This week, I have a very special guest post from one of my favorite bloggers, Sam at Cheeese Toastie and Video Games! If you haven’t already checked out her site, you really should. She writes all about video games and posts awesome playthrough videos of the games she’s playing. Today, she writes about science fiction and one of her favorite novelists and series in the genre. =)
It’s no secret that I’m a huge science-fiction fan. It probably started with Star Wars when I was a kid and just sort of escalated from there. I’ve always enjoyed consuming all kinds of sci-fi TV shows, movies and games. Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek: the Original Series and the Mass Effect trilogy are some of my favourite franchises of all time. I love lasers and spaceships and technology. I love it with an all-consuming passion and I can’t get enough of it. What might surprise people though, is that my desire to devour all things sci-fi hasn’t always extended to literature. Reading has been a major hobby of mine since I learned to do it by myself, but for some reason, even though I read sci-fi very occasionally it has just never been my literature of choice. Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair are among some of my favourite reads, but both of those writers are known for being wacky and comedic rather than making any attempt at serious sci-fi. Then I came across Richard Morgan and things have never been the same since. Yet, despite being an award-winning author and apparently read by many, the common reaction I get when I gush about him, even often among sci-fi fans is, ‘who?’ If you do know who he is then, great! If you don’t, I think that’s something that needs to be rectified immediately.
So what was it that I didn’t like about most of the sci-fi I read? Well, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t like a lot of it as the fact that much of what I read initially was mainly about lasers and spaceships and warp drives and although I love them that’s not the main reason I read sci-fi. For me, it’s about the concepts. I’m interested in the tech of course, but it’s not enough that it’s just there. It’s about what they do with that tech. It’s about imagining what our future will be like and what that tells us about who we are as a civilization now. Many of the novels I read earlier in my life were unfortunately of the former category – shallow and enjoyable, but not something to get lost in. The focus was often less on quality and more about re-creating a sci-fi film or movie and if that’s what it comes down to, then I’d rather just watch it. Of course, since then I’ve discovered a whole new world full of incredible, deep sci-fi novels, mainly through recommendations from friends. But it all really started with Richard Morgan and Takeshi Kovacs.
There clearly is something special about his writing that captured sci-fi lovers’ imaginations. His first novel, Altered Carbon won the Philip K. Dick Award and he even went on to worked for Crytek as the lead writer on Crysis 2 and for Starbreeze as a writer on Syndicate. Initially however, I didn’t expect to like him. His debut series, consisting of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies (often called the Takeshi Kovacs books after the main protagonist from the trilogy) is about as serious as it gets. His first novel is described as a cross between ‘cyberpunk’ and ‘hardboiled detective fiction’ and his second, a fusing of ‘science fiction’ and ‘war fiction’. The world he created is like no other in sci-fi. It’s a dystopian world where new technology allows people with money to digitally transfer their personalities to new bodies or ‘sleeves’ and so in essence, they never have to die – depending how you look at it. The novels follow Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-Envoy (a specifically trained and neurologically and chemically enhanced soldier) whose job was to be sent via needlecast (digitally transferring their personalities and memories across great distances) to be dropped into wars in far-away lands and ordered to fight. The first novel sees him trying to solve the apparent suicide of a disgustingly rich and therefore effectively immortal man, Laurens Bancroft. Of course, someone like Bancroft would have had his personality backed up, so he’s still around, but he doesn’t remember the moment of his death and is convinced someone killed him. He hires Kovacs to find out the how and more importantly, the why.
With a somewhat insane plot like that you can be sure that things only get more interesting. All three of the Takeshi Kovacs novels have enough twists and turns and political intrigue to make you dizzy. The plot is multi-layered and intricate and each time you think you’ve unravelled it all, there’s a whole new level of mind-bending story underneath. The tech itself isn’t anything shockingly inventive for any reasonably well-versed sci-fi fan, but it’s how the whole package is put together that’s what really appealing about these books. Together with Morgan’s unique, intense, fast-paced and at times schizophrenic writing style, he paints a fully-realised technicolor world that’s as dark as it is shiny with all its new toys.
Another thing I love about the Takeshi Kovacs series is that it doesn’t pull any punches. It’s got exactly what I love about the cyberpunk and sci-fi genres. Beneath the glittering façade of all the inventions of the future, society itself is rotting away and the story is fittingly raw, gritty and incredibly brutal. It’s as unsentimental as the people who inhabit the worlds, worn away as they are by the ever-oppressive forces of the Protectorate (the all-controlling government in charge of Earth and all its colonies). It’s a beautiful and haunting vision of the future and one that’s often painful in how close it strikes to home. Kovacs’ world is not only in many ways, a reflection of what society is like now, but also stands as a warning of what we could or will one day become. In the end, their world is not so different from ours, ruled as it is by consumerism, self-enhancement, self-interest and power structures full of corruption that only ever claw more power for itself. The only difference is that they’ve had more time to destroy themselves from the inside.
Morgan’s nuanced writing style can also be seen in how he portrays the characters that populate his books. Even the random ones are never presented as unimportant or simply there to push the plot forward. Every single character feels fully fleshed out, a real person, with their own thoughts and motives and desires. There are no good guys and bad guys, only people with their own ideals and beliefs. Even Takeshi feels like both a friend (if you could ever call a violent mercenary a friend) and an enigma. He has his own thoughts and agenda, some perhaps that even he doesn’t know about yet. His is the only perspective you see and yet, you’re never sure where he stands. He’s more of the Envoy still than he wants to admit and he can never fully escape his conditioning. He’s a one-man killing machine, just the way he was built and to be as effective as he is, he has to cut himself off to things like emotion or morality or trust, things that weaken people and get them killed. Yet underneath all that the reader is allowed glimpses into a tortured psyche and a heart that has more good in it than the owner would like to admit. Takeshi’s voice is written perfectly and his depiction is deeply layered. Takeshi is one the most complex characters I’ve yet to encounter and you find yourself both hating and loving him and somehow rooting for him every step of the way.
This series isn’t perfect. The plot can be confused, especially in the first novel. There are too many things left unexplained that you’re supposed to figure out later and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of all the different threads. Morgan’s deliberately fragmented writing style at time obfuscates more than it explains. The pacing’s a little off in all three of the books – lingering too long in setting everything up before it really gets to the point. But the hard beauty of his world, the depth of the characters, the twisting and turning of the plot more than make up for any flaws and represent a brilliant debut by Morgan into the literary world.
The Takeshi Kovacs novels have of some the most complex, deep, fully developed worlds I’ve seen in sci-fi and all of it – the writing, plot and characters come together to create a fascinating, terrifying and heart-rending imagining of the future. So where has that left me? These days I find myself reading more sci fi than not. Books like The Player of Games, Dune and more now fill my shelves to bursting. I now have a new medium upon which to unleash my sci-fi addiction and I have Richard Morgan to thank for that.