular Morgan readers may be excused if their first though upon hearing “Richard Morgan’s Black Man” is thinking “cool; covert ops” before seeing the more literal meaning of the title.)

Best of all, Black Man discusses those issues in ways that ground their pedestrian description in credibility. Setting a novel in a world where “Jesusland” is a reality smacks of cheap Internet memes given form, but it works really well in the novel itself, as the reasons of the split between the two United States feel plausible (indeed, the “Blue” states are the breakaway states) and are described with enough detail to make them feel natural. Much of the same care is spent in making the “genetic determinism” issue more complex that it may seem at first glance. Marsalis himself is a classic Morgan protagonist stuck between his alpha-male base impulses, his awareness of his flaws and everyone else’s view of him. In the end, there isn’t much to differentiate him from other humans, and that, of course, is the entire point. (And so is the recognition that violence is a non-optimal problem resolution strategy. In a chase thriller. Now that’s either being clever or hypocritical.)

If there’s a significant flaw with Black Man, it’s to be found in the amount of prose it takes to tell its story. As complex and nuanced as Morgan may want to make his story, no thriller actually deserves to go over 600 pages. The numerous tangents do nothing to tighten the impact of the story, and the consequent impact on the novel’s narrative drive is unpleasant. The contrast with the rush-ahead pacing of Market Forces is telling.

But even with superfluous hundred pages, Black Man still manages to find a place atop the year’s best SF novels. It’s particularly impressive for the way it manages to overcome overused SF elements and make something worthwhile out of them. Morgan’s attempt to look at his own tough-guy preoccupations is just another facet of his growing effectiveness as a writer. There may not be anything radically new or original in Black Man, but the end result is worth a look, and even a thought or two.

Woken Furies, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2005, 436 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07326-8

I’d been waiting a while for Richard Morgan’s follow-up to Broken Angels in the “Takeshi Kovacs” SF/thriller series. After the unsubtle but strangely compelling singleton Market Forces, where would Morgan take his tough-guy hero?

Back home, of course. As Woken Furies open, Kovacs is back on his native Harlan’s World, trying to stay alive as he pursues his own little vendetta. Scarcely anything is left of the Envoy he once was, or the widely-respected operative he then became: Reduced to taking up arms with a mercenary unit, Kovacs looks as if he has nowhere lower to go. But just wait, for famous revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer just may be back from the dead… and few on Harlan’s World are ready for another uprising.

An amusing feature of the Kovacs series so far has been seeing how Morgan buried hints about his upcoming books in the previous ones. Altered Carbon mentioned Martians, which were covered in Broken Angels, which spent some time discussing Quellist philosophy, which is studied in Woken Furies. Also worth mentioning is how the flavor of each entry differs slightly: the first was a hardboiled mystery; the second was closer to military science-fiction; the third is more akin to a straight-up thriller.

Unfortunately, those are just about the most interesting things in the book. After three vivid novels, Morgan here displays a creative stall: Kovacs is too familiar to be interesting, his universe now seems too well-worn to be surprising and the quality of the novel’s individual scenes never reaches the level of his first three books. Wasted elements abound, perhaps showing a lack of interest in pursuing the story to its logical end.

There is a tricky equilibrium between being “intimate” and being “dull”. While no one will deny that this is Takeshi Kovacs’ most personal story so far, it’s a matter of preference to say that Woken Furies is the series’ most boring entry so far. Kovacs may be more involved in this story than in any of the previous ones, but it’s difficult to care. Indeed, it seems as if we learn even less about him than in either of the previous two books. His motivations become increasingly implausible as he is drawn into another uprising. The sad truth may be that there isn’t much left to learn about Kovacs.

But worse is the dawning realization that the same may be true about his universe. The joyously fresh “sleeving” tricks used to such great effect in the the previous Kovacs book here seem ordinary and expected. While Altered Carbon and Broken Angels each had a handful of dynamite set-pieces, Woken Furies is far less distinctive, fading in memory almost as soon as it’s completed. There is as much sex and violence here than elsewhere in Morgan’s oeuvre, but even it seems forced and featureless.

