Every girl wants some ...

Every girl wants some …

While I was in Greece working for two weeks I had no internet access, something of a catastrophe for my millions of fans but a strange chance to chill out for me[1]. Fortunately I had downloaded a couple of books to my kindle before I left[2] so I had plenty to occupy me, and first on my list was the Richard Morgan series The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands. In this post I will give a brief review of the two books, but what I’m really interested in with these books is the subtext, and the underlying implications of the world structure of the sub-genre they are derived from.

I have previously read and reviewed Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk/space opera cross-over novels, Altered Carbon and Woken Furies, both of which I really enjoyed for dubious reasons. Richard Morgan’s two new novels are fantasies rather than science fiction, and are also a departure from his previous style in that they are clearly intended to be “grimdark,” that new style of fantasy realism that embraces violence, rape and brutality but, most especially, rape. In his sci fi, Morgan kept the sexual violence repressed and simmering on the edge of the story: sure, there were snuff movie makers and some nasty criminal undergrounds, but they were just that – some kind of tiny minority who traded cruelty to a tiny minority. In The Steel Remains series, Morgan has moved the sexual violence to the centre of the story, along with a heavy dose of brutality, and embraced all the lowest aspects of grimdark. I have previously commented critically on his justification for doing this, and also on the general trend towards misogyny and violence in stories like A Game of Thrones, so I entered these two novels with very mixed views on what to expect.

First of all, I enjoyed these books for all the same reasons I enjoyed his previous works. In their broad outline they haven’t really deviated much from the basic themes of Altered Carbon. The story features on some elite soldiers who are veterans of a great war to save civilization. The war was brutal and they are scarred from it; but even more by the the cruelties they were forced to commit when they were deployed to put down civil revolts near the end of the war. They have emerged as scarred survivors with a very short fuse and a strong drive to hurt bullies and criminals, largely to try and rectify their own past complicity in horrible crimes. This means we get to see a healthy dose of bully-smashing, which I always find thoroughly enjoyable: child rapists, murderers, slavers, torturers and bastards get all manner of cruel and just desserts in this story, and it’s really hard to feel any pity for them. The world they’re in shows no shortage of such people, and in fact if our heroes were to set out on a mission to do in every bully and cruel bastard on the planet, they would end up very lonely. The world is divided into two main countries, a northern and southern empire that are basically equivalent to Europe and Asia Minor: the southern continent is clearly meant to be Muslim. One of our heroes is a gay son of a very privileged family, in a world where homosexuality is a deep sin; another is an outlander from horse tribes generally seen as barbarians. The main character (the gay man) is a picture in repressed rage, basically a shirt-lifting version of Kovacs from Altered Carbon. There’s a lot to like in watching these two men dispense with anyone who offends their sense of rightness which is, in general, the same as the reader’s. I think this means they are relatively (for fantasy) deep and complex characters, and generally in the right in a degraded and mediaeval kind of way. Unfortunately the story is not as tight as in his previous works: there are parts that don’t make sense and at times it feels like I missed a book, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t. Some sections, particularly those set in the faerie world, just don’t make any sense to me. There’s also a strong deus ex machina running through the whole latter part of the story, with one of the characters basically getting out of any situation through his role as vessel for some ancient darkness, the role of which is not explained. That aspect of the novels is pretty shit, actually, and I was disappointed with those elements of the story. So, although the novels retain some aspects of Richard Morgan’s best works, they represent both a structural and moral degeneration from his previous highs.

Which brings us to the issue of the grimdark. If the moral universe in which our heroes operate were to be characterized in two easy themes, it would be: every man rapes, and the strong can kill with impunity. This is grimdark, you see. At the time the story is set, the northern kingdom has instituted a new system of debt slavery, in which basically anyone who cannot pay a debt can be sold, along with their family, into permanent and brutal slavery. That is, if your neighbour goes underwater on their mortgage, you can buy them, and then rape them with impunity – and even pay for them to be sent to a special training school which will somehow (probably, the implication is, through rape and violence) turn them into willing sex slaves.

