Richard K. Morgan is a brilliant writer. I’ve never seen such perfect worlds created using both cyberpunk and noir, and the dystopic worlds that Richard create are the most real and compelling I’ve come across since Blade Runner. His writing is sexy, full of depth, and always provoke thought and are dangerous in the best ways. He’s a valuable talent in a genre that is so often looked down upon. You owe it to yourself to read his Takeshi Kovacs trilogy and his newest masterpiece, Thirteen.
And he’s writing a fantasy novel? That bastard is going to make me read a fantasy novel, and I just know he’s the the type of talent that will bring attention and acclaim to another genre that is also often (And rightfully so, most of it is crap.) looked down on.
First, I want to say that Altered Carbon is in my top ten novels of the 21st century, and in my top five of science fiction.
Thank you very much.
Was being a writer always the goal for you?
Yes, I’ve been scribbling stories pretty much as long as I can remember. J K Rowling has a nice way of phrasing it – “I think I wanted to be a writer ever since I was old enough to understand what writing was and that there were people who made their living from it.” That describes me perfectly. My first serious attempt at professional fiction was a rambling sub-Moorcock sword and sorcery novel that I started in my mid-teens and wrote on and off until I went away to University, without ever bringing it anywhere near a conclusion of any sort. It was story-telling purely for the personal satisfaction of practicing the craft.
Did you read more American or British genre authors growing up?
American, without question. My earliest SF writers were guys like Asimov and Heinlein, Poul Anderson and Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg and so forth. In terms of nationality, Bob Shaw (Irish) and Michael Moorcock (English) were distinguished loners on my book shelves. And then with the cyberpunk thing, the same applied – Gibson, Shirley, Stephenson, Sterling. I didn’t really plug into a modern SF writer from this side of the Atlantic until Iain Banks started publishing his Culture novels in the late eighties. That’s not to say that there weren’t any decent British SF writers around throughout – it’s just they rarely hooked me in the same way.
With the crime genre, it’s also the case that my reading was dominated by American writers, but I think I had more of an excuse here, because until quite recently, there wasn’t really a British equivalent of noir to be had. When I was growing up, British crime writers were still in the parlour with the Agatha Christie template – you had to go to the thriller writers, people like Ian Fleming or Alastair Maclean, in order to get the same kind of buzz you could find in Hammett, Chandler et al. And to be honest, I still think it’s difficult to approximate American noir sensibilities in a British landscape. If I want to read crime fiction these days, I still tend to go to U.S. practitioners like Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, or Charlie Huston, rather than sort through the stuff that’s closer to home.
Black Man/Thirteen is a very politically charged novel, touching everything from big corporations to racism to terrorism and politics. How long have ideas concerning these issues been in your head?
Some of them – for example, gender issues – all my adult life. Others have drifted in over the past few years through the general reading I’ve done on genetic science, evolutionary psychology, contemporary politics and economics… In the end, with Black Man/Thirteen, I threw pretty much everything I had into the mix.
Are all your books in one big universe?
No. Market Forces and Black Man/Thirteen are both standalone novels (though it is quite likely there will be at least one more book set in the same context as Black Man/Thirteen). They’re not intended to be related to the Kovacs trilogy in any way.
Thirteen has a very international feel rather than the single big urban cities of your Kovacs novels. Why the larger scope?
Well, in fact there’s rather a lot of globe trotting in both Broken Angels and Woken Furies, albeit on planets that the reader doesn’t know very much about. And even in Altered Carbon, Kovacs is zipped from San Francisco to Madrid and back in the space of a couple of days for some significant confrontations and narrative development. And in Market Forces, which is perhaps the most static of all my novels, the action in London is still interspersed with brief excursions to Central America and northern Norway.
The truth is I enjoy traveling, and I like to use the conceit of travel in my fiction; the sense of being in transit, the introspection that it affords, and the experience of arriving and staying afloat in an alien context, these are all very powerful lenses through which to view a character, and obviously colorful locations are a great way to accentuate narrative and action. I really don’t think that Black Man/Thirteen is any broader in geographical scope than Woken Furies (and not a lot broader than Broken Angels) – it maybe just feels more international because the places and political contexts visited are close enough to present day reality that they mean something specific to us. Where Kovacs’s globe-trotting is experienced mostly as an abstract sense of covering ground, Marsalis and Ertekin are visiting places we all know about, and that perhaps has a greater impact. But it wasn’t intentional.
You’re obviously a big fan of Blade Runner. When did you discover it?
Back when I was still a student – mid eighties, a couple of years after it came and went at cinemas. I remember a friend of mine who was a film critic for local radio mentioning it as something special, but by then it had disappeared from the big screen, and of course we didn’t have the all pervasive video and DVD release culture that we do now. Worth remembering Blade Runner was a flop at the box office – it took several years of dedicated cult following before it was recognized for the masterpiece it is.
Was your most famous character, Ex-Envoy Private Detective Takeshi at all modeled after Deckard?
