Book Review: Broken Angels by Richard Morgan

Broken Angels (Takeshi Kovacs, #2)Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grave robbing is still cool in the future.

In the infirmary, Takeshi Kovacs is approached by a soldier who is sitting on the artefact discovery of several lifetimes. Kovacs, currently operating as an elite commando, takes his leeway to recruit the soldier, an archaeologist (archaeologue), a merry band of mercenaries, and a corporate bankroll. Together they are trying to uncover ancient alien technology in the middle of a warzone before any other interested parties, including the warring armies, come for them.

After reading Altered Carbon I threw caution to the wind and dived straight into Broken Angels. It is rare that I read instalments of a series back-to-back as I usually feel like I’ve had an adequate sufficiency of that character/world/theme for the time being. Wanting more is a sure sign that the author gave me some good stuff. Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff.

Broken Angels is quite different in thematic style from Altered Carbon. Where the latter was a hard-boiled cyberpunk mystery, the former is a noir Artefact-MacGuffin-Adventure* with a more languid pace than those sorts of novels tend to be. The change of pace and style didn’t extend to the themes. While there is less critique of elitist wealth hoarding, there is some delving into corporatism, warmongering, and capitalist drivers behind war that ties to Morgan’s social commentary. His comments on capitalism and war reminded me of Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket – Butler was a Major General of the Marine Corps who did not hold back in discussing what war was really about (hint: money).

Another enjoyable Kovacs adventure. The only thing that stopped me reading the third instalment straight away is that despite owning a copy I didn’t have it on my ereader.

I shook my head. “I don’t have the energy to hate the corporates, Hand. Where would I start? And like Quell says, Rip open the diseased heart of a corporation and what spills out?”
“People.”
“That’s right. People. It’s all people. People and their stupid fucking groups.”

* A term I use to describe the style of thriller churned out by authors like James Rollins, Steve Berry, Matthew Reilly, Andy McDermott, etc.

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Book review: Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Invent technology to make interstellar travel possible. Use it to make rich people immortal.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former elite soldier – Envoy – who becomes a criminal on Harlan’s World and has his body killed. Thanks to the technology of stored consciousness – via cortical stacks – he is revived on Earth to solve the body death of one of the richest men on the planet. The police think Bancroft committed suicide, the evidence suggests suicide, but Bancroft is convinced he wouldn’t kill himself after centuries of living. Kovacs starts treading through the underbelly of Earth and tries to discover if it was suicide or murder.

Altered Carbon has been on my TBR pile for almost a decade. My uncle recommended it again a few years ago, which got it bumped up the list. But, as with all TBR piles, it took a TV adaptation to get the novel read. I enjoyed the TV series, particularly on a second viewing. I’d say I enjoyed the book a similar amount but in a different way.

I commented in a blog post about the show that I enjoyed the themes even if the aesthetic was borrowed from Blade Runner. Kovacs in the show is a grumpier and more adept character than the novel. The show also has a more personal feel to many of the characters and makes the female characters feel less like a description of sexy body parts. Pretty amazing given the amount of nudity in the show.

What I think I liked most about the novel was one of the themes. Morgan expressed it like this:

“Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the majority whom the system oppresses.” Source.

This resonated with me given the sorts of non-fiction I’ve been reading lately. Not to mention some of the things happening in the world these days… It made this hard-boiled cyberpunk novel very entertaining.

Well worth reading before or after watching the TV show.*

A couple of quotes related to that theme:

“Kristin, nothing ever does change.” I jerked a thumb back at the crowd outside. “You’ll always have morons like that, swallowing belief patterns whole so they don’t have to think for themselves. You’ll always have people like Kawahara and the Bancrofts to push their buttons and cash in on the program. People like you to make sure the game runs smoothly and the rules don’t get broken too often. And when the Meths want to break the rules themselves, they’ll send people like Trepp and me to do it. That’s the truth, Kristin. It’s been the truth since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago and from what I read in the history books, it’s never been any different. Better get used to it.”

“You live that long, things start happening to you. You get too impressed with yourself. Ends up, you think you’re God. Suddenly the little people, thirty, maybe forty years old, well, they don’t really matter anymore. You’ve seen whole societies rise and fall, and you start to feel you’re standing outside it all, and none of it really matters to you. And maybe you’ll start snuffing those little people, just like picking daisies, if they get under your feet.”

* Is it accurate to call them TV shows now? We watch them on TV, but would it be more accurate to call them streaming shows since they aren’t made for TV networks?

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Is cyberpunk dead or being revived?

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It was only recently that I read Neuromancer. In my defence, I’ve seen all the different cuts of Blade Runner, which has to count for something. Right?

Anyway, there was an interesting video essay from Just Write that I thought I’d share. It discusses the cyberpunk genre and how the aesthetic has lost its relevance.

I actually quite enjoyed the Netflix series Altered Carbon, based on Richard Morgan’s novel of the same name. There were some interesting comments about inequality and inherited wealth that is often overlooked in discussions about living longer. But I have to agree with the video’s comments about the cyberpunk aesthetic of the show being off.

