Richard K. Morgan "My protagonists tend to be exasperated with the world, because I am too."
Richard K. Morgan is a Multi-talented bestselling author of the Takeshi Kovacs novels: Altered Carbon (2002), Broken Angels(2003), and finally, Woken Furies(2005). In Altered Carbon, the main protagonist Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-envoy now convict, downloaded into the body of a “nicotine-addicted ex-thug and presented with a catch-22 offer,” to discover who murdered the body of a billionaire in a locked room mystery. Kovacs is pulled into a never-dying society of the ultra-rich, where intrigue and conspiracy abound, and death means little if you have enough money. All set within a gritty and futuristic world. Broken Angels takes place thirty years later. Takeshi has again changed bodies, and now instead of a private investigator, he is a mercenary soldier, “and helping a far-flung planet’s government put down a bloody revolution.” Finally, in Woken Furies, Kovacs is back on his home of Harlan’s World, investigating Kovacs past relationships. Much to fans delight,
Altered Carbon was adapted to a Netflix series in 2018, starring Joel Kinnaman as Kovacs in season 1 and Anthony Mackie for season two.
In 2008, Morgan took a break from gritty science fiction with his series in A Land Fit For Heroes, starting with the first book, The Steel Remains, Morgan takes on a typical sword and sorcery novel but adds a gritty noir feel with more modern characters. “Ringil Eskiath—Gil, for short—a washed-up mercenary and onetime war hero whose cynicism is surpassed only by the speed of his sword.”
Additionally, Morgan has written more award-winning science fiction in the Black Man novels, first with Thirteen (2007) and Thin Air (2018.)
In the back and forth conversation below, Richard answers questions regarding the hero myth, influences, cancel culture, and more.
Your first novel Altered Carbon is the story of an envoy, now-convict Takeshi Kovacs. It created its own genre with a combination of the hard-boiled noir of Raymond Chandler and William Gibson’s Neuromancer’s feel. Did either of these writers influence you?
Very much so, yes. Gibson’s short stories in Omni Magazine in the early eighties were a crystallising moment for me – the moment I realised This! This is the sort of thing I want to write! The Chandler influence came later, and was consequent; everyone was referring to Gibson as The Chandler of SF, so I wandered over into the crime genre looking for this guy Chandler, to see what he was about. After that, I never looked back!
Cyberpunk as a genre came to mainstream attention in the early 1980s with Blade Runner and Neuromancer by William Gibson, though arguably, it is seen in the earlier works of Phillip K. Dick. Either way, cyberpunk is the evolution of technology, leading to a dystopic future. Where do you think cyberpunk is going as a genre in the future?
I don’t know that cyberpunk is “going” anywhere, any more than its non-SF antecedent “noir” has ever “gone” anywhere. I think in both cases what has ended up identified as a subgenre is in reality more of an aesthetic or, in musical terms, a backbeat. Cyberpunk showed up in the eighties as a conscious rejection of both the Big Shiny Futures of the Golden Age (an easy enough target!), but also the weird-ass speculations of the New Wave. CP was eminently pragmatic in both its approach to technology and to socio-political trends. Look, it said, Here’s some cool new tech, and look how little it’s actually changed the way humans behave. Cyberpunk insisted, in much the same way as noir, that we are our own worst enemies, that there aren’t really any Good Guys or Bad Guys, and that the human condition has some uncomfortable eternal verities to which we’ll likely always be subject. And to be honest, those were assumptions that had been kicking around in mainstream literary fiction for a very long time indeed. There is, in fact, a case to be made that all Cyberpunk really represented was the final unavoidable seepage of that modernist literary aesthetic into the rarified ghettoes of genre (just as the New Wave had smuggled in experimental writing a decade or so earlier). So, while there’s been a lot of talk about The Death of Cyberpunk, or how The Cyberpunk of Today Just Ain’t The Same As The Cyberpunk of Yesteryear (a sort of genre-based “Today’s Music Ain’t Got The Same Soul” whinge), the truth is that the aesthetic of Cyberpunk has taken the world by storm, sunk into every aspect of it at every level, and endures as a major defining factor in the stories that we continue to tell, not only in genre but across the whole literary firmament.
There has been quite a lot of societal and political upheavals in the world this year. Do you think that this year will affect your writing in the future? And if so, how?
It probably will at some point, but it’s hard to say how right now. I find that any new input needs to marinate for a while before I find a use for it. The car lease agreement I signed that triggered the idea of the sleeve rentals in Altered Carbon was something I encountered in Vancouver back in early 1991. It didn’t crop up in my writing until some time in ’93 or ’94. The argument I had with a buddhist that underlies the main storyline in the same novel happened even earlier. So yeah, all the shit that 2020 brought in will likely make its way into my fiction somewhere down the line, but as to when and how – watch this space!