Furthermore, as far as I could tell in this world, free women seem to be divided into only two types of person: noblewomen and sex workers (who of course are routinely referred to as “whores,” a noun which in this story basically replaces “woman” in the narrative flow). The men could fill more roles, but no matter what they did, unless they were very very high in society, our heroes could murder them in the street without paying any penalty. It appears that in this world of grimdark, slaughtering people who spill your beer is pretty standard practice. I guess beer is expensive.

The implications of these setting elements are obvious and abhorrent. What kind of world can pass a law to enslave ordinary people’s neighbours? How is that going to work? Sure, one of our heroes is employed to rescue a girl from his extended family who is sold into this situation, but we’re somehow meant to believe that they are the first and only family to decide to take independent action against slavery, and that the rest of the world is just going along with it. This seems hardly credible. There is not, in general, any particular group targeted for exclusion and enslavement, and no sense that “it won’t happen to me.” Just ordinary families getting swept up in slavery because they went into debt. This scenario is just impossible to credit, even in a mediaeval dictatorship. Who would tolerate this? How long would it last before people started rebelling? Especially in a world where heroes can kill ordinary men with impunity, it seems pretty likely that a village would scrape up the money to pay a few mercenaries to go and liberate their enslaved members. It seems far less likely that they would buy those enslaved members and then subject them to the full cruelties of lifelong slavery. “Hi Bob, yes, I always enjoyed chatting with you at the pub, but from now on I own your family because you didn’t pay the beer tab, so I’m going to rape your wife and daughter every day.” Doesn’t figure, does it? But the society of these novels seems to just go along with it, as if they had a missing moral bone … which they certainly seem to lack when it comes to prostitution and murder.

There are prostitutes – sorry, “whores” – everywhere in this story. In one notable scene, our hero is stalking through some random street and hears a prostitute – sorry, a “whore” – busily sucking off a sailor in an alley, then notices a whole queue of sailors waiting for her services. This is … phenomenally weird. Everywhere we turn there are “whores,” but these men have to queue up; or is it the case that demand outstrips supply? In which case how can these sailors afford a blow job, and why are there “whores” everywhere we look? In this story “whores” serve as a kind of scenery or background the way trees, birds and carriages might be in a more standard story. Whereas in the Belgariad our heroes would be leaning against a wall and an ale cart or a bird seller might walk by, in this world it’s always a perfumed “whore,” who trails behind her (in a particularly odious moment of poor writing) “the smell of used woman.” Scanning the world Morgan lays out for us, there seem to be no female shop-keepers, apiarists, porters or grocers: just noblewoman and “whores.” And there are an awful lot of them, too. Also, just as in A Game of Thrones, these “whores” appear to be completely expendable, so if you have ever wondered what it’s like to kill a girl, you just hire one of those expendable “whore” things that are on every street corner, and no one will care if you do her in horribly. How does such a world come about, especially when there is a huge stock of slaves available to be used however one sees fit? The only way I can see this working is if there is a massive gender imbalance, but the female majority hasn’t yet figured out it can gang up and take over just from sheer weight of numbers. It’s just economically and politically weird. It seems, for example, that men care about their daughters – so how are they tolerating a world where every second daughter grows up to become an expendable “whore”? The observable nature of the world seems to run repeatedly up against the moral framework, in a way that ultimately cannot be reconciled.

The same applies with the weird phenomenon of people being able to murder each other with impunity, and also the cold-blooded way that men routinely dispose of all injured opponents by killing them. No world that works this way would stay civilized, and typically these kinds of extra-legal killings have only been possible in special places or at special times. The degree of casual murder on display in this story would be out of place in Japanese-occupied Manchuria or modern Afghanistan (as, for that matter, would the degree of misogynist violence). Those places were devastated war-zones under occupation; we’re meant to believe that this world is a functioning and stable society, bar a little bit of war recovery.

There is no place and time in history that has managed to stay civilized and maintain this degree of sexual and non-sexual violence. The setting is impossible, unless we are to imagine that the obviously basically human societies being portrayed are fundamentally amoral and alien, which they’re clearly not meant to be. It’s as if Morgan wanted to portray the moral exigencies of men trapped in total war (which is certainly the implication of his self-exculpatory musings linked to above) but couldn’t be bothered stepping outside the standard fantasy setting – as if it was too much effort to create the physical backdrop for the moral story. And who would want to write this moral story anyway?