Not at all. The general aesthetics of Altered Carbon are pretty much drawn from Blade Runner stock (with some help from Wiliam Gibson on the side), but the Kovacs character owes far more to my love of noir tough guys from ex-military backgrounds and old school SF characters written by guys like Bob Shaw and Poul Anderson. In fact, if you look closely at the book, you’ll see that Kovacs isn’t really a detective at all – he’s an enforcer, a licensed killing machine on loan as a PI, and not making an especially good job of the transition.
The concept of re-sleeving fascinates me. Where did that come from?
It’s a fairly old SF standby, actually. I think I first came across it in the work of Robert Sheckley, in particular in the novellas Immortality Inc and Mindswap. But there the idea was framed in terms of souls rather than digitized mind-states – at that time, back in the fifties; the genre simply didn’t have the IT vocabulary for that view of things. Later, in Gibson and others from the cyberpunk wave, you start to see the idea of digitized minds being uploaded into mainframe systems and run like software. And there are plenty of other antecedents out there as well. I just took the enduring legacy and custom re-wired it for my own purposes.
Would you do it?
Trade in an ageing, decrepit body for a fresh new one? Absolutely. Wouldn’t you?
Tell me about your fantasy novel.
Well, I’ve been talking a good fight for some time about trying to import the noir sensibility of the Kovacs books into a fantasy setting, and my publishers on both sides of the Atlantic have been kind enough to – quite literally – buy into the idea: sword and sorcery, with a noir edge. I wrote some character vignettes, showed them to my editor in London, and that was that; three book deal, and down to work. The working title for the book is Land Fit for Heroes, and as anyone who’s read any of my stuff will probably have guessed, that’s intended as a piece of irony about as subtle as an axe.
Is it more Tolkein or are you more influenced by fantasy writers?
I think I’d put myself in the camp of those writers irritated rather than influenced by Tolkein. While the fantasy genre does owe the guy a huge debt for all the work he put in to popularize the form, and it’s fair to say there are passages of great beauty and power in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkein’s general outlook on things is such that in this day and age you can’t really take it seriously as grown-up fiction. It’s full of enormously dodgy racial and cultural stereotyping, highly unlikely military tactics and ridiculously simplistic perceptions of good and evil. Now that’s fair enough as it stands, because what Tolkein was trying to do was create a new mythology – and as mythology, it works. But as viable human fiction, it doesn’t, and while plenty of other writers have jumped on the Tolkein bandwagon, obviously there’s also been a huge reaction against that template as well. That reaction includes such luminaries as Michael Moorcock, Glen Cook, Mary Gentle, George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson, China Mieville and so forth, and I think that’s really the company I’m happy in. I’m not interested in simplistic visions in fiction, and I don’t think there’s any reason why you can’t make use of a mythological landscape to tell a more human story. It’s worth remembering that at exactly the same time Tolkein was putting out The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), another writer, Poul Anderson, had just quietly published a little known fantasy novel called The Broken Sword, making use of exactly the same Norse motifs and myth base as Tolkein but without excising any of the dark brutality and ambiguous moral tone that are integral to that base (this is the Vikings we’re talking about, after all!). The Broken Sword is ten times the novel that The Lord of the Rings is (and it’s a lot shorter, too!) – it’s got as many elves and trolls and smack-down magical episodes as you could wish for, but alongside all of that you also find the messy, fucked up human taint that’s missing from most of Tolkein’s work, the moral shades of grey, the sense of desperation and fallibility in an uncaring cosmos. And those are exactly the things that I’m interested in writing about.
Much like fantasy, you have to build a whole new world in Science Fiction, but in Sci-Fi you have to keep your world somewhat familiar. How do you go about creating new worlds?
Well, the way I, personally, go about creating new worlds (and this is by no means the only or even best way to do it) is partial and purely organic. I know that some writers keep vast cross-indexed files on the world they’ve created and the characters that inhabit it, but for me that stuff is beside the point. I’m about telling the story, and I’ll create whatever backdrop I need to do that as I go along. I don’t like info-dumping, and I try to avoid it. Of course, you do usually have to go back and do a little tidying up at some point, but in the end, it’s up to the reader to infer the full tapestry from the threads that you weave into the narrative. If you’ve done that well, if the hints are in place, then it works and the diorama stands up. I do get fans occasionally mailing me with their own ideas of what’s been going on off-camera in one or other of my universes – and that’s very flattering, because it means that I’ve managed to set the diorama up convincingly. But as to whether those ideas are correct or not – well, their guess is as good as mine, because nine times out of ten my knowledge of my own fictional world ends a couple of inches past the reader’s.
Isn’t mixing genres sometimes a bad idea? Sometimes it means an author doesn’t know what he wants to do and throws it all in the blender.
Well, I almost never know what I want to do with a novel when I start it, so I don’t see that as a bad thing. Mixing genres isn’t any better or worse than sticking to one genre type – it’s all about how well you handle the material.
Do you ever plan on writing a straight crime novel?
