(Another resurrected post from previous iterations of my website – this is an interview I did with SF author Richard Morgan back in 2002, shortly after the release of his first novel, the turbo-charged SF thriller ‘Altered Carbon’. The interview was for an online magazine set up by some friends of mine who worked at a bookshop, and I’m still proud of it – even though I’d only been professionally writing for two years, so I’ve still got plenty to learn here…)
There are certain things prospective book authors have to tell themselves in order to keep their sanity. Don’t expect huge acclaim first time around. It’ll take a long time to establish yourself. And don’t even bother thinking about the film rights…
For 35 year old Richard Morgan, things have worked out rather differently. With his funky, dark and razor-sharp debut novel Altered Carbon he’s gained the kind of widespread acclaim most self-respecting authors would commit mass murder for, while Hollywood has already come calling;- the film rights have been enthusiastically snapped up by Matrix producer Joel Silver for a seven figure sum.
Take a look at the novel, and it’s not difficult to see why so many people are getting excited. It’s a dark William Gibson-edged crime thriller set in San Francisco a few centuries from now, when the main difference in society is the ability to digitally record the soul and download personalities into new bodies after death. Dying is no longer an obstacle thanks to the “sleeving” technology (as long as you’re not Catholic and you have the right insurance policy) and prisons exist digitally, meaning that while you’re incarcerated for a minor crime, someone else can either rent or purchase your body. Crashing into this society comes Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-member of a UN sponsored gang of borderline psychotics called the Envoys, who is downloaded into an unfamiliar body and unwillingly hired by the wealthy and near-immortal Laurens Bancroft. His mission is to investigate Bancroft’s recent (but not final) death, a mystery that the Police are viewing as suicide but which Bancroft views as murder.
Naturally, this investigation soon spirals out of control and Kovacs finds himself caught between the police, the criminal underworld and a face from his past… but what’s most suprising about Altered Carbon is how effectively it manages to weld provocative and adventurous cyberpunk sci-fi onto a slick, gripping and page-turning crime thriller. Oozing the kind of attitude found in classic crime writers like James Ellroy or Jim Thompson, it’s an effortless read that, like the best noir, manages moments of profundity amidst suprising plot twists and some genuinely shocking violence. To find out more, here’s Richard Morgan himself, on life, brutality, karma, and that vaguely worrying interest in firearms…
How did the idea for Altered Carbon first develop?
It started out from an argument I was having with a Buddhist. The point of conflict was the karma system. He was arguing any suffering you undergo in this life is a direct result of something bad you did in a previous life, which sounds fair until you realise that you can’t actually remember any of your previous lives. Then, it suddenly starts to sound existentially pretty fucking unfair. After all, if you can’t remember a previous life then to all intents and purposes that life was lived by another person. And why should you be paying for someone else’s crimes?
Once I got hold of the idea, it fascinated me and I couldn’t let it go. I decided that I wanted to tell a crime story based around this injustice. And since I’m not in any way a religious man, the only way I could make it work was to go shopping for the hardware in the SF Mall of Fame. There are precedents for the kind of technology Altered Carbon describes all the way back to writers like Robert Sheckley and there’s even an episode of the original Star Trek that has the same basic premise. So I just ransacked the genre and made off with the goods. Later on, of course, I had to sit down and figure out how to make all this stuff work in a social and political context, and that was where the fun really started.
Where did you grow up, and when did you start writing?
I was born in London, bustled out in my crib to East Anglia aged 5 months and subsequently spent the next seventeen years of my life in and around Norwich. Not a bad place to grow up if you don’t count the total lack of bumps in the landscape – Norfolk looks as if Slartibartfast took a huge pair of scissors and cut out any geographical feature more than about ten metres above sea level. I grew up just outside Norwich in a semi rural dormitory village called Hethersett. It was a very restful, stress free upbringing, aided and abetted by incredibly supportive parents and a series of private schools old fashioned enough to try to hammer my natural idleness out of me. In 1983 I got into Queens’ College Cambridge where for the first time I found myself surrounded by people as smart or smarter than me – I never got over the shock and recoiled out of academia three years later with a very average degree in political history.
By that time I’d decided I only wanted two things out of life;- One, to be a writer and Two to travel as extensively as possible. As a result I didn’t really bother with things like earning a decent living until about a year later when it became apparent that my seminal short stories weren’t going to (a) make me famous, (b) pay the rent or (c) get published. I consoled myself by qualifying to teach EFL and pissing off forthwith to exotic locations (specifically Turkey, which back then was still pretty much untouristed). I’ve been an EFL teacher and trainer of one sort or another ever since. I lived mostly in London and Madrid with some extensive time out in North and Central America. Writing was a spare time thing until….today actually. September 20th 2002 is the official date of my leaving the teaching profession and becoming a full time SF writer. Timing´s good – after fourteen years in the classroom, I’m about ready for a change.
