An interview with Richard Morgan

This interview first appeared online at Infinity Plus
Thanks (as always) go to Keith Brooke for arranging everything

Altered Carbon was Richard Morgan's first published piece of science fiction, way back in 2002. For a first novel it was ultra-violent, street-smart and very well received indeed. Oh, and the film rights went to straight to Hollywood, did not pass Go but did collect a very large sum indeed, allowing Richard to leave his job teaching English as a foreign language in Scotland to concentrate on writing full-time.

Altered Carbon dealt with a shabby, corporate-owned future Earth where the rich are effectively immortal thanks to a technology known as "sleeving" whereby your consciousness can be downloaded from your body and either stored or implanted into a new (or not so new) body. Takeshi Kovacs was a world-weary, morally compromised main character who had killed hundreds of people and "died" himself more than once; he had been hired to investigate a real death because of his status as a former "Envoy" or superbly trained super-soldier.

Richard's second novel, Broken Angels, featuring the same protagonist a few years down the line and on a different planet, came out to similar acclaim earlier this year, probably because the hardcore and very noir-ish formula of the first novel was again employed but in a wider context that revealed a bit more about Takeshi Kovacs future milieu and the sort of people who survive in it.

Richard's books frequently use very graphic violence that might in lesser hands be seen as a glamorisation of killing and mayhem but despite its initially stunning coolness the sheer intensity of the violence - not to mention the usual outcomes - make it clear what a terrible and frequently counterproductive activity it is.

I interviewed Richard by email in May 2003 and asked him all kinds of foolish questions which he was never less than gracious in answering.


SC: What was your first reaction on hearing about the Hollywood deal for the film rights to Altered Carbon?

RM: Oddly enough, I was remarkably calm. The whole thing happened slowly, over a period of weeks - first I had a London film exec singing AC's movie-related praises, then I heard a Los Angeles agency had picked it up, then I was told various big names were interested, then BANG! But by the time of that bang, I'd had the chance to get used to the idea and, to be honest, I was running out of adrenalin. My adrenal glands had been on constant low level delivery ever since AC came out and got so many nice reviews. It was a bit like buying a house, when you finally hear that contracts have been exchanged. Not so much an explosion of joy, more a culminating pleasure.

SC: Has this success changed you, do you think? Have you bought yourself a Ferrari or a gold bathtub or hired a butler?

RM: Er - no. The biggest extravagance I've committed since the Hollywood money came through (apart from giving up my day job, that is) was buying boxed DVD sets of the Sopranos Series One and Two all on the same day. I still drive the same 16 year old Spanish (left hand drive) Renault 11, because it's still running sweet as a nut and has enormous sentimental value, we still live in the same Glasgow tenement flat we bought when I was working at Strathclyde Uni, and we still take about the same number of holidays abroad (2 per year, approx). I think, at 37, success has come a little too late for the bathtubs full of cocaine and high performance motorflesh. Shame, really

SC: Do you have very high hopes for an eventual film version of Altered Carbon? Has there been any news on the film?

RM: No recent news. I know there's a script out there, batting back and forth between studio and screenwriter, and I know from a number of unrelated sources that there's a lot of enthusiasm around for the project, but that of course means exactly nothing until you hear they're going to start shooting. I try not to think about it too much - better to just get on with my own writing in the full time space the option money has given me, and que sera, sera. As to what kind of a film AC might become - well, you've got the producer responsible for the Matrix and Predator, and the screenwriter who worked on the upgrade of Rollerball. I'd say those are pretty good starting credentials for any potential SF movie.

SC: Do you think previous translations of sf books to the cinema have been successful?

RM: Well -successful is a bit of an elastic concept here. I mean, Bladerunner, my all time favourite SF movie, is still the benchmark for anything else in the genre in terms of quality, but whether it's a good "translation" of Dick's original novel is questionable (tho' I understand he saw the raw print before he died and did like it). Similarly, Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is a brilliant movie, but you can bet old Robert A Heinlein is spinning in his grave over that particular translation. As always, what you can do on the screen and what you can do on the page are radically different, so the end products aren't likely to look much like each other. You can't successfully condense a 400 page novel into a two hour movie (or if you can, it wasn't much of a novel in the first place) - what you have to hope is that essence of the book survives. Having seen the new Rollerball, I'm reasonably happy that John Pogue, the screenwriter who's got AC, has a sense of what essence I'm after. So - we live in hope.

SC: Do you long for recognition outside sf circles as a (ahem) "proper" artist?

RM: No - if I'm brutally honest, the only thing I long for in that direction is the volume of sales that mainstream writers can command. I've never much cared for Received Wisdom in any shape or form and I can certainly live without the acclaim of Mainstream Critical Thought. Those guys are always the last to notice what's really going on anyway.

SC: On a related note, does it bother you at all that "proper" writers such as Margaret Atwood will write what are blatantly sf novels and deny their genre basis? I refer the jury to this statement made in a recent New Scientist:

NS: "What do you make of science fiction?

MA: Oryx and Crake is not science fiction. It is fact within fiction. Science fiction is when you have rockets and chemicals. Speculative fiction is when you have all the materials to actually do itů I don't like science fiction except for the science fiction of the 1930s, the bug-eyed monster genre in full bloom."

(from New Scientist)

As a science fiction writer yourself what do you make of that (if anything)?

