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Feature Interview: Richard K. Morgan

Richard K. Morgan is a British author who is known for the blending of speculative genres in his work. His first novel, Altered Carbon (2002), featured a mix of noir detective fiction and cyberpunk, following Takeshi Kovacs as he navigated a web of conspiracies, Catholic religious convictions, and re-housed consciousnesses. The book was followed by Broken Angels, published a year later and also featuring Kovacs, taking on military science fiction and alien archeology. The trilogy was rounded out in 2005, with the publication of Woken Furies, where Kovacs meets his ultimate enemy: a copy of himself housed in a different body.

Two stand-alone novels have likewise featured a blend of genres. Market Forces is a mix of bloody battle epic and corporate intrigue, set in a world where corporate raiders literally kill their competitors within a company. Thirteen (titled Black Man in the United Kingdom edition) follows a super soldier, Carl Marsalis, as he works to track down fellow rogue soldiers across the globe.

Morgan’s work has attracted considerable acclaim within the genre: Altered Carbon won the Philip K. Dick Award, and Market Forces was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Thirteen won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Morgan’s first foray into fantasy began with The Steel Remains. It is the first book of his A Land Fit For Heroes series, a contemporary and violent take on the genre where a privileged yet savage soldier, Ringil Eskiath, finds himself in exile due to his sexuality. He inhabits a world still rocked by the aftermath of a devastating war and facing a prophecy that promises the coming of a dark lord. Although this is the stuff of high fantasy, the noir sensibility of Morgan’s past books flavors the series. The strong fight, the cunning scheme, and power and expediency always win out over idealism. The Steel Remains ends on an uncertain note, paving the way for the next entry of the series, The Cold Commands, which will be released this month.

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Your first novel, Altered Carbon, made a bit of a splash in the science fiction world, and was followed up with several other science fiction novels (Broken Angels, Woken Furies, Market Forces and Thirteen). Why the switch to fantasy? 

I think the decision itself was a mix of sheer Because-I-Can-ism (when you’ve had some success already, it’s relatively easy to persuade people—editors, publishers—to let you have a crack at something else) but also a growing desire to shake off some of the confines that my existing work was showing. Genre can, if you let it, have a fairly stultifying effect on your creativity, and it behooves anyone who’s serious about his or her writing (as opposed to just serious about making a living from it) to try to stay fresh. Taking a walk on the sword-wielding wild side seemed like as good a way of doing that as any. And on top of that, there was the fact that I’d been talking a good fight for some years in genre circles about importing the noir sensibility into a fantasy setting—it suddenly seemed like the right time to put my money where my mouth was, and see if it could be done.

That said, I tend to see the switch as more a change of instrument than an actual shift in what I’m playing—electric guitar to mandolin, say, or tenor sax to trumpet. The thematic concerns and stylistic form of my work remained pretty much the same in The Steel Remains as they had been in the Kovacs novels or my other standalone SF—there’s just a different set of building blocks in play. And human nature being what it is—i.e. basically immutable—I can critique the political brutalism and stupidity of our times just as effectively from a mock-medieval context as I can using neon-shiny hi-tech futures.

There’s an ongoing argument about the place of genre in the speculative fiction community: Your books seem to defy genre, mixing cyberpunk with detective fiction and military science fiction with economics. What purpose does genre play a role when you set out to write a book?

For me, genre is an almost meaningless word. It’s a you-may-also-like short-cut at best, a marketing trick at worst, and I try as much as possible to ignore it in my own reading choices—I tend to prowl the whole bookshop looking at blurbs rather than stick to any one section, and I apply the same logic to the review section of the paper. When it comes to my own writing, I’ll readily make use of the furniture of any given genre if I like it or can see a use for it, but I rarely if ever consider what genre I’m actually writing in. There’s been, for example, some dispute over whether The Steel Remains is “really a fantasy novel”—whatever that means—and it leaves me completely nonplussed. I mean, who fucking cares? Is it any good, did you enjoy it, would you try something else by the same author? These are surely the relevant questions to ask about a novel, not whether it falls within some arbitrary filing sub-category or not.