Kovacs is definitely an “old school” noir hero, and in no way afraid of inflicting serious damage on people. Was it difficult or therapeutic to have a borderline psychopath as the main character?
The latter, definitely. You need the patience of a saint and the outlook of a hippie to survive in TEFL. There are actually teacher training books with titles like “Caring and Sharing in the EFL Classroom” – and worse still, if you’re going to do the job well, you have to buy into that dynamic, at least to a certain extent.
You end up spending a lot of your time being kind and supportive to people who in some cases you’d really rather just punch out. I mean, what can you do when a student – a group of students actually – front you with something like “Ah, yes, Hitler – now he really knew how to handle the Jews.” That’s an extreme case, of course, but it did actually happen to a colleague of mine. And there are a host of less offensive but thoroughly unpleasant attitudes to be found in the heads of some of the people you teach. And for some reason these people seem to feel that the EFL classroom is the ideal place to just come out with all this shit. So Kovacs dripped out of me one corrosive drop at a time, as the side of my character I had to repress in order to do my job well.
How did you approach the extreme violence in the book- and were there ever any points where you thought you might have gone too far?
You can’t ever go too far with violence. You either write it or you don´t. If you choose to avoid it, that’s fine, but if not, you’ve got to do it justice. I’ve taken some stick for passages in Altered Carbon which people complained had sickened them, but then violence should be sickening. I have no time for the sanitised approach you find in so much contemporary literature and film – the gun battles where bullets make neat red holes and bad guys fall conveniently and quietly dead, the interrogations where people get slapped about a bit and then rescued. Or worse still the Lock, Stock brand of violence where it’s all seen as a bit of a giggle and as long as you’re enough of a cheeky geezer, it all comes out OK. It´s precisely because of this “light” approach that we misunderstand the subject of violence so badly. I´m not interested in pursuing that line. Where violence arises in my books, it is intended to shock, to horrify and to some extent to get the reader to face up to their own ambiguity on the subject. Because we all like seeing the bad guys taken down, but we don´t usually like it so much when the flesh and blood reality of that act is rubbed in our faces. That ambiguity is exactly what I´m after.
The image of the future is incredibly detailed- how much did you work out before hand, and how much came out of the process of writing the novel?
It’s been a process of marinating more than anything else. The basic ideas for Altered Carbon have been kicking around in my head since at least 1993, and before that I’d written a couple of short stories featuring Kovacs and variants on the Protectorate universe. So I already had a lot of the background detail to hand, carefully aged in casks of reflection and unpublished brooding. Obviously that made it very easy to throw out hints and references along the way, but the process of writing also generated a lot of circumstantial stuff.
In a lot of cases it´s hard to remember which is which. Kovac’s home planet Harlan’s World, the Martians and the general process of diaspora are all ten year old single malt, laid down back in the early nineties, but the Meths were invented on the spur of the moment to provide a realistic backdrop for the characters of Laurens and Miriam Bancroft. The Envoys were a bit of a blend – in an attenuated form they’ve been around as long as any other element in the story, but a lot of the finer detail was added later on. And to be honest, that accumulation of detail is an on-going process. There’s a lot of new stuff on the Envoys in the second novel, Broken Angels, as well as more about the Martians and the archaeologues. The third novel, which I’m working on now, goes back to Harlan’s World and takes a closer look at some of the cultural and historical influences that have made Kovacs who he is. The great thing about having invented a universe like this is that you then have a practically unlimited licence to explore it.
There’s a convincing edge to the drug sequences, as well as an amazing amount of detail about the various weapons (particularly when Kovacs goes shopping for guns). How much was research and how much was experience?
I must be a walking advertisement for the Nature Not Nuture argument, because I was brought up next best thing to a pacifist and still managed to develop the standard unhealthy male fascination with guns. I wouldn´t like to say what it is. Something about their functionality, something about the power to reach out over distance and do damage. In my teens I became quite the little expert on contemporary small arms, and though the phase seems to have passed – I don’t subscribe to Guns and Ammo or own any firearms of my own – the base knowledge has stood me in good stead. I find I acquire new arms-related data almost effortlessly – very often I’m hard put to remember where I read/watched/heard the information, but it´s there. This is confusing for me because, as I said, I’m not into weapons in any discernable way. Kovacs, of course, is. He’s a soldier after all, so he needs to be conversant with the technology of killing. I don´t know, maybe he’s just a distillation of my own repressed fascination with the area. Put it down to being incurably male, I suppose.
