Review of Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan

SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Market Forces by Richard K. MorganMarket Forces
By Richard K. Morgan; Read by Simon Vance
13 CDs – 16 Hours [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Media
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1400101395 (Retail CD), 1400131395 (Library CD), 1400151392 (MP3-CD)
Themes: / Science Fiction / Dystopia / Economics / Satire /

“Human beings have been fighting wars as long as history recalls. It is in our nature, … last century the peacemakers, the governments of this world, did not end war. They simply managed it, and they managed it badly. They poured money without thought of return into conflicts and guerrilla armies abroad, and then into tortuous peace processes that more often than not left the situation no better. They were partisan, dogmatic, and inefficient. Billions wasted in poorly assessed wars that no sane investor would have looked at twice. Huge, unwieldy national armies and clumsy international alliances in short a huge public sector drain on our economic systems. Hundreds of thousands of young people killed in parts of the world they could not even pronounce properly. Decisions based on political dogma and doctrine alone. Well, this model is no more.”

In an interview with Rick Kleffel of The Agony Column Richard K. Morgan describes the motivaton behind Market Forces – ‘there’s a scene’ he said, ‘in the movie Lethal Weapon‘ a scene in which the suicidal cop Martin Riggs (played by Mel Gibson) is atop a roof, ironically, trying to talk down an suicidal citizen who claims he’s going to jump. Frustrated at the indecision that grips them both Riggs snaps – he handcuffs the citizen to his own wrist and then asks him “Do you really wan’t to jump? Do you wanna?” – then dragging the citizen with him Riggs jumps off the roof. It’s a scene designed to show the inner demons that haunt Riggs, who is, after all, the “Lethal Weapon” of the film’s title. So what does that have to do with Market Forces? This novel is Richard Morgan’s response to the right-wing think tanks which have for years been constantly murmuring in the media soundbites of “let the market decide,” “government is in the way of business,” “the invisible hand can regulate better.” Morgan’s frustration with these ideologues is answered by dystopian satire, a kind of Wall Street meets Mad Max. This is an England in which the gap between the rich and poor has widened. At the top are an elite, an upper-class of executives, driving armoured cars and carrying firearms in their briefcases. At the bottom are the unemployed, disenfranchized and living in deserted slums without access to public transportation, their only escape is to join the police or Special Air Service, both privatized and in mercenary service of the executive class. The commodited investment houses have morphed into “Conflict Investment” houses. It’s a powerful setting, a critical look at where we are now, as 1984 and Farenheit 451 were critical looks at where we used to be – a place we must still fight from going. In essence Morgan says ‘This is what happens when you look at what we’re doing now and then project ahead. This is what happens if you listen to the right-wing think tanks. This is what happens when you jump.’

As a primer let me explain how “conflict investment” works. You find a country, one torn by civil war or revolution. You decide who, amongst the many factions within that country could win, given the right resources and then you back them. In return for providing the arms, equipment and intelligence to win a “small war” the faction must commit to give you a cut of their country’s gross domesitc product for a quarter century or so. Our viewpoint character, Chris Faulkner, has recently been hired on as a junior associate by one of the top conflict investment firms, Shorn Associates – this happened in large part because of Chris’ reputation for savage road duelling. Meanwhile, Chris’ wife, a mechanic from Sweden, (a country with one of the last socialist governments around) is encouraging him to seek more peaceful pastures by defecting to a struggling international peace movement. With rebels in Guatemala to support and a growing record of auto-duel kills Chris is a hot number, but it increasingly seems like someone is setting him up for a fall. It’s up to Chris to decide whether he’s going to be the person his wife wants him to be or if he’s going to continue on his road to corporate partnership.