Not that it didn’t fit, but that it didn’t feel that different from what we have now, as the video stated. How can we watch a troublesome/dystopian future that is essentially our now?  These aesthetic elements then undermine much of the narrative comment by reminding us that many of the plot points have already happened. It is a little bit hard to have a cautionary tale of where we are headed in the future when we have already arrived at that point (e.g. wealth isn’t made but instead it tends to be inherited unless there is some sort of inheritance tax in play or dissipation – 1, 2, 3).

So does that mean that Mr Robot and other contemporary cyberpunk stories are the way forward for the genre? Are there other ways to update the genre? Do we need another Blade Runner movie?

Some things to ponder.

Update: Future Tense/Slate published an article suggesting cyberpunk has cast a long shadow over science fiction. It alludes to some of the same points whilst trying to discuss reinvigorating sci-fi. I think the point it fails to make is that the prefix-punk genres were never going to have the same impact as cyberpunk because they were prefix genres following in the wake. If you want to reinvigorate sci-fi* you have to start with something different, not just another prefix.

Update: CuckPhilosophy has an interesting video on the philosophy of cyberpunk that is worth watching if just for the thinkers referenced.

Works Cited:

Lessons from the Screenplay. “Blade Runner — Constructing a Future Noir.”
Extra Credits. “The Witcher III: Wild Hunt – Best Detective Game Ever Made.” Taxi
Extra Credits. “William Gibson: The 80s Revolution.”
Abrams, Avi. Dark Roasted Blend. “Epic 1970s French Space Comic Art.”
Sterling, Bruce. “Mirrorshades: the cyberpunk anthology.” New York: Arbor House, 1986.
Walker-Emig, Paul. The Guardian. “Neon and corporate dystopias: why does cyberpunk refuse to move on?” October 16, 2018.
NAZARE, JOE. “MARLOWE IN MIRRORSHADES: THE CYBERPUNK (RE-) VISION OF CHANDLER.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 35, no. 3, 2003, pp. 383–404. JSTOR, JSTOR,
Karen Cadora. “Feminist Cyberpunk.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 22, no. 3, 1995, pp. 357–372. JSTOR
Sponsler, Claire. “Beyond the Ruins: The Geopolitics of Urban Decay and Cybernetic Play.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 20, no. 2, 1993, pp. 251–265. JSTOR
Nixon, Nicola. “Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, 1992, pp. 219–235. JSTOR
Whalen, Terence. “The Future of a Commodity: Notes toward a Critique of Cyberpunk and the Information Age (L’Avenir D’une Marchandise: Notes Sur Cyberpunk Et L’Ere De L’Information).” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, 1992, pp. 75–88. JSTOR
Senior, W. A. “Blade Runner and Cyberpunk Visions of Humanity.” Film Criticism, vol. 21, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1–12. JSTOR
Usher, Tom. Vice. “How ‘Akira’ Has Influenced All Your Favourite TV, Film and Music.
Giles, Matthew. Vulture. “Taxi Driver, Girls, and 7 Other Big Influences on Mr. Robot.
The United Federation of Charles. “What is Cyberpunk?
The ‘Self-Made’ Myth: Our Hallucinating Rich by Sam Pizzigati

Updates recommended reading:

On “cyber-theory” in general:
M. Featherstone, R. Burrows – “Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk – Cultures of Technological Embodiment
D. Kellner – “Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Post-Modern
By Donna Haraway:
D. Haraway – “A Cyborg Manifesto
D. Haraway – “Simians, Cyborgs, and Women
By Fredric Jameson:
F. Jameson – “Archaeologies of the Future
F. Jameson – “Cognitive Mapping
By Sadie Plant:
S. Plant – “Zeroes and Ones

*I’m not sure I accept the argument that sci-fi needs reinvigorating. Has some of it disappeared up its own butthole? Quite possibly. But that’s a whole argument and discussion on its own… Come to think of it, I’m betting there are endless articles on that topic somewhere.

Book review: Neuromancer by William Gibson

Neuromancer (Sprawl, #1)Neuromancer by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you directly influence the creation of cyberpunk, The Matrix, the term cyberspace, and popularising the term ICE, does that mean you get a pass on influencing dubstep?

Case is your average run-of-the-mill washed-up loser. On his way to drug addled death after his hacking career is cut short, he is recruited to perform the ultimate hack. Patched back together with new organs, he joins a team recruited to help an AI.

I feel like I’m being unfair in my rating for Neuromancer. This is one of those classic novels that deserves the praise it receives. The influence this novel has had on science fiction, particularly upon film, is hard to overstate. It is also easy to underestimate the skill of Gibson’s writing. For example, just before starting Neuromancer I tried (and failed) to read a sci-fi novel with a similar level of world building and interesting ideas. Where that novel failed in being able to make the jargon feel natural, and the explanations flow, Gibson succeeds. His narrative isn’t bogged down by the world building the way many others can be.

Having said that, Neuromancer didn’t grab me. It was entertaining enough to keep me reading, but not enough to have me rating it higher. I’d imagine that had I read this novel 20-30 years earlier my opinion would be different. It is the curse of being the original that everyone copies. At some point people like myself won’t be wowed because they’ve seen it all before by the time they read the progenitor.

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