The drugs – well, that’s another story. I can hardly lay claim to a misspent youth, but I think I’ve taken my share of illicit recreational chemicals (not to mention the licit ones, which were probably more dangerous and damaging) and I’m at a complete loss to understand the current hysteria about (pounding drums) “THE DRUG PROBLEM”. (There isn’t one, of course – the PROBLEM is poverty and a whole stack of other issues that no-one wants to look closely at, but that´s another rant). So anyway, I had enough background experience to describe altered and altering states of consciousness without too much difficulty. For the rest, it was imagination and wishful thinking. Who wouldn´t want to score some Merge Nine if the stuff only existed.
Did you ever expect the film rights to be sold for so much money?
Basically – no. In fact, I didn´t really expect the film rights to be sold at all. It had never occurred to me that Altered Carbon would make good cinema, until I found myself being taken out to lunch by a London film company the day after the book was launched. Later on, I heard that a number of major studios had shown interest at the London Book Fair, and finally Gollancz told me that an agency in Los Angeles had taken Altered Carbon on. At that point I pretty much had to believe that if it sold, it would go for a good price, because those guys don’t mess about with pennies. Brutally speaking, they operate on commission, and it wouldn´t have been worth their while putting in the work unless they had high hopes of a high price.
Could you ever see yourself going all “Iain Banks/Iain M Banks” and writing either a modern day crime novel or something completely non-genre?
Right now I´ve got at least another three SF novels lined up, plus ideas for a revisionist sword and sorcery epic. I suppose I might come up with something non-genre at some point, but it isn´t on the horizon at the moment and to be honest, having just arrived on the SF scene, I´d like to just stick around and do some more work. The great thing about SF is that you’re free to do pretty much what you want (I’m not one of these respect-the-physics types) and then stand or fall by the limits you set yourself. That´s very much my temperament
What was the first story you ever wrote?
The first piece of fiction outside of my English Studies exercise book was an SF short called Process. I wrote it when I was about 13 or 14; it’s about an unfortunate collision between an alien, fauna-eating plant and a human criminal on the run in a wrecked spaceship. The human lands on the plant’s world, gets attacked by the plant in standard Quatermass-type fashion and…dies. Haha, shock twist! Unfortunately for the plant, Earth-derived bodily juices turn out to be rather stronger than those of the local fauna with the result that the usual osmosis goes into reverse and the human protagonist’s blood sucks the plant’s vital fluids out through its roots. So it dies as well. I had this pretty bleak world view, even at that tender age…
What’s next- will you be sticking with the Altered Carbon universe, or zooming off in a different direction?
The sequel to Altered Carbon, Broken Angels is done and comes out in March next year. It´s set in the same universe, though not on Earth, and is built around the same central character. The contexts are a little different – Kovacs is caught in the middle of a planetary war this time instead of just an unwelcome investigation, and his motivations are that much more desperate as a result. (So I guess I´ll be taking some more stick for the extreme violence, and here´s fair warning to those who couldn´t cope with it in Altered Carbon – you guys won´t like this one much either). I´m currently at work on a third Kovacs novel, the one set on his home world, and this is focused on issues of organised crime, weapons de-commissioning and revolutionary politics as evidenced by the Quellist movement. After that, I think I´m going to retire Kovacs for a while.
I´ve got something a little different waiting on the back burner, set ten minutes into the future – it´s a novel focused on an unpleasant corporate practice called Conflict Investment. Basically the corporate types in the novel make their living from putting money into various third world conflicts and gambling on the outcome. If their particular troop of revolutionaries win, they then have stakes and rights in the emergent economy. The toast at the quarterly do is “Small Wars – Long May They Smoulder”. Tenders and Promotions are decided in Mad Max style driving duels on motorways that are empty because no-one except the executive class can afford to run a car anymore. It´s intended to be very bleak and very unpleasant – the challenge will be making at least some of the characters sympathetic to the reader. I´m looking forward to that.
Finally- beyond the technology and the murder mystery, what would you say Altered Carbon is trying to say?
Good question. Don’t visit Earth, perhaps? Seriously, I’d like to think that each individual reader takes away something different. You can read Altered Carbon as a simple future crime story and leave it at that, equally you can see it as a love story of sorts, or you can understand it as a social and political commentary on the uses and abuses of technology. Jon Courtenay Grimwood, reviewing for the Guardian, called it “a hypermodern vampire tale.” From my point of view, any interpretation is a compliment because it indicates a depth of engagement on the part of the reader, but I wouldn’t want to dictate what message that reader is supposed to take away.
What I personally see is Kovacs’ affirmation at the end of the book that 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 elite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses. But that’s just me. Another reader might think Kovacs is a self destructive, pessimistic burn out and doesn´t know what he’s talking about. It all depends on where you stand and who your sympathies lie with, and it´s not for me to dictate those sympathies. I just write the stuff. It´s up to the reader to judge – if they can.