This lack of distinction further contributes to the sense of aimlessness while reading the book. At a dense 436 pages, Woken Furies simply doesn’t deserve to be that long. It takes forever for the ghost of Quellcrist Falconer to emerge from the morass, and when it does, the novel scarcely focuses on that aspect. It says much about the book that I’ve managed to come this far in the review without mentioning the sub-plot in which Kovacs is being hunted down by a younger version of himself. Unfortunately, the encounters between the two don’t seem all that worth a mention. Oh well.

But be careful: don’t jump ahead of me and presume that this is a bad novel. For all of my ambivalence regarding its length and impact, Woken Furies is still better than the majority of the books I’ll read this year. There’s plenty of political material, for instance, with assorted fundamentalist-bashing. (Or, in Kovacs’ case, rather more than just a bashing). There are musings on the nature of revolutions and popular movements. There’s action, sex and violence, as expected as they may seem from a Morgan novel. There’s an interesting development to the revolutionary ideal (when people essentially live forever, it become reasonable to say “if all else fails, enjoy life and wait until the time is right”). If that had been a first novel by an unknown author, chances are that I would have flagged the author as someone to watch.

But this is Richard Morgan we’re talking about. One of the brightest young firebrands of British SF. Despite the body count and the established series, Woken Furies is dull, and that activates a warning signal regarding Morgan’s next few novels. I really do hope that Black Man is a step in the right direction; at the very least, it appears to be disconnected to the Kovacs universe, and at this point, that can only be a good thing.

Market Forces, Richard Morgan

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.

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.

Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2002, 404 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07322-5

Science fiction and hard-boiled pulp fiction have always shared a lot of similarities, from the steadfast admiration of dedicated fans to the usual unwarranted dismissal by guardians of literary merit. What began as a union of understanding between the two was further formalized when cyberpunk took off, as it combined the grittiness and style of noir fiction with the ideas and ethos of SF. Altered Carbon is a grown-up follow-up to the cyberpunk movement, a hard-edged future crime novel in which the action and the ideas take equal billing.

It starts with the death of its narrator and his resurrection on another planet. You see, in Morgan’s imagined 26th century, technology has perfected immortality: as long as a “cortical stack” at the back of your skull keeps on recording your memories, you can be revived afterward. Usually in someone else’s body (a process delicately termed “resleeving” ), but when it’s so bloody expensive to be resurrected, why complain? Naturally, the richer you are, the more options you get: custom-made bodies, automatic memory backups, etc.

So when our narrator finds himself hired by a very rich man to investigate the mysterious death of this very same rich man, he doesn’t bat an eye. The man simply wants to know why he died. Was it a suicide, as the police suggests, or was it a spectacularly stupid murder given his guaranteed resurrection? Let the intrigue begin…

In the best tradition of hard-boiled fiction, a lot of action ensues. Our protagonist can’t peek outside of his hotel room without smashing someone’s body parts, being threatened with Real Death, dealing with dangerously uncooperative witnesses or himself being kidnapped. Things aren’t any less exciting in his hotel room, where he can’t seem to avoid having sex with beautiful women. Tough life, being a tough guy…

Even jaded readers should note at this point that Altered Carbon is not a novel for sissies; the violence is described as carefully as the sex scenes, and there are scenes of rare gruesomeness strung through the entire story. The virtual torture scene alone (where someone can be tortured to death… over and over again) is wince-inducing to a degree seldom seen. Compared to that, the harsh language used throughout the novel seems almost charming. Overly squeamish readers beware.

But foregoing Altered Carbon on graphic content would be a disservice to anyone looking at the current state of the art in Science Fiction: The Fresh Ideas Quotient here is astonishingly high, what with the issues inherent in body-switching. There are a fair number of scenes in this novel where even jaded readers are likely to find something new and fresh.

You won’t be able to let the book slip from your hands: Stylishly written (in a hardboiled mode, of course) at a hundred miles per hour, crammed with revealing details (Hey, how ’bout those Martians?), great characters and a steady stream of ideas, Altered Carbon is the real stuff, the kind of story SF was invented for. Don’t settle for run-of-the-mill watered-down derivatives. Get the stuff straight from the source. Grab a copy of Altered Carbon as soon as possible.

(Sequel: Broken Angels)