Del Rey:Your first novel, Altered Carbon, which introduced the character of Takeshi Kovacs, made a big splash on both sides of the Atlantic with its distinctive mix of cyber-noir atmospherics and high-tech, hard SF. How has your life changed since the book came out? Are you a full-time writer now?
Richard K. Morgan:Yes, I am. I gave up my day job back in the autumn of 2002, a little more than six months after Altered Carbon came out in the U.K. To be honest, this was largely due to the movie deal with Warner Brothers–gratifying though the reception of the book was, there was never going to be sufficient income from book sales alone to justify quitting the relatively well-paid university post I had at the time. But Hollywood cash works on a whole different order of magnitude to publishing, and the option money alone was more than twice what I’d ever seen in a single year, so quitting to write full time was the obvious thing to do. But oddly enough (or perhaps not), my life hasn’t changed all that much since. I still live in the same apartment, drive the same car, and take approximately the same number of holidays abroad that I did before. The only real difference is that I can finance it all doing what I love and, more importantly, doing it as and when I please. In practical terms, this means I can write and have leisure time and a social life–things which for a struggling writer are hard-to-justify luxuries.
DR:Is Altered Carbon progressing toward the big screen? Who would you like to see playing Kovacs?
RM:I was shown a draft script last year (which I was impressed to see included a very large percentage of the detail from the novel), and I’ve heard from a number of different sources that there’s a great deal of enthusiasm out there for the project both from the screenwriter, John Pogue, and from Joel Silver, at whose behest Warner Brothers optioned Altered Carbon. Since then, I’ve heard nothing, so I’m assuming that development is ongoing. The option comes up for renewal in the near future, so hopefully I’ll get a better idea of how things are going then. Warner Brothers will either renew, start principal photography, and pay the full purchase price or simply hand the thing back to me and say thanks but no thanks. I try not to worry about it too much–I find the best way to deal with it is to put it to the back of my mind and concentrate on my own writing. If it happens, it happens.
I have no major preferences as to who would take the role of Kovacs. I always envisaged him (or rather the body that he happens to be wearing in the story) as a bit of a blunt instrument–something along the lines of Lee Marvin in Point Blank or Prime Cut, or maybe Burt Lancaster in The Midnight Man or Lawman. In terms of today’s acting talent, that could be a whole host of powerful, battered-looking male stars–Robert de Niro, Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Tom Sizemore, Jeff Bridges, even Mickey Rourke, now he’s back in town. Kovacs above all should seem damaged and dangerous, so anyone who can turn that in would be fine.
DR:Did you feel any pressure to top yourself in writing Broken Angels?
RM: Well, there’s always a little of that I suppose, but not as much as you might think. First, there were the logistics of the thing–by the time Altered Carbon really took off, I had a good two thirds of Broken Angels already written, and the worry that it wouldn’t make such a big splash set in too late to affect things much. Also, Broken Angels is very different from its predecessor, so I wasn’t constantly measuring the two against each other. I knew that anyone who was expecting a second future noir detective story–a carbon copy, so to speak–was probably going to be disappointed, but that in itself didn’t carry much weight for me. One of the joys of writing SF is that you aren’t as constrained in what you can do as in other genres, and part of this at least is because the SF readership tends to look for (or at least accept and enjoy) something fresh in every book. (The crime fiction readership, by contrast, does seem more inclined to want replica novels; I’m actually very curious as to why that is, because I’m a big fan of both genres.) I’d like to think that each book I write, even each Kovacs book I write, will have a different feel and angle to it. I don’t want to be just churning out the formula.
DR:Both Altered Carbon and Broken Angels are set in a far future where human consciousness can be remotely stored, backed-up, and downloaded into any number of “sleeves,” human or artificial, even across light-years. How has this technology changed what it means to be human? Or has it?
RM:Well, obviously the ramifications of sleeving technology are huge. First and foremost, death suddenly ceases to be the great leveller–instead, it’s just one more unpleasant aspect of existence that you can avoid if you’re wealthy enough. Then there’s the fact that human lifetimes start to get stretched out over time–the rich and powerful can live for centuries by skipping from body to body, and if you’re unlucky enough to belong to the criminal class, then you can find yourself deprived of your body and stored as digital data for decades or even centuries before being released into flesh again. This leads to massive social dislocation, which isn’t helped much by the sprawl of human civilization over several different star systems tens or even hundreds of light years apart. Being human in this kind of universe offers some incredible rewards, but at the same time it leaves the characters in the books open to a profound sense of alienation.
