This is the third book I have read in the Takeshi Kovacs series, by Richard Morgan. It’s set maybe 100 years after the last one I read, Broken Angels (which I seem strangely to have neglected to review) and features an older, much angrier Kovacs returning to his homeworld, Harlan’s World, for personal reasons. The story traces the problems he gets caught up in, and the way things fall apart around him as his anger and built up psychological damage drive him deeper and deeper into trouble.

The defining philosophical concept for this science fiction universe is the process of “re-sleeving,” in which most people can save their souls into a small unit in their body (their “stack”) and be brought back to life after death in a new “sleeve,” or body. These bodies are either the bodies of people being punished for serious crimes or bodies specially grown for the purpose. Takeshi is a demobbed member of an elite commando unit whose members get broadcast across space, re-sleeved at their destination, and sent in to trouble spots to commit heinous acts of slaughter. In this universe, faster than light travel is impossible so travel between the stars is primarily done by broadcasting souls into new bodies. We saw in Altered Carbon that this process can have strange philosophical consequences, which can be interesting to explore.

The defining setting for this book is Kovacs’s home planet, Harlan’s World, which was terraformed by a combined team of Eastern European and Japanese, and is basically owned by the families who originally settled it. It’s an ocean world, but travel and even weather forecasting is difficult because it is ringed with orbitals, set up by a prior civilization, which destroy any flying object more sophisticated than a helicopter. No-one can enter or leave Harlan’s World physically, and the air is off limits. The society is corrupt oligarchic capitalism, a system of exploitation of the poorest that was so bad that 300 years ago the world was torn apart by a revolution, the Unsettlement, at whose head was a mysterious prophet-politician called Quellcrist Falconer.

Into all of this returns Takeshi, intent on revenge for a wrong done to an ex-lover, and happy to live cheaply in a low-grade sleeve for years while he embarks on an extended mission of extermination and torture. His targets are a new religion, the Knights of the New Revelation, who are clearly analogous to the worst excesses of Islamic Fundamentalism. Unfortunately events transpire to entrap Kovacs in a society-shattering scheme, and he and various groups of unfortunates who get caught up with him soon find themselves reeling within schemes within schemes. We discover, indeed, on the second page that the First Families of Harlan’s World have an old copy of a much younger Takeshi, which they have sleeved and sent after him, though he doesn’t know why. The fact that they’re willing to commit such a crime – an “erasure mandatory” penalty exists for “double-sleeving” – indicates he is up to his neck in trouble, and our task as readers is to watch him navigate, then inflame, then (maybe) try and escape all this trouble.

This book concerns itself less with the philosophical ramifications of sleeving as it does with the history of the prior civilizations, the martians, and their unique effect on Harlan’s World. We get to learn a lot more about just how strange these martians were, and perhaps uncover a little more about them. But the central concept we investigate at some length in this book is the long-lasting consequences of Quellism, Harlan’s World’s homegrown marxist/anarchist revolutionary ideology, as originally spouted by Quellcrist Falconer. This revolutionary tendency is not dead in Harlan’s World, and as Takeshi gets deeper involved in plots within plots we find him confronting his own dialectic: the tension between his natural proto-Quellist anger at the exploitation of the poor, and his natural resistance to ideology and political movements of any sort. Takeshi has put down revolutions on several planets and strongly believes that their leadership are as cynical and destructive as those they aim to replace, but at the same time his origins in dirt poverty, and his anger at the events that led to his discharge from the Envoys, mean that he really wants to believe a revolution could happen on Harlan’s World – that maybe it’s “time to burn the motherfuckers down” at last. Watching him bouncing between these extremes, and resolving all of his conflicts by resort to anger and/or intense violence, is grim work to say the least.

As an aside, I really like Quellism as presented by Morgan in this book. It’s a pastiche of carbon-copy Marxist/Leninist/Anarchist material, held together and given a life of its own by the uniquely streetwise prose of its author. It’s not cloaked in the revolutionary sloganeering and turn-of-the-century intellectualism of the original upper-class revolutionary thinkers (Prince Proudhon the anarchist, Marx the maid-shagger, or any of the rest). Rather, it’s wry, witty, down-to-earth, cynical, vicious and very very angry, and where the original thinkers had dry political debate, Quellcrist inserts poetry and laughter. Quellcrist was a clever, thoughtful but very very angry revolutionary, and a lot of her sayings have over the years become streetwise aphorisms. Takeshi himself, though he has spent 200 years or so wandering the galaxy killing people a lot like Quellcrist, remembers her sayings and falls back on them occasionally. He also retains her class analysis, though he obviously doesn’t share her goals, and when he brings his own special, personal anger to bear on the First Families, the Yakuza, or the Knights of the New Revelation, he doesn’t miss any details of their political position and class antagonisms. This is a joy to watch, as if someone had loosed a Marxist-Leninist assassin on the bad people of the world, but infected him with a strong strain of nothing more noble or constructive than chaos and a desire to punish.

And this is where the book is maybe hard work for a lot of people. Takeshi Kovacs is not a happy man, and while his anger in Altered Carbon was an entertaining and witty personal force, by the time he returns to Harlan’s World it has become a brooding, overwhelming aspect of his character. From the moment we meet him to the close of the book he spends his time destroying anyone he hates or believes has wronged him, with an intense and unrelenting passion that by the middle of the book is beginning to become hard going. Even when he is trying to enlighten those he would like to save he is shaking them, yelling, and unable to comprehend why they aren’t listening. He is the antithesis of the Quellist ideas about how to change the world, that are slowly welling up around him as the book progresses. I think for some people Takeshi’s intensity and unhappiness will spoil this book, but I found it believable and engaging, and enjoyed the feeling in the second half of the book of a larger and larger revenge building – and I also enjoyed it when the whole thing fell apart in political schemes and realpolitik. I also found the ending very satisfying, though there were (again!) elements of Deus ex Machina which, though believable, are starting to shit me a little in modern literature.

This book moves at a good pace to a violent, surprising and not undesirable conclusion, where a whole series of separate strands of the story are woven together very nicely to a final resolution. In fact I would say that the plot is very well crafted, the expositions of the things you missed along the way are natural and welcome, and the story itself is big enough to just get lost in and enjoy, but tightly enough told that by the end you can put everything together and marvel at the results. It’s an excellent read and my only reservation is that I think some people will find it too grim and angry. But if you think you can do that and you want to read some really interesting, modern ideas in cyberpunk and space opera, then I recommend this highly.