I remember reading about that argument with a Buddhist, and I found that your statement, ‘So I’m suffering and I can’t remember what I did to earn this suffering? That’s not right, is it, because I’m not that person?’ And he said: ‘It’s the same soul.’ I said: ‘It doesn’t fucking matter. What matters is whether you, as an experiential being, remember it. Otherwise, I’m being punished and I don’t know why. That’s the height of injustice.’” to be true. It is the height of injustice when distilled like that as an idea and I can see how that reflected in Takeshi Kovacs. What other broad concepts would you like to tackle someday?
I think if we’re talking about broad moral concepts, I tend to mix the same basic palette into most of what I write – I’m concerned above all with injustice and human stupidity, and Buddhism, for all its superficially non-judgemental appeal, is still a religion, still an example of human stupidity. (Not sure on this? Go ask the Rohyinga). My protagonists tend to be exasperated with the world, because I am too – as Quellcrist Falconer puts it “The human eye is a wonderful device; with a little effort it can fail to see even the most glaring injustice.” The brutality we cheerfully inflict on our fellow humans in the scramble for ascendancy, the self-serving lies we tell about it, the sheer infantile cognitive dissonance of the dynamic – that’s the enduring texture of the backdrop my stories tend to play out against.
You have written both a fantasy series in A Land Fit for Heroes and genre-bending series in Takeshi Kovacs and the novel Thin Air. Is the process of writing a fantasy novel different than a science fiction one?
For me, it wasn’t. In fact, I’d made myself something of a tacit promise that I’d simply hump all the usual noir furniture from my SF work over the fence into the field of fantasy and see how it panned out. Turns out it works there pretty much as well as anywhere else 🙂 Of course, you have to pay attention to some basic differences – journey times for example; in the Altered Carbon universe, I could get a character across interstellar distances “so close to instantaneously that scientists are still arguing about the terminology”. In a fantasy context, you need a horse (or magic, of course!), and even then it can take weeks. Similarly with information transfer – in my futures, there’s not much you can’t find out pretty much instantaneously wherever you are, whereas in a fantasy context, whole wars can break out and people only a few hundred miles away might never know. But as with anything in fiction, you look for ways to turn these limitations to your advantage. For example, in The Steel Remains, Ringil ends up having to make a long, dull journey on horseback, but I used that interval to allow him to think something through and arrive at a revelation which serves him in the next chapter. All told, to me it feels like a minor change of tools to do essentially the same job – or like swapping out one weapon for another then getting on with the fight 🙂
Ringil absolutely is a hero – but one cast very much in the classical mould. He’s brave, brash, good in a fight, and in the very best tradition of Greek and Norse hero mythology, haunted by his doom. What more could you want!? This maybe doesn’t read as heroic in the way we use the term these days, but that’s because the concept of hero has been sanitised and abraded beyond recognition by Hollywood and its associated industries. In fact, contemporary entertainment is so befuddled by this sanitising, sanding down process that it has had to invent a whole other category – the antihero – to cover the aspects of the hero that we now find unpalatable. But the truth is that heroes are unpalatable. If you look back at the Greek or Norse myths, you see this very clearly. Their heroes are characters of great strength and will, but their actions routinely include behaviour we would find completely unacceptable. Their violent prowess isn’t safe, it’s partisan, careless and flawed. And there is a simple wisdom in this, I think, in the understanding that there’s nothing safe or comfortable about violence, regardless of who the perpetrator is; that for every act of violence there is a price to be paid, and who pays and how is rarely simple. Into that context, Ringil fits like a hand in a steel mailed glove.
Why do you think Hollywood has created this sanitized hero myth? Even with the Norse and Greek pantheon, I always assumed that their behavior was wholly excused because they were gods or heroes. They behaved abominably, but it didn’t matter because “gods will be gods.” Do you think it is that humans crave something outside of the moral grey that is life? Or, is it that humanity genuinely believes that there is a perfect hero out there somewhere?