Each of your books has a healthy dose of cynicism: The Steel Remains sees one of Ringil’s lovers hauled off for death while Ringil himself is spared for political reasons.

In the end you can only write what you’re moved to write (unless you’re just a hack, of course), and that has to come through the filters you apply when you try to make sense of the world. Cynicism—or, I’d argue, simply sober realism—is a major factor in how I personally do that. I wouldn’t know how to write anything more pastel-shaded or whimsical. That said, I like to think there’s a certain amount of black humour in my books, and that too is wired pretty deeply into my outlook.

Economics play a notable role in your novels, as well as geopolitics. How important do you feel this is in a speculative fiction novel? Is there any difference between its use in fantasy and science fiction?

There’s really no reason there should be (such a difference). Doesn’t matter if you’re living in a colony on Mars or a castle in some mock-Medieval context—people have to make a living, and economics is simply the name we use for how that works out. So I’d say economics is as important in spec fic as in any other kind of fiction—it is one of the basic underlying structures of human civilization, so any fiction written about humans pretty much has to have some economics in it.

Market Forces in particular seems to be particularly relevant right at this moment: Do you have any thoughts on the current health of the global economy?

Yes, it does rather seem as if we’re living through the domino recessions at the moment, doesn’t it! Perhaps I can finally persuade someone to get on and make the movie now …

The Steel Remains’s main protagonist, Ringil Eskiath, is gay, in a world that isn’t accepting of his sexuality, a world that goes to harsh measures to discourage it. How far can he push the boundaries, and how far can he go in this world? 

As far as the steel on his back will carry him, and that’s really a central point of the narrative. I remember seeing a demonstration of katana strokes a couple of years ago in Australia, and being very struck by the way the demonstrating student stated the philosophy of the blade. He said—I’m paraphrasing somewhat here—that the katana represented (among other things) freedom, because if you were prepared to both kill and die with the blade, then no man could ever make you a slave.

Now that came a little too late to make it into The Steel Remains, which had already been published by then, but I felt that it summed up very neatly what Ringil is about. He lives in a world where power grows—paraphrasing again!—from the steel you carry, how well you use it, and whether you are prepared to die with it in your hand. Gil’s noble status buys him a certain amount of leeway, his reputation a certain amount more, but in the end it’s his willingness to fight and die at the drop of a glove—tempered in the crucible of the war just gone—that really lets him get away with behaving the way he does.

What other authors do you count amongst the influences upon your writing and why?

Almost impossible to answer that one concisely. William Gibson is always the first name on my lips—it was his Sprawl stories that really fired me up and showed me the kind of thing I wanted to write, way back when I was starting out. There was a superbly gritty underbelly feel to that stuff. But equally, I got an early introduction to cynicism and violence in SF through the works of Poul Anderson, who I’d been reading since I was barely eleven years old—I loved the whole rotten-to-the-core political expedience and weariness of his Dominic Flandry sequence, as well as a whole bunch of his stand-alone novels for the intrinsicly messy humanity he always brought to the table.

And of course it was Anderson who wrote what is probably the definitive sword and sorcery novel, The Broken Sword. After that—well, take your pick; I always liked Bob Shaw’s grumpy middle-aged engineer heroes for their gruff cynicism; I enjoy M. John Harrison’s beautifully rendered prose and doggedly grim outlook on life, whether it be in a fantasy setting or not; I was a big fan of Michael Moorcock’s incredibly prolific fantasy output, most notably, I think, his High History of the Runestaff. And this is without even starting in on the noir influences—guys like James Ellroy, Lawrence Block, Pete Dexter, James Lee Burke, Jim Thompson, Walter Mosly, the list goes on …

Takeshi Kovaks, Carl Marsalis, and Ringil Eskiath are three of your main protagonists, and all are fairly dark characters, anti-heroes each. Takeshi shoots people in the head to deprive their consciousness of rebirth, Carl is racking up the death toll from chapter one, and Ringil snaps children’s necks like it was nothing. How do you see the role of heroics within a society that creates these people?