I ended up really liking Market Forces. There was a time there when I wasn’t sure, the first third of the novel is quite depressing, Morgan’s world has gone to shit and the people in it smell, and smell bad. Part of my problem was with how the world got to be this way. A corporate world full of scum? I can understand that, but a corprate world full of armed scum? It seemed a bit proposterous. Then it came to me, between discs 4 and 5 I realized, “this is a satire”. Like American Pyshco or that corporate raiders sequence in Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life. Eventually Morgan does give an explanation of how we got from where we are now to the fifty or so years from now setting of Market Forces and that explanation works in a ‘give me an inch and I’ll give you a novel’ sort of way. The real explanation however is that to be the story it needed to be actual market forces really had to play into every human transaction. The brutal reality of competitive of an unregulated capitalism working at full force would likely still be insulated by an old boys network, an oligarchy that said it wanted unrestricted competition, but really just wanted power. In arming and glorifying the auto duels Morgan has made Chris Faulkner confront the reality of the world he is making. Ultimately the decision he faces is as terrible as those made by Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451. It remains to be seen whether Market Forces will be as enduring as those dystopian novels, but it stands among them, bare face in the portrayal of a brutal tommorow based on the unchecked trends of today.

This is a gloomy book marked by several scenes of jagged action and carnal sex, it is a good thing Tantor Media chose a versatile reader. Narrator Simon Vance used his precise English accents to portray the undertones of resentment many of the characters didn’t even realize they had – it carried me through the gloomy bits to the dramatic conclusion. Tantor issued us another of the library retail bound CD editions, though it had identical packaging to Altered Carbon (recently reviewed) two of the indivudal pages came loose in this one while I was pawing through. UPDATE: The good folks at Tantor have informed me that they actually sent the retail edition to us. The library edition is higher priced and comes in a white box with a metal ring binder (as well as a free lifetime CD replacement guarantee).

In researching for the review I found out that Market Forces is based on an unpublished seedling of a short story, entitled Some Serious Driving. Apparently it was originally submitted to Interzone magazine, they rejected it as full of ‘unlikable characters’ – something the novel has too. In an ideal world I’d have liked to see Some Serious Driving bundled in as an extra, perhaps Tantor Media can gather together all of the Richard K. Morgan unpublished shorts to tide us over until the 5th RKM novel comes out?

One last thing, given my description of the plot you might think Market Forces a standalone novel and indeed it does stand nicely on its own- the thing is I found strong evidence that Market Forces is set in the same universe as that of the Takeshi Kovach novels, the books Richard Morgan is best known for. There’s a number of references to conflict investment in general and the Shorn corporation in particular in Broken Angels, the second Takeshi Kovach novel. Cool huh?

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

SFFaudio Review

Science Fiction Audiobook - Altered Carbon by Richard K. MorganAltered Carbon
By Richard K. Morgan; Read by Todd McLaren
14 CDs or 2 MP3-CDs – 14 Hours 54 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Media
Published: 2005
ISBN: 1400101379 (Retail CDs), 1400131375 (Library CDs), 1400151376 MP3-CDs
Themes: / Science Fiction / Mystery / Cyberpunk / Immortality / Artificial Intelligence / Galactic Civilization / Conciousness Uploading / Hardboiled Fiction / Noir Fiction /

“Fuelled by every crime noir novel I’d ever read, plus swabs of French and Japanese cinema, the work of William Gibson and M. John Harrison, early Poul Anderson and Bob Shaw, and last but not least the colossal impact of Bladerunner, this was my take on future noir. Fast forward to middle of the new millenium, and down where it counts, nothing has changed, because neither have we. Enter Takeshi Kovacs.”
–Richard K. Morgan

Altered Carbon is a stunning debut novel. A near classic, it boils over with solid SF ideas all encased in violent and vivid prose as told in a hardboiled first person narration. Set a few hundred years in the future, humanity has started colonizing the galaxy under the supervision of the United Nations. From one such world comes Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-U.N. Envoy (interplanetary special forces) who’s been brought to Earth in order to work as a private detective for a murdered “Meth”. Meths are the ultra rich, able to afford new cloned bodies so that they can live forever. This is achieved by means of the “cortical stack” technology, a backup harddrive for one’s mind, implanted in the skull shortly after birth. Most people can’t afford to be “re-sleeved” after they die, and so languish in storage for centuries. Convicted criminals have their bodies sold out from under them.