At the heart of Hollywood – as at the heart of any artistic endeavour – is the eternal tension between Art and Commerce. You want to tell the stories you want to tell. But in order to do that, you have to sell them to someone. It’s all very well writing – as I invariably do – for yourself; but unless there are a fair few people out there on the same wavelength as you, then prepare never to make a living from your art! That problem becomes all but insurmountable when we start to deal in the scales and costs of movie making. Making deep and meaningful movies that no-one wants to see simply isn’t a viable model. The issue then arises of who your audience is, and what they want to see. And while America is a wealthy enough nation to support a sizeable intellectual class and the artistic sophistication that goes with it, the bulk of consumers have always come from a far more basic cultural matrix, and they want far more basic things. Middle America is, after all, the place that gave birth to the term “corny” – referring to the kind of stories that travelling theatre troupes knew would appeal to their audiences in those rural places. And this has never gone away. America is still, in the main, a deeply insular, small-town conservative culture with a clear sense of itself as the good guy and the other as evil. It’s boyish and puritanical in instinct, regarding sex and therefore women with deep suspicion, and it thinks that violence is good healthy stuff, just so long as it’s being deployed by the good guys against the bad (read Our Tribe against Some Other Tribe). While, of course, there have been waves of revolt against this matrix in Hollywood – the noir films of the interwar years, the morally gray, dystopian tones of movie-making during the late sixties and the seventies when rebellion became briefly chic; the odd one-off triumph like Unforgiven – the simple inertia of that corn-consuming audience has ensured that Hollywood always returns to safe territory because that’s where the real money is. Star Wars in 1977 was really only a precursor of the Reaganite regression that followed on its heels. Suddenly, the Vietnam war was a “noble cause” again, the Soviet Union was The Evil Empire and American heroes were once again (with a few honourable exceptions like Platoon ) morally spotless warriors for the Good against whatever encroaching Evil threatened. They fight the good fight, they win, they get the girl and go home to the reward of a white picket fence paradise. No morally compromised, doomed classical heroes need apply. (Meantime, the CIA and the American military sponsored death squads in central America and the Taliban in Afghanistan). Nothing that’s happened since Reagan has allowed any real interruption in that hegemony – 9/11 kicked it into high gear, and the Marvel/DC superhero ascendancy has hammered home the tendency. If you want morally compromised these days in US entertainment, you pretty much have to go to HBO, Netflix et al.
Now, you could, of course, argue that all Hollywood is doing is reflecting back a general human tendency – as you say, the craving for something outside the moral grey of reality – and certainly the success of Hollywood product globally points to that being true. But I hold out hope that this isn’t the whole story – for one thing, you’ve got the massive popularity of more morally ambiguous programming on those TV services we mentioned above. And elsewhere on the planet, I see signs of other inclinations; Japanese and Korean cinema, for example, seems to have no problem with morally ambiguous heroes, nor for that matter does Australian, British or French. (Chinese cinema, interestingly enough, seems right now to reflect the simplistic corn model of Hollywood, if anything at an even more debased level – which implies some interesting correlations between imperial/colonial power and simplistic hero narratives!). And of course, there’s also the issue of who made whom – to what extent is Hollywood moulded by its audience’s expectations, and to what extent does it in turn mould those expectations in its consumers’ minds. Culture is not static, it can move, and be moved, and indeed does move, all the time. Condition the populace to expect only brightly confected superhero flashbang, and sooner or later they lose the capacity to parse anything else. Offer a more distributed palette, and you maybe grow the audience for something more sophisticated. I like to think that we all have the capacity to understand the brutal truths behind the hero narrative – the question is how many of us have the appetite to face those truths in our entertainment, and how many of us are just too tired, worn down or ill-informed to stomach it.
Ringil is a gay protagonist in a fantasy series, which is few and far between in the fairly conservative fantasy genre. Thankfully we see that changing as more diverse characters are being written. This is thanks in large part to characters like Ringil and Archeth. Did Ringil’s orientation evolve as he was written, or was that a part of the series from the start?
Ringil first popped up in a short story/mood piece I wrote back around the turn of the century, can’t remember exactly why; it might have been for a short story competition (one I didn’t win, obviously!) or simply me playing around with ideas, test-bedding a notion. The story was called Hero (you can read it more or less intact by simply reading the first chapter of The Steel Remains), and it leaned heavily on the distinctly unheroic context in which Ringil finds himself. At initial draft, I had Gil lusting after serving wenches in the tavern, but it occurred to me that this simply wouldn’t cut it in terms of the marginalisation I was looking for in the character – in a medieval context, that kind of behaviour wouldn’t be frowned upon, in fact it would be pretty much standard practice for any red-blooded male. So I swapped out wenches for stable boys, and it was as if I’d grabbed hold of a live cable. I got this sudden massive cascade of inspiration from the basic shift in Gil’s sexuality – here were the reasons for his marginalisation, his revolt against his family and his noble blood, his scorn for the society which, as a high status straight male, he would have had no reason to question and every reason to revel in. And that refusal of status, that revolt, then went on to define the entire trilogy from end to end.
