I read Richard K. Morgan’s debut novel, Altered Carbon, earlier this year, and though my feelings on it were mixed, I gave it a generally positive review. The fact that it copied its soul directly from Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep1 didn’t bother me; it at least managed to navigate its nebulous dystopian territory better than the supposed godfather of cyberpunk, William Gibson2. While his first book felt like something from Raymond Chandler ground through the cogs of science fiction, Broken Angels treads a slightly different track, retooling some themes from classic David Drake and giving it a touch of the survival-horror genre.
If it matters to you, you’ll be glad to know that Morgan has retained his apparent love of explicit but totally unnecessary sex scenes. I suppose one could argue that the sex scenes serve illustratively as a conflict between physicality and “humanity,” but…. no, I think Morgan just likes sex scenes, and it serves somehow to bolster the wounded machismo of his main character.
Takeshi Kovacs, a Japanese/Polish (I think) mercenary, serves as the main character of this so-far trilogy. While Altered Carbon was a hard-boiled detective novel with a real-world face, Broken Angels sees Takeshi turning military again, leading an expedition of sorts to recover/use an ancient Martian artifact. I should stop here to point out, by way of backstory, that in Takeshi’s universe, the Martians are a long-dead(?) race of hyper-intelligent beings who left “astrogation” charts that map out of the universe. While they’ve been able to decipher the charts, humans still have not been able to replicate faster-than-light (FTL) travel, and so generally span the interstellar distances by “needlecasting” or “hypercasting” their digitized consciousnesses across space to implant into new bodies which have been slowly shipped across the galaxy. This sounds like it engenders a number of problems, and you would be right for thinking so: Morgan talks about a lot of them during his first book, but seems to merely assume the knowledge here, and refer to it obliquely and by way of its materialized problems.
There’s a political message here, too: megacorporations have financed most of the important scientific work involved in recreating Martian technology and rediscovering Martian space and history; an interstellar government called the Protectorate mostly exists to feed itself. There’s nothing new here: invasive but ineffectual government, and powerful but soulless corporations are another fixture of dystopian sci-fi.
Mostly, I feel like Morgan has a difficult time with Takeshi’s character. He’s a tough-as-nails mercenary, an ex-member of a much-feared (even mythologized) military group called the Envoys, but spends much of his time feeling traumatized, cynical, and disillusioned. As an allegory against economized warfare, it’s bald but convincing enough. However, Takeshi’s character development is so passive-aggressive that one could go crazy trying to empathize with him. He kills (not just bodily, but destroying “stacks”—the digitized consciousness—as well) without a twinge of conscience, but tends to fall in love easily, and is prone to fits of moodiness. By about halfway through the book, I was sick of Takeshi’s internal contradictions, and yearned for a character that at least knew what he stood for. Don’t get me wrong: I can appreciate moral grey area, but something about Takeshi’s moral ambiguity seemed insincere and irritating, for whatever reason, perhaps because his moral vacillation was entirely internal, while his external actions continued in the tradition of a bad action movie construct.
Such talk brings me to the specific events of the novel in question: Takeshi sort-of leads a mercenary group of revived soldiers in scouting and activating a secret Martian “gate” with the help of Tanya Wardani, an “archeologue.” Along the way, they enlist the help of Hand, a higher-up in the Mandrake Corporation, one of the larger aforementioned soulless and corrupt organizations that dominate known space. As if I needed to tell you, along the way they encounter dangerous men, dangerous beasts, and plenty of people die. Alliances are revealed to be false on their faces, technology is revealed to be dehumanizing3, sex is revealed to be unrealistically pornographic, and the human body is revealed to be surprisingly susceptible to physical harm, unless you count Takeshi, who manages to survive despite his acute radiation poisoning.
I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by Broken Angels, as if it weren’t so much a novel but a compilation of Morgan’s notes. I felt so little narrative cohesion, so little thematic emphasis between simplistic sci-fi memes, that it was difficult to even finish the book without an overwhelming sense of “I’ve read this before and seen this before. How does this man get a publishing deal?” Broken Angels has all the character traits of David Drake and all the thematic development of a Heinlein novel4, without the apparent nuance.
To put it simply, Broken Angels was enough of a disappointment to me that my plans to read the third and (so far) last Takeshi Kovacs novel, Woken Furies, are wavering somewhere between reality and oblivion. I’m afraid that the third book is going to be the most derivative yet, copied wholecloth from a more competent writer. Only time will tell if I bother at all. While I might still recommend Altered Carbon for it’s semi-unique meld of the hard-boiled detective novel with the sci-fi dystopia, Broken Angels seems to blaze no new ground at all.