However, none of this necessarily means that these human beings have changed all that much at core. I tend to take a hard-headed evolutionary psychologist stance on this. It’s taken us hundreds of thousands of years to evolve into what we now are, and that isn’t going to change in a few centuries just because our technology leaps ahead exponentially. The characters in Altered Carbon and Broken Angels face radically different situations and facets of day-to-day existence to those we face today, true. But they still have to deal with those situations using the same smart-ape hunter-gatherer deck we’ve been playing with since we left central Africa. If you look back half a millennium instead of forward, you can see quite clearly that although people were infinitely more limited then than they are now in technological (and thus civilizational) terms, they didn’t behave that much differently at base. That’s why Shakespeare’s plays still resonate so profoundly with us now; we have no problem bridging the gap of centuries and understanding the motivations of his characters. Similarly, I don’t imagine things will have changed much at that level five hundred years from now.
DR:Did humans invent sleeving technology, or was it derived from the technology of the mysterious aliens known as the Martians? What can you tell us about this long-vanished race and the part they play in Broken Angels?
RM:It’s never stated outright, but the base assumption is that the sleeving technology is ours, deriving from the information and biotech capacities that we are evolving now. Where the archaeological discoveries on Mars have given a huge impetus to human science is in the area of space exploration and communications. Basically, the Martians left behind their astrogation charts, enabling us to send colony barges directly to stars with guaranteed terrestroid worlds around them. This is dealt with obliquely in Altered Carbon, as background to the story. In Broken Angels, the hunt for Martian technology comes to the fore as Kovacs finds himself fighting as a mercenary in a war on a planet whose principal source of wealth lies in its archaeological leavings. Obviously, discovering an advanced alien civilization, and worse still one that predates practically the whole of human history, has had a massive impact on human culture and philosophy. Everyone has their own take on who the Martians actually were and what they might, or could, or should mean to us. The novel deals with that impact and its long-term implications, but as background to a rather tight problem of survival for Kovacs and his friends. By the end of Broken Angels, we know a lot more about the Martians than we did at the end of Altered Carbon, but whether the human race is any better off for that knowledge is another question.
DR:Kovacs’ future is a savage one, in which the ruling UN Protectorate and an almost Byzantine array of system-spanning corporate entities ruthlessly compete for profits and power. Is this military-industrial-corporate future meant to be a critique of present-day capitalism as practiced in the West?
RM:Among other things, yes it is. Perhaps more than that, it’s intended to be a critique of a general human failure to live up to potential. I don’t believe there’s anything intrinsically wrong with capitalism, just as I don’t believe there’s anything intrinsically wrong with fire. Both have served as powerful engines of human development and offer huge civilizational benefits if handled correctly. In the case of fire, that means the provision of fire extinguishers, a fire brigade, and hospital burns units. Unfortunately, it seems to be beyond our capacity (or at least interest) to do anything similar with capitalism. Contemporary western capitalist models can best be imagined as an immensely high-performance vehicle whose owners insist on stripping out the brakes, airbags, fenders, roll bars, side impact protection, and seat belts because, well, what’s the point–all that stuff is just going to slow us down, right? Er . . . no. Wrong. You need that stuff or you’re going to crash and kill your passengers. So similarly, the UN Protectorate universe is a model of human stupidity operating out of control on an interstellar scale. The potential of the Settled Worlds, the knowledge inherited from the Martians, and the enormous technological leaps human science has made are all just pissed away–fed into a machine that feeds a short-sighted greed hierarchy and killer-ape tendencies. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
DR:Does science fiction have an obligation to engage the present as well as look ahead toward possible futures? Do you try to be relevant, or just entertain?
RM:As a novelist, I don’t really think I have any obligation other than to tell a good story. That applies to SF as much as any other genre. But–and it’s a big but–I don’t think you can tell a good story, at least not in this day and age, unless you provide engaging human detail and a convincing backdrop.
Given what we discussed earlier about the relative immutability of human behavior over time, I think engaging human detail and convincing backdrop will inevitably force an engagement with present concerns in any SF that concerns human beings. And in fact, even SF that doesn’t concern human beings tends to feature post-humans or aliens with remarkably anthropomorphic characteristics–which is fair enough, because it’s hard to
imagine an SF story inhabited by creatures whose concerns are so alien to ours that we can’t empathize with them. Who on earth–ha!–is going to read something like that? Who on earth is going to want to read something like that?? And who on earth is going to want to write it??? So I don’t consciously try to be relevant; it just happens. In trying to be convincing, I inevitably find relevance creeping in. I create (or, to be completely honest, I re-model) a future technology for Altered Carbon, and inevitably the questions that want answering are: Who has control of this technology? Who benefits? Who suffers? Why? In trying to answer those questions convincingly, I look around at current technology and its social impact. I extrapolate from what I see, and Bingo!–present relevance!
