Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon (Del Rey Books, 2002)
Richard K. Morgan,Broken Angels, (Del Ray Books, 2004)
Richard K. Morgan, Woken Furies(Del Rey Books, 2007)
Richard K. Morgan won the Philip K. Dick award with his first novel, Altered Carbon. Del Rey Books published it, and its sequel Broken Angels, as mass market paperbacks; the third installment, *Woken Furies*, comes out in the same format this month. They chronicle the career of Takeshi Kovacs, ex-soldier, ex-patriot, ex-son and lover and innocent man.
Technically, these books fall into the sub-genre of cyperpunk: heavily technological, dystopic futures, where humanity is so intimately involved and mixed with its machines that the question of post-humanity has become moot. A certain noir tone and mordantly flippant voice has become standard for cyperpunk, as well, with varying success. Here it succeeds completely. In Takeshi Kovacs' story, Mr. Morgan has transcended the narrowness of that approach and harks back successfully to its immediate ancestor: the good old-fashioned hard-boiled stories of Hammett, Chandler and Spillane. Takeshi's first-person narrative is intimate and immediate. His ruminations on society reveal both the man and his world, lithely and naturally, with no massive infodumps. It's a conversational narrative reminiscent of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and Mike Hammer. And like those gentlemen, Takeshi Kovacs is essentially noble, no matter what violence he commits or endures: the classic tarnished knight, the good man in the mean streets.
If there is any caveat that should accompany Mr. Morgan's work, it is that his universe is shatteringly brutal. In Takeshi's world, bodies are tools, replaceable and temporary. There is a callous disregard for pain in society in general, and Takeshi moves in the worst circles imaginable. People die -- not only a lot of them, but each one repeatedly. There is matter-of-fact torture, both real and virtual; interrogation can be taken far beyond death, since death is only a brief interruption. The Envoys, elite U.N. soldiers with an admirable esprit d'corps, are ruthless and implacable. Less exalted mercenaries with whom Takeshi also serves - Carrera's Wedge, a great bunch of guys for whom Takeshi feels considerable affection - have also made a religious ritual out of slow agonising death for their own criminals. The pervasive violence in the books is used skillfully to illustrate Takeshi's personal journey into enlightenment and compassion -- still, the reader should be warned, some of the most illustrative scenes are limned in blood. Nonetheless, after finishing all three novels, I came to the conclusion that none of it was spurious. But it is disturbing.
Altered Carbon opens with Takeshi's death. However, in the 25th century detailed by Morgan, physical death is almost impossible and rarely permanent. Nearly everyone's consciousness is housed in a 'cortical stack‰ at the top of their spine, a fail-safe that records the owner's mind and experiences, and allows them to be re-bodied if death inconveniently intervenes in a serially endless life. Taking a new body is called 're-sleeving‰ and can be done as casually as changing clothes, if one has the inclination and the money -- but, like high couture, only the very rich can afford re-sleeving as an indulgence.
Some people refuse the stacks -- the Roman Catholics are staunchly opposed -- while others eschew basic humanity altogether, and take on synthetic bodies. But whether one wears one's aging birth-flesh or body-hops, human society is permeated with the conviction that the flesh is trivial and the self is all that is real. Morgan has come up with a civilization that is simultaneously crassly materialistic and practically spiritual: anyone can buy any body they can afford, and so all that ultimately makes up a person is their mind.
Takeshi Kovacs has been an Envoy, the fanatically devoted enforcers of a U.N. government that spans world. Envoys tend to burn out, though, and return to civilian life disillusioned and damaged. Emotional instability and an inevitable hardening to violence turn them to crime when they are dropped back into society. Takeshi dies in the course of just such a dubious career change, and his cortical stack is stored, inert, to serve out his prison time as a cipher. When he wakes, he is on Earth -- ancient, fabled, decadent, insanely wealthy Earth -- as an indentured servant. A rich man in San Francisco has been murdered (but re-sleeved), and wants an agent with special skills to find out who killed him. Takeshi, who is both a trained Envoy and a convicted felon, is rented out for the task. If he completes the assignment for which Laurens Bancroft has leased him, he will be released with a clean slate and a fresh new body. If he fails, it's back to limbo in his disembodied stack. In the meantime, he has been re-sleeved in a body left recently empty by the temporary death of a San Francisco Police detective. He also finds himself working with the attractive female detective who was his body's former owner's lover -- an interestingly complicated relationship that drives Takeshi up the wall, but is convincingly presented by Mr. Morgan.