I think this is a problem with “grimdark” generally: they want to write a world where men have unparalleled rights over and access to women, but they want to imagine a world where women can still walk the streets freely; they want men to be able to kill bullies without punishment, but they want a world where men still drink together with strangers in pubs. The reality is that these worlds don’t coincide, and the failure of the grimdark authors to realize this makes me think that they’re actually just using a cheap, knock-off fantasy setting to work through their unresolved adolescent issues: they want to get back at all the women who rejected them and all the men who bullied them, but they haven’t the imagination to construct a setting where this is possible; so they just dial our assumptions about the barbarity of mediaeval worlds up to 11, and get to work on the non-consensual sex. To me, this is lazy and weak world creation, and yet another example of how over the past 30 years the fantasy genre has consistently failed to live up to its transformative and speculative potential[3]. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that, as the nerds of the 80s grow into the peak of their spending power, and also start to experience their mid-life crises, their fiction will begin to be dominated by stories that appeal to their unresolved adolescent angst. But if it’s going to do that, I would prefer that it would at least do so in a slightly more mature and creative way than “grimdark” has so far managed to present me with. I guess I was hoping for too much …

fn1: That’s a lie actually, I was very angry about it.
fn2: Kindles are worth their weight in gold when you are travelling

fn3: Actually the soft-porn bdsm series Gor from the 70s(?) did this. In that story the author constructed a moral framework in which women fundamentally want to be used by men, and are turned on by male power. Although superficially based on capture and forced enslavement, willing were actually consenting to their own slavery, thus didn’t rebel and could be turned into willing sex slaves. Whether or not you think this is horrible (I don’t; I think it’s just porn) it is, at least, an attempt to make the moral underpinnings of the story match the actions of the protagonists. It’s an attempt to explore what the world would be like (from a pornographic perspective) if humans were morally different to how we actually are. Grimdark doesn’t bother with this speculation: it just rapes people[4].

fn4: that sentence sounds clumsy if it ends with the word “women,” but let’s be clear about this: by and large, grimdark doesn’t rape men (or if it does, they are generally deserving of it). It rapes women. Over and over again.

Brian Murphy at The Silver Key has been running something of a series of posts on realism in fantasy, and his mild objections to it. I have been commenting occasionally in mild support of this trend, because I think that the fantasy genre is very conservative and needs to have its perspective broadened and conventions loosened. This inevitably involves experimentation, not all of which is going to work; and the folks at The Silver Key are generally quite conservative, so overly prone to see any experimentation as some form of radicalism or nihilism. However, recently Brian posted about Richard Morgan’s new novel The Cold Commands as a continuation of this theme, and Richard Morgan himself turned up in comments.

I’m a fan of Richard Morgan’s science fiction, but I hope that it’s been noted around here that I’m not shy of criticizing work I like, and Richard Morgan’s defense of his style of realism really doesn’t do him or the concept of realism in fantasy any favours. Basically, in defense of presenting gore in fantasy he refers to a poem by a Vietnam veteran that describes the “fierce joy” of murdering innocents, apparently based on real life experience. Richard Morgan has cited a war criminal as his muse. It shouldn’t take much effort by most people to recognize that defending your slasher-fiction on the basis that its honest to the experience of war criminals isn’t going to win you any favours with the majority of your critics (or, one hopes, your fans).

But Richard Morgan goes one better than this, and presents this “realistic” depiction of war – as seen through the eyes of a murderer – as somehow preferable and more realistic than eliding the details or glorifying the emotional and spiritual dimensions of war.

If Morgan wants to represent realism in war he has most certainly chosen the wrong path to go down here. A “realistic” depiction of the horrors of war would be much more likely to come from the eyes of the mundane majority of modern soldiery, that is the ordinary enlisted men who resisted the pressure to commit war crimes at every turn. These men didn’t write poems about how they loitered at the back of the squad, avoiding being too close to the commander who might order them to murder; they don’t make fine lines out of the “fierce joy” of firing high so they can avoid killing a non-combatant, only to have one of their more eager squadmates finish the job anyway. The only poetry that is written about these men will be the cruel beauty of Wilfred Owen, if they are so unlucky. They don’t get promoted by their war-criminal commanders, and if they take the ultimate risk of turning their arms on their colleagues to save innocent lives they don’t get medals until many years later. In modern war these men are the vast majority of the uniformed ranks, doing their best in very difficult circumstances to follow strict rules that have been laid down for them by a society that has spent 60 years learning what a nightmare modern warfare is. But there’s no joy in the “realistic” stories of ordinary squaddies doing their best to stay moral in immoral circumstances, so it’s much easier for Morgan to fall back on the psychopathic visions of a war criminal in his defense of “realism.” Give me Tolkien’s glorification of the nobility and sacrifice of war over this grubby version of realism any day of the week.