Plan on, no. But then I don’t generally plan that far ahead – I know what the book I’m writing now is about, and I have a fair idea what the one I’m going to write next will be about, but after that… Well, anybody’s guess, really. So yeah, a straight crime novel – it could happen. It would depend on me having the right initial ideas and being able to develop them convincingly and to my own satisfaction. But if that did happen at some point in the future, then sure. Why not?
Who in fantasy and sci-fi is worth reading these days?
In SF, Ian McDonald, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Charlie Stross and – still – William Gibson. Al Reynolds and Iain M. Banks if you like space opera. In fantasy, it’s a little harder to name names, because the genre seems to be swelling and heaving itself apart, with urban fantasy, slipstream, dark fantasy/horror and so forth all heading off strongly in their own directions. But oh, let’s see…. Hal Duncan, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, Steph Swainston, Mike Carey and Scott Lynch should give you a fair feel for the spread that’s out there.
Your Takeshi novels have a very classic crime novel feel to them, are you a fan of that genre?
Yes, I’m a big fan of the American noir tradition and its contemporary heirs. Those guys – everyone from Chandler, Thompson and Hammett all the way down to down to Ellroy, Lee Burke and Block – have been a major influence on how I write. Current favourites (though not necessarily influences) are Pete Dexter and Charlie Huston, both of whom are brilliant modern exponents of the form.
You wrote a couple comics for Marvel, would you ever consider going back to that medium?
The comic-book thing is on hold at the moment, but that’s logistics rather than personal preference. I’ve got some nice ideas, and some sympathetic ears at Marvel and Vertigo/DC, and in fact my own US publishers, Del Rey, have talked about me doing a graphic novel for them – but right now I want to focus on getting my next novel written. My genetic wiring is pretty classically male, in that I have a hard time concentrating on more than one thing at any given moment, so sidelines like the Black Widow stuff I did for Marvel tend to slow me down elsewhere. But at some point, sure – I’d love to do some more comic-book work. It was a lot of fun.
Blade Runner: Book or movie? Why?
Movie. Blade Runner is still, twenty five years on, one of the finest SF films ever made. It still looks like the future (lack of mobile phones notwithstanding). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, in contrast, is actually a quite poorly written piece of pulp. But that’s often the case with Dick’s novels – fantastic ideas, mind blowing concepts, shabby execution. Blame the amphetamines.
Europe, in many ways, is far more liberal than America, does this include its corporation’s business practices? The Yuppie culture of America seems to play a lot into Market Forces.
The yuppie phenomenon certainly fed into my vision for Market Forces (I made adulthood at about the time those motherfuckers were kicking off their champagne-and-fuck-y’all lifestyle) but these were our very own home-grown British yuppies serving as the source of inspiration. I didn’t need to look to America to see the dynamic in action, we had it here in every bit as virulent a form.
As to corporate practices, I can’t speak with any authority on the actual legislation in place on either side of the Atlantic, but what goes on in the U.S. at the corporate level does seem to me to be far more carnivorous and amoral than here – articles from the New York Times talk about (to give only one recent and fairly low key example) a cabal of American financial institutions successfully de-railing legislation that would have made borrowing money for ordinary Americans a cheaper proposition. And in the Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth there’s the example given of U.S. car manufacturers trying to sue the state of California for imposing environmental regulation on the level of emissions permitted from their vehicles. And this is without even mentioning Enron or WorldCom or the dirty tricks history of the tobacco and insurance industries. Certainly the evidence seems to suggest a corporate sector out of control in the U.S., but that’s really only one half of the problem – the seriously troubling factor is the power of lobbying and the unhealthy set of closet (and often not so closeted) relationships between corporate interests and elected policy makers, because without that link, much of the anti-social damage corporations cause in their single-minded pursuit of profit simply wouldn’t be possible. And permitting that kind of behavior as if there’s no viable alternative does seem to be a peculiarly American dynamic. Here in Europe, lobbying hasn’t yet arrived as a full blown scumbag industry, and culturally there’s still a general belief in government, something that I think the Reagan administration managed to kill stone dead in the U.S. So yeah, when you look at the future portrayed in Market Forces, I suppose you could say that the U.S. has tipped (and continues to tip) closer to that nightmare than anywhere in western Europe.
In mixing genres, so far crime and sci-fi, which of the two genres do you find more flexible?
I suppose I would have to say SF, in that the SF genre is built on an assumption of broad spectrum possibility, and you can do pretty much whatever you like to it so long as the results stand up. Crime is a more conservative genre, both in its practice and its readership. Where it’s useful is mainly in the set of assumptions that exist around it – Altered Carbon worked so well partly because anyone who’d ever read in the crime genre could spot the conventions of the form and settle into the narrative without worrying too much about context. Kovacs comes with the heritage of Marlowe et al already installed.
But to be honest, I think this is changing – in general, it seems to me that genre walls are really starting to come down now, in a way we’ve been talking about for a long time, but are now actually seeing. All sorts of fantasy and SF is appearing on the mainstream shelves, and increasingly mainstream authors are seeing the value in the F/SF genre, picking it up and trying it on for size. It’s a good time to be writing, no question.