Altered Carbon is, in fact convincing in every detail. Not only is it wonderfully imagined science fiction, it is a well-plotted murder mystery with a peculiar twist: the victim, Laurens Bancroft, is rich enough to re-sleeve at will, and so is alive and interfering throughout the investigation of his 'death‰. The setting is a futuristic but satifyingly recognizable California Coast; Mr. Morgan, who lives in Scotland, has either spent some time there or does impeccable research. Characters are well-drawn, and even the bit players (such as the all-too-mortal Catholic whore whose tragic death Takeshi tries to revenge) are memorable and three-dimensional. Since it's also a damned good mystery, to tell more is to chance revealing whodunnit for real, whodunnit on the sly, and who dun some stuff you really don't expect: which would be a sin.
At the conclusion of Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has triumphed over the criminals, the criminal justice system and his own past. He leaves Earth with a clean record and returns to his life. However, he needs a job, and what Takeshi knows best is war. He signs on with a mercenary army involved in a war of rebellion on the distant world of Sanction IV and returns to the life of a soldier.
Altered Carbon took place on Earth, and the larger sphere of humanity on other worlds was given in hints and asides, off-stage. Broken Angels is set out there on the new worlds. The scope and presentation of Mr. Morgan's future is expanded geometrically. The fastest way to travel between worlds, for instance, is not space ships but by *needlecast* - instant transport with serious limitations on luggage. What travels through the Gates is not mass, but energy -- the encoded personalities in everyone's cortical stacks. Travellers leave their bodies behind, assuming new ones on the receiving end. The now extinct Martians left behind even more advanced transportation technology in their Gates, but no human understands how it works.
Takeshi has taken service on one side of an idealogical dispute that has progressed to a real shooting war. He has personal experience of this kind of thing. His home planet, Harlan's World, produced the most notorious rebel of the times, the warrior-poet Quellcrist Falconer. She nearly destroyed Harlan's World before being defeated and vanishing; her philosphies still fire rebels throughout human space. Takeshi is a closet Quellist, but he has an understandable dislike of wars fueled by idealists and prophets.
Consequently, he is not especially dedicated to either side of the cause on Sanction IV. When he is approached by a pair of desperate entrepeneurs to help them locate and secure an archelogical treasure, he promptly deserts. What they have found is truly astonishing: an ancient Martian starship, apparently equipped with a working FTL (faster than light) drive. The U.N. controls the Gates that allow travel between the worlds; this would free humanity of that control. And it would incidentally make everyone who finds it very, very rich...
Broken Angels is a wild adventure, roaring through a world fantastic in its detailed strangeness but made immediately accessible by Mr. Morgan's story-telling skill. Wounded soldiers are simply decanted from their damaged bodies, and sent to R&R in a virtual paradise while new flesh is prepared for them; but if they stay too long in virtual space, they will go mad. Nanotechnology produces a weapon so perfect it is unstoppable by *either* side -- it mutates and grows with the ease of a virus and the biomass of a redwood forest, threatening friend and foe alike. The Martian ship poses mysteries within puzzles within enigmas, and a simple piece of archeological looting is badly complicated by trying to steal a starship in a war zone. In a world where faces can be as temporary as neckties, the possibilities of treachery are endless.
But, as the saying goes, the fundamental things remain as time goes by. There's love, hate, simple greed and ennervating ennui. This is an essentially human story, about human concerns and needs, weaknesses and strengths. Takeshi's companions are once again delineated in exquisite detail, even the spear-carriers. We can see Takeshi continuing to evolve emotionally as he begins to understand what actually drives ideals and ideologies. Finally, he finds himself in opposition to his old military outfit's more ghastly customs: the penultimate scene, where he tries to prevent the torture death of a friend by other, older friends, is devastating.
As the novel concludes, Takeshi is taking a vacation bodiless, coasting home to Harlan's World in a virtual resort built into the circuitry of a stolen ship. It will take years, but he has a fortune waiting for him when he once more assumes flesh. The Quellists are on his mind again. It's a bit of a cliffhanger of an ending -- we know there is more to his story, it's only the second novel -- but this installment is nonetheless highly satisfactory.