DR:Do you believe that technological advances can bring about a utopia? Or is the belief in utopias just another casualty of the twentieth century?
RM:In answer to the first question–no, definitely not. The quality of a society depends on the behavior of the humans within it. Of course, technology has certainly made it far easier for us to get along in a civilized fashion. It’s given us levels of wealth that (in the developed world at least) have minimized violent competition over resources. It’s helped us to build a body of civilizational assumptions about how we should behave and an externalization of interior feeling, otherwise known as Art, that helps bring us together. Most recently, it’s helping us to see the complexity of the world we live in and the necessity of engaging with that complexity in a constructive fashion. But none of these things is going to solve the basic human problems that disfigure our social systems.
There’s an interesting line in an otherwise unremarkable movie called Enemy at the Gate where a Soviet political officer confesses to a soldier that his faith in the tenets of socialism has been destroyed by his jealousy over a woman’s affections. Even with the most perfect sharing of wealth and resources, he realizes, there will still be reasons to envy and to hate and to fight. Unfortunately, he’s right–it’s the human element that messes things up every time. So we won’t get anywhere near a utopia relying on technology alone. We might have a decent stab at it through grassroots empowerment and genuine education for life, using technology as a trenching tool (so I guess that’s a tentative no to the second question), but even then you’ve got to wonder who’s going to set all that in motion–because it’s certainly not in the interests of those with the power to make those decisions.
DR:Describe Takeshi Kovacs for us. What makes him tick?
RM:At one level, Kovacs is the Protectorate’s chickens coming home to roost. The Protectorate trained him as an Envoy, used him, and then, when it couldn’t trust him any longer, cut him loose. At another level, he’s a man who grew up hating his father for the violent domestic abuse he saw handed out to his mother and sisters, but who never got the chance to mete out the necessary retribution.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to map these two onto each other and see that here is a man who has been betrayed by his authority figures every step of the way. Violent and unpredictable retributive acts against patriarchal authority are the inevitable result, but so is a curious sensitivity, especially to women.
Kovacs is highly intelligent (you couldn’t be an Envoy otherwise) and, by our standards, surprisingly well educated (future technology makes it possible to acquire a varied and extensive knowledge base far more casually than would be the case now). All of this simply makes him more dangerous if you’re in his way. He is not a moral man and does not, despite some rumors to the contrary, adhere to any code of conduct, personal or otherwise. He is, however, capable of great personal loyalty and a sporadic empathy which can sometimesbalance out his more nihilistic tendencies. The demons that haunt him most are the doubt he carries within himself as to how human he actually is (Envoy conditioning has some peculiar side effects) and, perhaps more importantly, to what extent he may be coming to resemble the authority figures he hates so much.
DR:What does it mean to be an Envoy? And what does it mean to be an ex-Envoy? To tell the truth, I was a little surprised that there were any ex-Envoys; they seem too potentially dangerous to both Protectorate and corporate interests to be permitted to exist, at least judging by Kovacs.
RM:The Envoys were the Protectorate’s–probably unwise–response to the logistical nightmare of trying to govern the Settled Worlds with only sublight space travel and supralight data transfer available for linkage. In the event of offworld unrest, obviously you can’t rely on sending Heinlein’s starship troopers out to put down the revolt, because they’ll get there years, decades, or centuries too late. You can transfer the minds of said starship troopers, as supralight digitized datafreight, and decant them into new sleeves at the other end, but they’re going to be too confused to perform very well: new body, new planet, different gravity, circadian rhythm, weather systems, biosphere, culture, etc. What they’d need more than anything is a couple of months R&R just to get used to the place, and even then they’re still going to be tourists fighting the locals, and they’ll lose. You simply can’t run a repressive sphere of influence like that.
The Envoys were created with the idea of conditioning elite special forces with a system of Zen acceptance at a mental level–thus, when an Envoy’s mind is freighted, the discipline goes with it and enables the Envoy to cope, at superhuman levels of calm and assimilation, when decanted into the middle of an alien environment and, quite probably, a planetary war. However, in the process of creating this conditioning for the Envoys, a number of incovenient aspects of human personality architecture have to be demolished or at least renovated, so it’s questionable if what comes out at the other end quite qualifies as a sane human being. All very upsetting, but as the political leaders of the time said, tough times call for tough measures.
They had no idea how tough.