I think that as a culture we have spent in the coin of heroes so lavishly over the last few decades that the whole currency is pretty much devalued. Our heroic figures have become bland, tame, teen-friendly, moral, and middle-American to a fault. Above all, they are safe. Great prowess in violence is seen as a handy little sub-set of skills that you can switch on and off as required, and the rest of the time you just revert to being this likeable average guy getting on with his white-picket-fence average existence. You pick up the sword and defeat the evil enemy, then when the war is done you go back to doing whatever cuddly things you were doing before—it’s essentially the lie we told, most recently, about all the men who fought and came back from the second world war, the lie whose rancid expedience it took the Vietnam debacle to really expose to public awareness.

Now, thankfully, we all know what a dangerous lie it is. Violence scars, it disfigures lives and souls, whole societies and generations sometimes, and there is no going back from it. And the individuals who excel at it are anything but safe to have around afterwards. That’s a truth I try to come back to constantly in my fiction, and guys like Ringil are the result.

How do you think Ringil Eskiath and Takeshi Kovacs would get along if they found themselves in the same room? 

Badly, I imagine. Kovacs is from slum roots, Ringil is a noble, so there’d be that antagonism right from the start. Ringil is very mannered and wears his social status, for all he sneers at it, like another kind of weapon; whereas Kovacs generally derides any kind of affectation and has a cordial dislike of rank in any form. I don’t know, maybe if you could get them on the subject of what bastards their fathers were, you might get them to calm down and not kill each other. Then again …

Your main characters are often brash and violent—and ready for violence: Do you worry that your characters are too similar to one another?

I suppose there’s the makings of a fair cop there, yes. But I can’t honestly say it worries me. By definition, you need a tough hard-boiled hero if you’re telling a tough hard-boiled tale, and those are the kind of tales I like to tell. So, within parameters, you are going to see certain similar qualities emerge in the protagonists of those stories. But I’d like to think that within that set of tropes, I lay out a somewhat fresh stall each time—as we’ve just noted, Kovacs and Ringil are almost mirror opposites in social terms and personal disposition. And despite some superficial similarities in occupational training, Marsalis and Kovacs aren’t all that alike either; Marsalis is a far less fucked up human being, he’s done far fewer awful things than Kovacs and is far more tied into his own humanity; he was carefully nurtured as child (albeit somewhat roughly), whereas Kovacs was brutalized and left to his own devices. Marsalis is looking for a way out, whereas Kovacs has long ago come to terms with what he is.

Your name comes up often when people are discussing “new” fantasy authors: George R.R. Martin, Scott Lynch, and Patrick Rothfuss, among others. How do you see the types of stories in fantasy as it exists now, as opposed to those stories published forty to fifty years ago?

Truth is, I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so I’m far from ideally placed to judge. But honestly, I think surprisingly little has changed. Scott Lynch’s stuff, for example, for all its visible debt to Joss Whedon, really isn’t far off what Fritz Leiber was doing with Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser back as early as 1939. A lot of the original Conan tales, penned in the thirties, show levels of atheistic nihilism that would make any modern writer proud. And my own attempt at fantasy owes an acknowledged debt to Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, which is from 1954, the same year Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring. As for George R. R. Martin, well, he is something of a milestone in terms of sheer imaginative scope, true, but the more modern language and cynicism he deploys in his Song of Ice and Fire sequence shows up at least a decade earlier in Glen Cook’s Black Company and M. John Harrison’s Viriconium stories, and probably would have had plenty of even earlier antecedents if the obscenity laws of past generations had been a little less hysterical. Contrary to popular belief, dark and gritty isn’t a new dynamic—what’s really changed is the leeway we now have to express those strains using much more explicit language and content. Simply put, we get to publish what previous generations of fantasists would never have been allowed to put on the page. But the basic elements, the tendency if you like—that’s always been there.