Interplanetary travel is done by way of “needlecast”, a form of faster than light transmission of data. No bodies are transported – visitors from distant planets are re-sleeved in a local body. With these technologies many of society’s values have changed. “Real death” is rare, “organic damage” is far more common. And even real death, the destruction of a cortical stack, isn’t necessarily the end since the ultra rich keep backups. Needlecast transmission of stack’s data on a regular basis makes one virtually immortal. Like working with any fallible system though you just have to remember to backup, and frequently.

Laurens Bancroft, a centuries old tycoon brought Kovacs to Earth in order to investigate his apparent suicide, something the Meth thinks was really a murder – though he can’t say for sure as he was backed up 48 hours before his death. The investigation leads Kovacs into a tangled web of politics, prostitution and power games with stakes as high as an immortal lifespan can offer. Thrown into the mix is a dirty cop, his driven parter, an artifically intelligent hotel, and a whole lot of bloodshed.

Though at first blush this appears to be a straight out neo-cyberpunk novel, it has more depth. The mystery and hardboiled elements are a direct homage to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep with Kovacs in the Philip Marlowe role. Like The Big Sleep, Altered Carbon is complicated and hard to follow, with many characters double and triple-crossing each other. SF elements, like the conciousness uploading, are not particularily new, but Morgan’s take is, and it is well integrated into the plot. One scene which has Kovacs “cross-sleeved” into a female body for investigative purposes illustrates just how wild the concept of this kind of mind swapping can be.

There are several lengthy sex scenes and even more combat scenes. I liked the way they were handled (some of the descriptions were positively Gibsonian) but I grew fatigued at their numerousness and frequency. Another problem was the over-use of “neuro chem” as a cure all for crisis situations. UN Envoy training allows envoys to battle harder and smarter than anyone without such training, so whenever things get rough for Takeshi, and they get rough frequently, he falls back on his “neuro chem.” The problem there is it ends up working like an inexaustible turbo boost – he’s too powerful, too skilled for sustained anxiety on the part of the reader. Like Neo in the second and third Matrix movies, we stop caring. On the other hand, the plot twists delightfully defy expectation and are cleverly rendered. The way the story is told is reminiscent of the best kinds of noir fiction. It is as solid a modern science fiction novel that reads better than any first novel has any right to be.

Tantor sent us the Library bound CD edition, which came in a clamshell stlye plastic case. Durable and easily accessed. Sound quality is near flawless with high recording levels. Narrator Todd McLaren is Takeshi Kovacs, and his reading is cool and smooth like the confident interstellar hard-case he’s portraying. There are at least a half dozen female roles he’s equally adroit with, some of which required breathy libidinousness, some irate rage. I look forward to an encore performances in the sequel, Broken Angels.

Incidentally, Tantor Media snapped up all four of the Richard K. Morgan novels released so far, you can check them out HERE along with more than a dozen other Science Fiction and Fantasy titles available so far. Tantor is becoming a solid source for SF&F audio goodness.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Click here for a complete list of Audie Award fina…

SFFaudio News

Audio Publisher's Association LogoClick here for a complete list of Audie Award finalists. The awards will be presented on May 19 in Washington, DC at the National Press Club.

In the Science Fiction category, here are the finalists:

Dragonsblood by Todd McCaffrey, Brilliance Audio

Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan, Tantor Media, Inc., SFFaudio Review forthcoming

Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card, Audio Renaissance, SFFaudio Review

The Rolling Stones by Robert A. Heinlein, Full Cast Audio, SFFaudio Review

The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold, Blackstone Audiobooks, SFFaudio Review

In other categories, Campbell Scott received a nomination for his narration of The Shining by Stephen King. A marvelous audiobook, that is – click here for the review. And I was pleased to see Blackstone’s The Sherlock Holmes Theater get a nomination in the Audio Drama category.

Good luck to all the nominees!

On a side note, I was very pleased to serve as one of the judges for this year’s awards, though I was not given the Science Fiction category.