From the very beginning, the Envoys proved difficult to keep in line. For one thing, their internal hierarchy was fluid and everchanging–officers were elected from the ranks on a temporary basis and replaced as soon as it became apparent they had had enough, which, given the nature of the work they were required to do, was often. This flexible internal system sat very poorly in liaison with external agencies such as the other arms of the Protectorate military machine, and caused a lot of friction. Envoys did not follow orders as such; they worked towards negotiated outcomes and tended to see their relationship with the military as one of semi-independent consultancy. No one liked this (though politicians, military leaders, and corporate figures were all quite happy to use it as currency in their own maneuvering and infighting), but there was no perceived alternative, and the one thing no one could deny was that the Envoys got results.
Later attempts to assert some measure of rigid hierarchical control simply led to increased tensions, and decreased efficiency in deployments, culminating in the military debacle at Innenin. By this time, disillusioned Envoys were resigning from the service in substantial numbers, something that the Protectorate had never envisioned and didn’t have the slightest idea how to deal with. Hasty legislation prevented these ex-Envoys from holding positions of any political or corporate authority, or from borrowing sufficient capital to swim successfully in the corporate ocean, and their numbers were replaced with fresh waves of recruitment and conditioning. It proved impossible to take any more serious measures against the ex-Envoys because the Protectorate was afraid of repercussions from within the Corps. Serving Envoys were disgruntled enough as it was without giving them further cause for grievance, and they were still the only military option that really worked over interstellar distances.
Meanwhile, ex-Envoys were faced with only two realistic choices apart from poverty–they either offered their skills to the numerous mercenary units who made up a substantial portion of the Protectorate local levies, or they became criminals. They were superlatively good at both.
DR:Aside from the fact that he is wearing a different sleeve, how is the Kovacs of Broken Angels different from the Kovacs of Altered Carbon?
RM:He’s not really different at all–same psychoses, same sense of humour–unless you count his response to circumstances, which is the pre-eminent Envoy skill. Altered Carbon saw him in a relatively civilized context (San Francisco!), so his behavior was relatively restrained.
In Broken Angels, he’s fighting (or a least trying to stay alive in) a planetary war, and there’s a corresponding upgrade in his ferocity. His actions are far more morally ambiguous than they were in Altered Carbon, but that only reflects the lack of moral options the war offers. The keynote with the Envoys is that they get the job done, whatever that takes, and as a result they really aren’t nice people. Ex-Envoys are even worse, because they lack any structured direction and getting the job done tends to translate into not much more than personal survival and gain.
Kovacs’ emotionally damaged background means that his perceptions of what the job is can vary alarmingly, with corresponding vertigo for the reader when you come along for the ride. His agendas are perhaps ultimately more complex in Broken Angels than they were in Altered Carbon, but the war simplifies matters for him brutally. At the end of Altered Carbon, you were left with, in Kovacs’s words, “something clean,” but only because it became vital for him to reject Reileen Kawahara’s taunts and believe that he was in some way different from her. There’s a similar kind of rejection in Broken Angels, but it’s far messier because circumstances dictate that in war there is nothing “clean.”
DR:What writers have had the biggest influence on your work?
RM:In old-school SF, Poul Anderson. I read his Dominic Flandry short stories at an early age and they made a tremendous impact–it was the first time in SF that I’d come across morally ambiguous characters and situations with real emotional depth. I still think he was one of the finest storytellers SF ever had, and I was genuinely upset when I heard he died in 2001.
Another old-school favorite was Bob Shaw, for the way he married future technology with human fallibility and humor, but the next big SF influence on me was William Gibson, whose short stories "Johnny Mnemonic," "New Rose Hotel," "Hinterlands," and "Burning Chrome" blew me away when I first read them in Omni back in the seventies. Gibson also prodded me in the direction of noir crime fiction, because at the time all the critics were calling him the Raymond Chandler of SF, and that sent me out looking for this Chandler guy.
Crime fiction turned out to have a huge influence on my writing as well, because there was a raw immediacy to it that you very often didn’t get in SF (this, of course, was what Gibson had so successfully imported into the genre and what the critics recognized as “Chandleresque”). My enduring favorites are James Ellroy, for the sheer psychotically driven power of the writing, and Lawrence Block, for the chilling noir realism of his Matt Scudder series–nothing to touch either in the genre. However, I’ve also got a lot of time for James Sallis, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosely, and Sara Paretsky because, after Chandler, she was my first.
DR:It’s been said that British science fiction is undergoing a renaissance, and that the cutting edge of the genre has shifted there from the US. Do you agree?