Is there anything that has really changed?

At the risk of generalizing vastly, I’ll stick out my neck and say that there seem to be two very broad—and conflicting—tendencies in genre, and probably in literature as a whole. One tendency leans in towards the real, attempts to interface with it, to imitate, engage with or otherwise interrogate the human condition. The other tendency does the reverse, it yearns away from human realities and prefers to take refuge in a wishful-thinking comfort model where things are the way we’d like them to be—rulers are kind and noble, enemies are external and easy to define, good triumphs over evil, we all live happily ever after. Fiction for small children, in other words. Now I hasten to add that those two tendencies are by no means clearly separated out. They can intermingle and co-exist in any given genre, in the work of any given author, even in the same novel. But the point is that both tendencies have been around forever—it’s changing social sanction and publishing mores, not changing genre, that has brought the darker, more realistic elements to the fore in recent years.

Where do you think fantasy (or speculative fiction in general) is headed in the next couple of years? Any predictions on major themes or attitudes?

Again, I really don’t feel that qualified to judge the fantasy side of things. But I imagine that we’ll go on in much the same way as we always have, with those two tendencies I mentioned continuing to grapple for dominance—and the Comforting Retreat tendency probably continuing to dominate. Sure, you’ll have plenty of people to plough the furrow Martin has made so successful, but at the same time, I look to the multiplexes and I see no sign that people’s need for comfort fiction has decreased. Look at the Solomon Kane movie, and how shabbily its initial conceit—fight evil with evil—fell apart within the first twenty minutes. Likewise, I’ll be seriously shocked if much of the original Conan’s grim self-interest and desolate religious outlook made it into the movie version. Truth is, there are probably always going to be far more people who want to escape from real contexts than there are those who want to engage with them.

Your next book, The Cold Commands, is the follow-up to The Steel Remains. What can fans expect to see in the next installment of the series?

We’re back with Ringil, Archeth, and Egar, but it’s the best part of a year later and so they’ve all moved on, in much the directions implied by the end of the last book. The Cold Commands is quite a bit longer than The Steel Remains, and that’s given me a lot more scope, so we’ll be covering quite a lot of ground. The substantial bulk of the story takes place in Yhelteth, at the heart of the Empire, but there are a number of other settings too, another merchant city in the League, a trip out to An Monal and the ruins of the Kiriath settlement there, a couple of voyages by ship. And of course Ringil continues to spend time in the Aldrain marches, flirting with the destiny Seethlaw always implied he owns.

Between Altered Carbon and Broken Angels, there are some major changes in genre: detective noir to alien military SF. Will there be something similar happening between The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands

Not really. I’d say that Cold Commands is probably more decidedly urban than Steel was, something that I’m very pleased about, because it was always part of the noir brief I gave myself for the series. But apart from that, the ground is very much the same. I’ve basically taken the implications contained in The Steel Remains, and run with them.

What’s the latest word on the Altered Carbon movie? Still happening? Any chance of similar treatment for The Steel Remains?

The original option with Warner Brothers and Joel Silver lapsed a couple of years ago, but it’s been taken up again, this time by a high-profile Hollywood screenwriter and a production company that they’re tied in with. I’m not currently at liberty to name names, but suffice it to say that both the writer and the production company have had some very major successes over the past few years, and have shown huge enthusiasm for the project, so I’m very excited. Expect an announcement in the not-too-distant future. As for The Steel Remains, well, the screenwriter in question has confessed to being a huge fan of all my books and would love to bring both Steel and Black Man to the big screen at some point in the future, so who can tell? Just keep your fingers crossed!

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Andrew Liptak

Andrew LiptakAndrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He has written for such places as io9, Tor.com, SF Signal, Blastr, Kirkus and Armchair General. He can be found over at his site and at @AndrewLiptak on twitter.