Takeshi Kovacs has gone home to Harlan's World. It's a world of deep seas and islands; fishermen and surfers; deadly mercantile aristocrats and equally lethal gangs descended from the ancient Japanese yakuza. Not long past, it also had Quellcrist Falconer, who led a doomed revolution against the ruling class, and then vanished without a trace. Her poetry lives on, and her followers - the Quellists -- are hidden but everywhere. Both are illegal.
Harlan's World also has artifacts stranger and more dangerous than the Martian Gates. There's an automated system of orbital gun platforms that fires on anything that tries to fly. The Martians left them, and no one has managed to disarm them. On land once Settled by humans, but now UnSettled, are the remains of the Quellist war, a nanotech army called miments: cyber-insectile hive minds, undead weapons, continually hunting and hunted by human bounty hunters trying to take back the ravaged land they claim.
The Harlans (who, naturally, own Harlan's World) have woken Kovacs into a new, enhanced body in order to do a job for them. Rumors have arisen that Quellcrist has returned in a new body -- they want her found and stopped. While Kovacs has a cynical dislike of the Harlans (he has seen and suffered too much by now to have faith in any government), he is still a realist, and takes the job. He'd like to stay apolitical about this, although in his hidden heart, he too is still a Quellist. But a man has to work.
The Takeshi Kovacs who is hunting Quellcrist is the direct temporal "descendent" of the Takeishi in Altered Carbon, returned home from Earth. But here a potential paradox of the needlecasts comes into play. There is another Takeshi also present on Harlan's World: older, maybe wiser, certainly more experienced, having survived their mutual past and made his way home on his own. Initially, neither one of them is aware of the other, nor that their interests are on a collision course.
The elder- call him simply Takeshi - is moving lethally through the shadows of Harlans's World's underground, following a very personal agenda. The woman he loves has been killed, really killed, her cortical stack removed and thrown into the sea. He wants revenge, and he wants her back.
Just when Takeshi feels he's getting his vengeance scheme under control and in order, he meets a very strange young woman who seems to be housing Quellcrist's illegally recorded mind like a parasite in her own. Neither woman is in control, and Takeshi is not sure either of them is even real. But he finds he can't betray either one of them. If the younger and more savage Kovacs harbors Quellist sympathies, Takeshi is awash in them. And then he discovers Kovacs, his younger self - without scruples, alight with a ruthless devotion to the status quo that has been burned out Takeshi. Trying to save Sylvie-who-might-be-Quell and avoid a really odd form of suicide, Takeshi eventually finds himself seeking safety and allies among the miments. And then things begin to get really strange.
This is a wildly complicated novel, but told with the clarity and toughness that so exemplified Mr. Morgan's previous two novels. His unique hard-boiled cyperpunk milieu is even more pervasive and detailed, as he constructs a society that is completely alien in technology but fundamentally human in emotional impact.
The images come nonstop, weird and wonderful: Takeshi hunts down his lover's killers one by one, with the passionate vengeance of any classic knight; then he installs their cortical stacks in the bodies of wild dogs, bred to fight and die in the arena, over and over. He returns to a surfing colony where he wasted his teenage years, in order to hide from Kovacs, his own younger self. The mercenary captains who hunt the miments all have writhing, Meduoid dreadlocks: not hair, but cybernetic cables with which they control their armaments and communications.
Woken Furies is basically a love story, and it ends in reborn hope. Takeshi Kovacs is, in the final analysis, a romantic; he soldiers on for love. That always hints that there will be further developments. The novel ends with an implication that his story can and will go on, but it ends sweetly and neatly and leaves the reader content.
Mr. Morgan has wrought an intricate universe of technological moonshine and labyrinthine plots, but he has built it on a solid, enduring foundation. Each of these novels is sturdily independent, but taking on the saga all at once is immensely satisfying. I had the good fortune to read all three one after the other for review, and I strongly recommend that anyone taking up this series do the same. Mr. Morgan masterfully sustains the story arc not just within each novel, but from book to book -- they all stand alone with no weakness, but the ongoing adventures of Takeshi Kovacs swoop between the books like killer rollercoaster loops. And it's an amazing ride.