Friday, 21 September 2012

Richard Morgan; A Land Fit for Heroes, parts 1 and 2, I guess

When Richard Morgan exploded onto the scene back in I'm-too-lazy-to-look-it-up, but we'll say for the sake of argument whenever I came back from my all-expenses-paid sun-and-suicide-bombs holiday, he was almost as big a breath of fresh air as he thought he was. Altered Carbon seemed like a genuine kick in the head for hard science fiction, injecting a worthwhile chunk of noir sensibility into the genre and throwing out some genuinely thought provoking notions about the way we'd be living tomorrow. The follow-up, Broken Angels, kicked it up a gear. Morgan had turned into one of those writers you look forward to hearing more from, in much the way that KJ Parker still is for me. Market Forces, a near future dystopian novel about a world where capitalists sorted out their competition issues by straight up killing each other, was so not-great that I gave my copy away to a colleague who - I'm not reading anything into this apart from, you know, it's all the book's fault - I haven't heard from since. Ah well, I thought, at least I got two books, and in less time than it takes George Martin to write half of one. Then Morgan went back to the world of Altered Carbon again with Woken Furies, which he swears - wisely - will be his last Takeshi Kovacs book. I forgave him for Market Forces, though I felt he was pushing his luck with Woken Furies and only just got away with it. His next book, Black Man, was actually pretty darned good despite being another near future commentary on the way that things might be if we don't cop on. It worked, I think, in part because it was going back to that fusion of noir and SF which had worked well at the outset. 

That was it with the SF though. Full of swashbuckling arrogance and actual announcements about how he was going to shake the house up because Big Daddy was in the house now, Morgan turned to fantasy. Which is not to say that fantasy couldn't do with a man with a flamethrower to come and do a bit of housecleaning, but announcing that you'd nominated yourself for that role struck me as a bit over the top. I should probably stipulate that I try to make a point of not knowing what the hell writers are saying outside of what's in the actual books, because nothing I ever hear makes me like the books or the writers better and a lot of it makes me think of going round to their houses with a stick full of nails and getting my money back. So for Morgan's breastbeating to hit my purposely-turned-off radar, he had to be making quite a bit more noise than I consider truly sophisticated in a modern human. Hmmm, I pondered, this had better be the second coming of whoever it was came the first time.

And predictably enough, it ain't.

As I read more and more and more of modern fantasy I winnow away at my platonic ideal novel that I'm never going to get around to writing. It won't have a map, because screw maps. It won't have a quest across the map it don't got. It won't have a hero plucked from obscurity and going on the hero's journey, because when you can buy a computer programme to write that plot for you, it's long past time every human in the business got well clear of that turkey. And, I decided this morning, it will all be over magically quickly. The something blahblah flaming other thing of whatever, it will be called, with the subtitle "a trilogy in one part".With any luck I can start a trend. I suspect that if I'd actually read Morgan's mission statement, it would have seemed eerily familiar, because as I read through The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands, there are even a couple of moments where the viewpoint characters are telling each other than real life is not like stories, and near the end of The Cold Commands Ringil Eskiath (another thing, everyone will be called Bill and Fred in my book) pretty much calls out the whole hero's journey story telling schtick as nonsense. I was waiting for him to namecheck Contour, the computer program that will write THAT book for you, but he held back. So - and I'm sure this was already clear - I'm completely on Morgan's side with this notion of getting away from the same old tired narrative structures of fantasy and into something more grounded. I just don't think he's pulled off what he was trying to do, and that's disappointing.

As always, the writing's pretty good. Morgan isn't a hugely subtle stylist, but you're not muttering "Oh, you didn't just write that." every few minutes and things drive along solidly without, in Orwell's words, "anything outright barbarous". Outside of his three viewpoint characters, the characterisation is somewhat sketchy, although it has to be said that very few of the secondary characters get to live long enough for character description, let alone development. The background is good. I'm pretty sure that it's not a new idea to have people from another world/universe/dimension fill in for elves and dwarves and all the other things Tolkien decreed we'd have to put up with, but Morgan paints it in artfully, giving the savvy reader just enough hints from the characters' own thoughts that we can fill in the blanks. It's a good way to justify your magic and your different races. There is, in short, a lot of good thinking going on here.

Sadly, it doesn't feel yet as though it's coming together. Morgan has now finished the first two books of a projected trilogy, and he's spent most of them marking time. In each book, the main characters wallow about, unable to get past the weaknesses that a recently ended war has created in them, and as each book draws to a close, they cop themselves on a bit and have a brief spasm of activity to nobble the latest manifestation of a looming threat from the wicked aliens (or whatever) who used to rule the world and want it back. When I read The Steel Remains about three years ago, I felt as though Morgan was putting his pieces on the board and would spend the next book moving them into position for something bigger. I had to re-read that book before I could read The Cold Commands last week, because I couldn't remember what had happened in it, and even brought up to speed by that, I felt as though once again, we were just putting the pieces on the board. An awful lot of the second book revolves around trying to put together an expedition to a hidden island which may be full of wonderful secrets. By the time the book has ended, they haven't even picked out a boat, let alone set out on the expedition. I did like it that at one point Ringil waxes lyrical on the ridiculousness of thinking that even creatures of myth would spend hundreds of years standing guard on an invisible island on the off chance that they might prevent some vague trouble. But I'd have liked it even better if he'd been delivering the rant for the second or third time (the repetition would have made it funnier) ON the island itself while seagulls crapped on his head and visibly nothing else was going on.

All of this puts Morgan in a box for the third book. I have a niggling suspicion that what he wants to do is trigger a third minor crisis which will once again get sorted out briskly and chaotically, so as to to end up making the point that you don't always have to trigger the apocalypse to keep heroes busy and productive. And if that's where he's going, that's clever, and the three books will hang together well. But if he's building up to a crescendo, it's going to feel very rushed and sudden when it hits, and I don't think it's going to work out very well. One reason why I worry that it might be going that way is that for all the rubbishing of heroes' journeys, Ringil Eskiath has been going through a twisted version of one, getting more and more imbued with magic. It wouldn't be a huge stretch to reframe Ringil, Archeth and Egar as Harry, Hermione and Ron, and I don't like the way that could go.

A final word on the gender politics of the whole exercise, which has been the topic of some angst among traditionalists. Fantasy's always been rather straight, and give or take a certain laxity about wenching, somewhat victorian in its outlook for the main characters (the villains, equally victorianly, can be as kinky as they like, cause they're wronguns, and everything about them is wrong, guvnor). Morgan seems to have decided to make a point of messing with that, and two of his three main characters are gay. In very homophobic societies. Well, it certainly frames them as outsiders, and the emotional problems are actually handled well enough that I think Morgan gets away with it. You could argue that they're not very representative of their cultures or demographics, but hey, half the fun of fictional characters is to choose people who don't fit in and see whether they make the holes bigger or themselves smaller. That said, the thing I don't agree with is the decision to break with the general convention that no matter who people like to get busy with, we cut away to a roaring fire or a row of asterisks when the busy breaks out. There are well-rehearsed arguments either way on this, and I'm not digging deeply into them, because it suffices to say that you've got to be very damn good indeed to write a good sex scene and make it something that tells us something we didn't already know about the characters, and Morgan is not that good. Hardly anyone is. 

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