Did you get any blowback from that character choice?
Yeah, I had handful of angry emails (though I hasten to add none ever contained either insults or threats – ahh, those were the days!) from readers who’d been blindsided by the gay content in The Steel Remains, and variously swore to throw the novel away/burn it/never read anything I ever wrote again. But on the other side of the balance, the gay community were
very supportive of the book – it got lavish coverage in the gay press, even went on to win the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for 2010 (something I remain inordinately proud of to this day) – so I think things evened out 🙂 And I still remember one particularly touching e-mail from a borderline case, pleading with me that he loved the book and the character of Ringil, but why oh why did I have to make him gay, goddamnit! I wrote back saying, gently, that perhaps he (it was a he, of course) should try to let go and enjoy the book for what it was, because if he liked the character, why did the fact Gil fucked guys from preference matter. And fuck me if the same guy didn’t drop me a line about three or four months later to say he’d taken my advice, stuck with it and was so glad he had because now he loved Ringil, he was such a fucking bad-ass! And he no longer gave a shit about the gayness. So I guess that’s a minor victory along the way, another heart and mind won over.
As to whether making Ringil gay cost me any actual revenue, I’m doubtful. I suspect leaving SF for Fantasy probably had a larger impact in the end. Steel sold about the same as most of my other stuff, maybe even a little bit more – it was the only time (until Altered Carbon hit Netflix) that I ever made it onto a bestseller list (The Independent – just squeaked in at the bottom), which suggests that if I lost some readership with the switch away from SF, I certainly gained similar numbers of new readers from the fantasy fold along the way. Perhaps something similar happened with the gay characters – I lost a few homophobic types, gained far more new gay readers in their place? In the end, it doesn’t pay too much to worry about these things. As I said before, I write primarily for myself and hope others will come along for the ride – I’ve never had a target reader in mind other than myself, let alone a target size of readership or market! I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way and, frankly, I wouldn’t really want to.
A Land Fit for Heroes certainly steps outside the lauded archaism generally found in fantasy novels. Not only that, but the non-human characters also do not fit the commonly used Tolkien-esque style of classification. Do you think it was your science fiction background that allowed you to “step outside the box” when writing these characters and creating this world?
To be fair, I think the use of modernistic tone and dialogue has been kicking around for a while now in fantasy, albeit never as the dominant variant. And while I’d like to feel I pushed the envelope somewhat in that regard, I wasn’t really doing anything that you didn’t see, for example, in Glen Cook’s Black Company books back in the eighties – not to mention Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in the nineteen-thirties! Same with the technological elements – mixing advanced science with magic in a fantasy context also has a long and honourable tradition, stretching right back to – an obvious example – Michael Moorcock’s High History of the Runestaff in the late sixties, and well beyond that. So, long story short, there were plenty of good precedents for what I was doing.
As for the non-human races in Land Fit, I think that, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, they are in fact quite Tolkienesque. You’ve got your elves (sort of), beautiful, immortal and filled with light, except they’re also deeply amoral, verging on pure evil (though it’s fair to say I also owe a large debt to Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword for that). Then you’ve got your dwarves (sort of), metalworkers comfortable in subterranean contexts, except in this world they’re the immortal ones and they’ve got the guiding Elder Race job of Tolkien’s elves but, being half-insane, aren’t very good at it. Instead of leaving in melancholy wistfulness, the (sort of) elves are intent on making a savage magical comeback in the human world, while the (sort of) dwarves are the ones leaving in melancholy, but they totally forget to tidy up after themselves when they leave and their stuff is still lying around talking to anyone who’ll listen. And so forth. I think anyone who reads Land Fit for Heroes is going to spot these echoes for the sly ripostes to Tolkien (and the Tolkienesque canon) they so obviously are.
So did being an SF writer have anything to do with any of this? Not really, I think. But did being a life-long
avid consumer of the whole SF and Fantasy genre? Hell, yes!
I love this answer, and see a lot of what you are talking about. You took something that could have been standard and gave it a twist. Echoes, as you say. You see that quite a bit in your work. For instance, you have twisted the Mars trope in Thin Air. Science fiction is inundated with a love for Mars, we can abandon our ruinous problems and go to Mars and start over, and Thin Air was certainly not like that. Why do you think science fiction has such a romanticized view of Mars?
Habit, I think. We’ve had fiction about life on Mars in one form or another for the best part of a hundred and fifty years, and even as our factual understanding of the solar system has grown and eliminated our more garish dreams of humans colonising other planets, Mars endures as just about the only one where it still looks feasible – though feasible here remains an incredibly relative term. As Bruce Stirling rather tartly pointed out a few years back, the Gobi desert right here on Earth is about a thousand times more hospitable than Mars to humans, and five hundred times easier to reach. And no-one’s choosing to go and live there in droves, so what’s the big whoop about Mars?
