And now for something nasty, brutish, but not particularly short. This review of Broken Angels by Richard Morgan first appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction 194, October 2004.
Sadistic amorality is never out of fashion. We like it too much, violence and its effects, so long as there is a cinema screen or a TV tube or a page between us and the actual experience. We like the vicarious thrill of discovering a new way to cause hurt, of watching yet another slow, agonising death. It is the staple of our most popular fiction, the crime thriller, the war novel, which is why the novelist and journalist William T. Vollman has just produced — has been able to produce — a seven-volume, 3,000-page study of violence. Of course we do not want the searing flesh, the breaking limbs presented in their most pure form. The violence needs to be filtered, preferably through the eyes of a bruised romantic, a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, whose world-weary and distanced reactions can convince us that there is some moral purpose, some ethical weight, to the horror presented. Through this brutal world a man must go who is not himself brutalised, so that we might feel safe with him as our eyes. The trouble is that the urge for ever greater sensation, the highly coloured violence that needs to become yet more lurid if it is to appear yet more novel, has come a long way in the fifty years of so since Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe walked their particular mean streets. It is becoming progressively more difficult to tell the difference between brutality and brutalisation; the hero, for such we still want him to be, must be capable of inflicting ever greater conscienceless pain just to display his credentials in this particular game.
Thus Takeshi Kovacs, the far-future mercenary who is our latest pseudo-Marlowe, can casually slay half a dozen men simply to attract the attention of a big corporation, with never a hint that this might be wrong (he is our hero, after all), with never a suggestion that there might be a price to pay for this crime. Thus Richard Morgan, our highly-praised new young hero-author, can devise as a spectator sport an execution that promises an entire day of unalleviated excruciation for the victim, and that can be brought to an end only by the casual slaughter of the cheering audience. Thus Broken Angels, Morgan’s second novel and the second outing for Kovacs, has a body count in the high hundreds (if we ignore such collateral damage as a large city nuclear bombed to extinction just to show off the ruthlessness of Morgan’s corporate villains), most of the slaughter perpetrated personally by our hero, and most of it serving no dramatic purpose other than to pep up a slow-moving plot.
Of course, these are not really deaths as we might understand them. In this future the personality is encoded into a cylinder which is lodged in the spine. After death this cylinder can be retrieved (messily, of course, as we are shown in great and bloody detail) and the personality can inhabit a virtuality, or be lodged in a new body, or sleeve as it is known. So this isn’t really slaughter, just removing one sleeve so that another might be pulled on at a later date. How easy it is to sanitise the nastiness of killing. Except that the victims still experience agony, and in the vast majority of the killings recorded in this novel great care is taken to ensure that no personality can be recovered afterwards.
What is sad is that Richard Morgan is clearly a very talented writer, there are superb set pieces and mind-blowing original ideas all the way through this novel, yet he settles for mindless violence as a way of driving the plot, and he does nothing with this wonderful idea of sleeves. Kovacs himself, and most of the people he meets, are ageless, have already inhabited a countless host of sleeves. This, as Morgan points out in an Author’s Note at the start of this novel, can tend to change people: ‘that phrase strung out lives has a number of different meanings,’ he tells us, ‘and Kovacs is pretty much acquainted with them all’. But there is a difference between telling us this and showing it: from all we can see the only effect of being thus strung out is to make Kovacs, and indeed everyone else, that bit more likely to kill, and to kill nastily. The ability to resleeve makes life cheap, yes, but does it have no more positive benefits, does the experience of longer and more varied lives not open up more vistas? These are not eyes that have seen endless lives, only endless deaths. Somehow this seems such a sorry use for such a wonderful idea.
Yet this is a novel made up of wonderful ideas (and some very fine writing) put to the service of the sort of plot we’ve grown wearily familiar with over decades of identikit mercenary novels. It is The Dirty Dozen or The Dogs of War removed to outer space. There is the same scene where a disparate bunch of lawless characters are recruited for an unusual mission (the only difference this time round is that they are all dead when they are recruited, but as we know, that’s not a condition that need detain us long). And there is the same whittling away of the team until one or two alone are left alive. And there is the same denouement where we learn that everyone has betrayed everybody else. The fine detail of these elements may differ from the norm, but the broad pattern recreates the formula precisely.
It’s meant to be gritty, hard-edged, tough, a real man’s book (there are as many women as men in our pack of mercenaries, but they are mostly men with female names except when they’re being screwed). It’s the sort of coarse texture where we read quickly to get to the next disembowelling. But this crudity is put at the service of a story that has a great deal of delicacy about it. In this future there were aliens. We call them Martians because their enigmatic artefacts were first discovered on Mars, but we really know little about them or where they came from or why they have disappeared. Slowly, over the centuries, archaeologues (why did the perfectly serviceable word ‘archaeologist’ disappear from the language? – but then, Morgan has an idiosyncratic way with language, constantly breaking. Sentences. With full stops when sense does not indicate any punctuation.) have examined these artefacts wherever they have been found, and developed a very imperfect understanding of some of them. Enough, at least, for humanity to follow in the Martian wake across a great swathe of the galaxy. The image of peaceful intellectual exploration this conjures up is at odds with Morgan’s vision of vicious war being the eternal lot of mankind, but for now we’ll let this pass. But now something completely new has been found, a gateway through which people can be transported instantly to a huge and previously unknown Martian ship out in the depths of space.
The wonder of the unknown, the sense of humanity trying to exploit something they don’t begin to comprehend, the feeling that we don’t really belong here in space are all beautifully conveyed. In this, Broken Angels as an example of contemporary science fiction at its best. But whenever intellectual struggle goes on for more than a couple of pages, Morgan seems to loose his nerve and introduce a new threat, or more simply kills someone. Thus, where the exploration of, first, the gateway and then the ship, and the gradual understanding of what they might mean for far-stretched humanity would have made more than enough of a novel for many another writer, Morgan makes it all little more than the McGuffin around which slaughter is done. This planet is engaged in a vicious Civil War, a war engendered and sustained largely by big corporations (this seems to be an idée fixe with Morgan, his most recent novel is another variation on exactly this theme), and fought mostly by off-planet mercenaries. The gateway is, of course, in the middle of a war zone — hence a city is pulverised and Kovacs’s team go into the fall-out knowing it is going to kill them, but at least they will be resleeved later. What’s more, Hand, the executive leading this expedition (such an artefact would make his career), has rivals in the same corporation who try to sabotage the expedition by seeding nanoweapons of startling ferocity all around Kovacs’s camp. Meanwhile the mercenaries that Kovacs left for this little freelance job have got their own interests in what is going on. Oh and there’s at least one traitor in the group indulging in little acts of sabotage. There are more than enough excuses here for someone to shoot someone else if ever the pace should flag.
And when they do finally get through the gateway to the ship, the great revelation is not the sheer oddness of the vessel, nor the discovery of mummified Martians (with a hint that there might still be some still alive). No, it is that the Martians were themselves engaged in an eternal war with some other alien race, a war still being fought now with automatic weapons millenia after the last Martian died. Orwell’s vision of the future, a boot grinding into a human face, forever, looks gentle and loving in comparison to Morgan’s far future vistas. Here, across the galaxy and throughout time, there is only war and killing and brutality. Why would we want to have a future if this is all we see of it?