I suppose as his yardstick Morgan should try reversing his role, and asking himself what muse he would take to his side if he were one of the Vietnamese villagers who survived? If Miyazaki Goro chose to defend his misinterpretation of le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea on the basis of a poem by a decorated Japanese war criminal, would Morgan consider that to be of high merit? If Nabokov had defended writing Lolita through reference to the self-expulcatory ravings of some child-fucking Victorian-era pervert, would he be lauded for his difficult choice of representing “realism”? If Dostoevsky had defended Crime and Punishment through references to Chopper Read’s biography, would he have in no way diminshed his tale?

Of course this isn’t entirely Morgan’s fault, because our societies seem to be going through a slow period of forgetting just how horrible and senseless war is. If Guantanamo Bay and the invasion of Iraq represent the nadir of that process of forgetting, it should always be remembered that these things can’t happen in isolation – they need a culture of forgetting to support them, and as we moderns get further and further removed from the cruelty and cost of the wars we start, and as the horrors we committed those years ago fade into distance, of course it’s easy for authors like Morgan to come along, raised and taught during the end stages of this process, and so manufacture justifications for literary savagery from the poetry of war criminals. But I like to hope that if the fantasy genre is reformed and its conventions loosened, it will not be just to shift its attitude to war from the pre-world war 2 justifications and elisions of Tolkien’s era to the self-serving ignorance of our modern times. We can surely do better than that.

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.

The next in my line of eBook downloads, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan is perhaps best described as a cyberpunk Space Opera. It is set in a near future, perhaps 500 years from now, in which humans have developed a technology of human mind replication. This technology is not cheap, but it enables people to back up their mind and memories (their stack) and install it in a new human being (their sleeve) when their current human dies. This provides a kind of immortality, and changes many aspects of ordinary human life, including:

  • punishment: prison is time spent “on stack” while the sleeve in which you committed the crime is rented out to others to use
  • insurance: every person’s goal is to get a resleeving policy, so that when they die they can be reborn based on their last backup, in a new sleeve
  • torture: if you really really want to torture someone, you upload their stack into a virtual system, and torture them there for as long as you want – they can’t die

The very rich can afford regular backups, perhaps as often as every 48 hours and done remotely, but for the vast majority of even the middling rich, the mind and memories are backed up only internally, in essentially a memory chip inside their head. This enables them to die for real if their head is destroyed or the stack is removed and lost.

The story centres around a criminal called Takeshi Kovacs who has retired from a specialist psychotic marine unit called the Envoys. He is dragged out of a long prison sentence (on stack) by a very rich and long-lived man (a methuselah, or “meth”), who was murdered two days earlier and wants his death investigated by an independent operator. Unfortunately all is not as it seems (of course) and after a slight mishap on the first day, Kovacs ends up to his neck in real and virtual shit. There are a lot of tricks based on the fundamental conceit of the altered carbon (at one point we briefly meet an assassin who uses a copy of himself for backup, because he can’t trust anyone else); but there is also a sensitive and intelligent investigation of the consequences of this backup process for human society. What does death and childhood mean when you can live forever? Does money become more significant or less when it has the power to buy you eternal life? How does one prosecute a war when the dead can come back to life? And how does one deal with criminals who have no fear of death?

Kovacs answers most of these questions using an advanced array of extremely dangerous weaponry, and the author produces some very poignant moments based around the experiences of ordinary mortals cast into these situations. He also writes very well, giving simultaneously an excellent story, believable characters and an interesting and unpretentious exploration of some of the philosophical consequences of the phenomenon at the centre of the novel. This is an excellent novel, well worth reading, and I will definitely be pursuing the series as he writes more!