The big whoop, of course, is the mystery and the distance, and the libertarian wank fantasy of Rugged Individualism on the High Frontier. It’s the last gasp of the cowboy colonial dream, the vision of space as Lebensraum in the Sky, the idea that it’s going to be some kind of re-run of the Old American West – which in itself, when you think about the wars and genocides and brutal privations of that era, makes you wonder what these people have been smoking. I mean, what kind of masochist or sociopath – depending on the role and station you imagine yourself having – would you have to be to want to go back to those times? One of the reasons I found Thin Air such fun to write was because I was able to take all the wide-eyed turbo-capitalist American Right bullshit that currently infests the Mars narrative, merge it with the nostalgia for an Old West that never was and serve up the resulting mix as a filthy corrupt dystopia way worse than anything Earth has to offer.
Do you think that your education in history and languages lent to a recurring theme in your work of the sacrificing of long-term progress for short term profit?
Not really, no. A simple glance at the headlines any given day of the week would suffice for that!
What my studies in history did show me, I suppose, is that the human condition doesn’t change much over time and that the same basic failings in our species keep showing up time and time again. Down where it counts, at a genetic level, we are still insecure violent apes looking down the barrel of a short, violent life expectancy. That gives us a massive evolved tendency towards short-termism which the rise of our civilisation has got, at best, a slippery halfway grip on. We’re in a constant fight to beat our own worst impulses, and it’s a very uneven struggle. If you plan to write even halfway decent fiction about human beings, that has to be one of your steering points.
Cancel culture has pretty far-reaching effects on the entertainment industry now. Do you think that this level of cancel culture ever existed in the past in another form, or has it increased with the advent of social media? How does it impact authors, both large and small?
This kind of moral panic is nothing new, of course. Historically, it’s always been there, it’s what fuels the pogroms and lynchings and sectarian atrocities that the history books are littered with. It’s quintessentially human – standard violent ape stuff. And I suppose we should be glad that this current incarnation hasn’t – so far – led to any actual slaughter. But the instincts are the same – it’s the tribal gathering of force, of mob righteousness and a warm sense of belonging, to drive out the hated (and usually confected) Other with no recourse to civilised debate, reason or the rule of law. That canceling happens largely on-line reduces its risk of immediate physicality at least, but the impact can still be severe – people can lose jobs, contracts, friends, and acquaintances – and the problem with its inflection through Social Media is that the potential for contagion is vastly extended. What worries me far more, though, is the way that Cancel Culture has not only infected academic and artistic circles, but in many ways seems to have incubated there. The very places that should be hosting fearless debate, groundbreaking study, and the white heat of unleashed creativity are the exact places where debate is being stifled, groundbreaking discouraged and creativity leashed to the rigid parameters of Correct Thought. The chilling effect that’s having on our cultural life is, for me, a genuine evil – history bears witness to it in its most brutal forms under Stalin and Mao, Hollywood felt it during the McCarthy era and Britain saw it with the spineless collapse of the progressive left before Islamism during the Satanic Verses debacle. I still, even now, divide writers of that time into those who stood up for Rushdie and those I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire. You’d think we might have learnt something back then, but apparently not – the behaviour of far too many of our current crop of intellectuals and artists in this climate of cancellation (eg Billy Bragg rebuking Orwell’s statement about freedom of speech being the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear) is similarly spineless. What’s terrifying is that the problem here is one of social and political self-mutilation, because it’s these aspects of society – the artists, the academy, the progressive left – that are supposed to serve as our bulwarks against totalitarianism. If we lose those aspects to dumb, kneejerk mob righteousness, then we go naked into the arena against the Trumps and Putins of this world, and then we fucking lose – big-time!
What are you currently working on?
Currently, I’m involved in a few side projects – showrunner/continuity editor on the second Kovacs graphic novel for Dynamite Comics, occasional consultant to WarCradle Studios in the Altered Carbon RPG games they’re putting out, collaborator with an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who’s trying to get Land Fit for Heroes made into a TV show, plus a couple of other things that I’m not really at liberty to talk about right now – but the bulk of my creative effort at the moment is going into a sequel to my last novel Thin Air. The story picks up with Hakan Veil not much more than a year after the events of the last book, and in the new chaos of the Earth audit on Mars where things, though superficially bright and cheery and resolved, are in fact anything but……. Like I think I said earlier – Watch this space!