RM:Hmm–seems a bit harsh. I think there’s a tendency in the U.K., every time we do something that sells in the U.S., to start screaming, “The British are coming, the British are coming–it’s the Rolling Stones and the Beatles all over again!” Yeah, sure, there are a lot of excellent British SF/F writers working and selling that work in the U.S., but it is a two-way traffic. Some of the most interesting SF/F currently being written is still being done by Americans–look at Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, Ray Vukevich. And I’d argue that guys like Gibson and Neal Stephenson, while already well established, are still producing stuff that could be qualified as cutting edge. So, for that matter, is Jonathan Carroll (okay, I know he lives in Vienna and, come to that, Gibson lives in Vancouver, but they are still both Americans).
And as to there being a British SF “renaissance,” I don’t know–that sounds a bit like hype to me as well. When is this renaissance supposed to have started? Twenty-first century with Al Reynolds, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, China Mièville? Well, Grimwood was putting out his first novels to rapturous reception during the late nineties, and even Mièville’s King Rat is from 1999. Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1996. Okay, so let’s say this renaissance started in the late nineties then. But then you’ve got Ken Macleod, who kicked in a couple of years before that, and Peter F. Hamilton, who’s been going strong since the early nineties. And by the time you get back to the early nineties you’ve got Simon Ings’ Hothead. Oh, and then there’s Iain M. Banks, who’s been banging out his superb Culture novels since the late eighties. And so back we go again, looking for the definitive start of this renaissance. I think the truth is that British SF has been in good health for some considerable time, and the renaissance is more a marketing concept than anything.
DR:Your next novel, Market Forces, will soon be out in the UK. Any news on the American release? And is it another Kovacs novel?
RM:Market Forces isn’t Kovacs–it’s set in the near future, about fifty years from now, and has a somewhat different narrative structure and tone to the Kovacs books. It’s something I’d been playing about with for a long time in parallel to writing Kovacs, and forms part of a second contract with my U.K. publisher, Gollancz. Technically, it should have been my fourth novel, but after some discussion with my editor at Gollancz and our agent in Hollywood, it was decided that I should prioritize Market Forces over Kovacs 3, as there was potential for another film deal. The contract with my U.S. publishers, Del Rey, was for three Kovacs books, but they’re publishing me a year behind the U.K. schedule, so this shift didn’t create any problem–it’s just brought us up to speed. However, I now understand that Del Rey is also very enthusiastic about Market Forces and are looking at buying it as part of a second contract, so it may be that it’ll be published before Kovacs 3 in the U.S. as well. Watch this space! [Editor’s Note: Del Rey Books will be publishing Market Forces in Spring of 2005.]
DR:Finally, what can you tell us about Kovacs 3? Is there a title yet? How will it differ from Altered Carbon and Broken Angels?
RM:The working title is Woken Furies, and the novel is set on Kovacs’s home planet, Harlan’s World. It features (among other things) the planetary ruling elite, the Harlan’s World yakuza, centuries-old rogue weapons systems, the drugged up, wired-up mercenary teams paid to decommission them, surfboard revolutionaries, and a maniac religious cult.
In some ways it’s a return to the noir staples I used in Altered Carbon–Kovacs is largely alone and struggling to unpick the knots of a mystery while set upon by a wide variety of enemies. But in this case, there’s a substantial element of changing landscape that didn’t feature in either of the other books; Altered Carbon was limited to the environs of Bay City, in the classic PI style, with one very brief excursion to Europe, and Broken Angels, although it moved about a bit more than that, was really dominated by the single overarching reality of the war, which rendered all locations much the same for the protagonists.
In Woken Furies, you get a lot of exotic travel. Kovacs is on the move, sometimes on the run, sometimes on the hunt, and wherever he goes, we get to look out of the windows at the passing scenery. You don’t get the ensemble feel of Broken Angels either, because although there is a strong cast of secondary characters in Woken Furies, they tend to come and go as the story follows Kovacs’ journey (or voyage, really, as Harlan’s World is largely oceanic).
If there are echoes (and I like to think there are) of The Big Sleep in Altered Carbon, and of The Good the Bad and the Ugly in Broken Angels, then I suppose Woken Furies finds its resonances in something like North by Northwest or The Thirty-Nine Steps. Of course, that’s not the whole tone of the thing–the Kovacs novels are far more cynical and ambiguous than anything by Hitchcock or Buchan, and in the end, this is an SF novel above all else. The implications of digital human storage and other associated technologies still form the backdrop to the tale, and there’s the usual running critique of governance hierarchies, but I think what I’m enjoying most in the writing this time around is the world building. To some extent, the book is an exploration of Harlan’s World itself as much as a detective story, because the mystery Kovacs finds himself dealing with goes to the heart of what makes his home world tick.