RM: Yeah, I've read the article. I think it's very sad that a respected and intelligent writer like Atwood is happy to parade (or possibly fake) her ignorance of SF as if it were something to be especially proud of. Handmaid's Tale did after all win the Clarke prize, and she can't be unaware of the fact, or the milieu in which it achieved that. Maybe it's fear of being denigrated by the critical community, maybe it's just deeply ingrained Star Trek-phobia. It's interesting she chooses to enthuse about 1930s sf, perhaps because she thinks that's too far back for anyone else to have read, and therefore esoteric enough to be exclusive. There is in the mainstream literary world a definite tendency towards this kind of Gatekeeper exclusion. Anything accessible tends to get short shrift because it eliminates the need for critical interpretation, and therefore the chance for critics to assert a superiority of sophistication over the rest of the world. And I think, sadly, she's playing to that particular gallery. As for the statement "Oryx and Crake is not science fiction", well, let's see - it takes place in the future, it deals with advanced biotechnology by the shedload and it centres around a whole new race of bio-engineered beings. I'm sorry Maggie - you gonna come quietly, or what?

SC: The ongoing "War On Terror" - any thoughts?

RM: Yikes, Scooby, run?

Seriously, I could bore for Britain on the subject, but to be honest the issues have already been very cogently addressed by so many other writer commentators (Julian Barnes, John Le Carre, Arundhati Roy, the list goes on) that it would be largely superfluous. Suffice it to say that I'm sickened by the moral duplicity of our politicians and their inability (or maybe just unwillingness) to address the genuine causes of terrorism. Bluntly put, Bin Laden is their mess and they should clear it up properly, not try to sell the rest of us fairy tales on the subject.

SC: On a not unrelated note, you name-check John Pilger at the start of Broken Angels, and there is a very definite morality to the violence in your books, especially compared to much of the more militaristic (dare I say it, American) sf; do you see yourself as deliberately writing against that heroic, gung-ho tradition of imperialistic sf?

RM: Yeah, Pilger is a bit of a hero for me. This is a man who's led the kind of morally driven, socially constructive life I might have aspired to if I'd got my act together a bit younger. It's good to know there are people like him out there. On the subject of Broken Angels, I was writing about war, and any intelligent writer on that subject is going to see that the gung ho angle has zero credibility. As a culture and a readership, I think we've grown beyond it. So, in much the same way as I couldn't expect my audience to take alien little green men seriously, so I couldn't honestly ask them to believe in a war being fought over absolutes of good and evil. You have to create something more convincing than that. And my own political tendencies being what they are, it was easy to map out the various corporate/political vested interests behind the fighting. Then, with regard to the violence, I just tried to make it as realistic as possible, and that did the trick nicely. Real violence is horrific, so fictional violence needs to be. As far as the American thing is concerned, I'm not sure we aren't over simplifying here - it's true SF across the Atlantic sometimes has a far more cheery, the-elders-are-here-and-all's-right (or can be made right) with-the-world type of approach to the genre, but that's leaving out major US talents like Joe Haldemann and the whole cyberpunk gang (Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson etc...).

SC: I wondered if you'd read any of Kim Stanley Robinson's sf, especially his "Mars" series, which seemed to me to be a Best-Case-Scenario for our future, as against your Worst-Case-But-At-Least-We're-Still-Here-Scenario novels? Your next novel, Market Forces sounds like more of the same (by no means a bad thing!) but have you ever felt any urge to write a similar exemplar of how good things could be rather than a grim warning of how bad they can get?

RM: No, never have read KSR - to be honest, I'm not very keen on dynastic length stuff, cast of thousands, following the generations through and so on, which seems to be his speciality. Not that there's anything wrong with that as such; in fact when you're painting on such a vast canvas, you don't really have much choice about it. But I'm too interested in getting inside individual characters' heads to be willing to let them go that easily. My glancing impression of the Mars series was that the only real central character of the books is the Red Planet itself, and that's just too big for me.

The idea of writing a best-case (ie nice) future, for me, wouldn't make any sense. Looking back through history, I see no evidence for humanity making the best of things, and I think it's a pretty safe bet that's an on-going trend. In a sense, Kovacs' Protectorate is exactly that. It isn't a worst case scenario - it's just an extrapolation of current human trends. Which (he says modestly) is why I think it rings true. Even Banks' Culture novels don't escape this necessity - the Culture only works because superpowerful (mostly) altruistic machines enforce a hedonistic paradise, and even then you've always got Special Circumstance out there doing the peripheral enforcement nastiness. If you come up with this council of elders future in which everybody is wise and happy and fulfilled (not that I'm saying KSR does this, because I don't know), the whole thing is going to ring horribly false in human terms. So you'd have to be writing about nonhumans. And I've got my hands full, believe me, just dealing with human characters. Sorry.

SC: Both Altered Carbon and Broken Angels are pretty pessimistic about our future and about humanity generally - does this reflect your worldview?

RM: Yeah, I suppose so. As a species, we're survivor types - evolutionary winners, which by definition makes us pretty unpleasant. And now we've run out of space to be unpleasant in, we have to learn a whole new approach to each other and our environment, which is hard to do quickly. So you've got a few centuries of coherent humanist thought, set against a million odd years of evolved killer ape tendency. No-one's going to give you very good odds on humanism, are they. Worse still, in the face of our recent understanding of how complex and difficult the universe actually is, the reaction of most people seems to be to retreat back into simplistic null-thought modes of operation. Fundamentalist religion is big everywhere you look, a kind of proud-to-be-pigshit-ignorant ethic prevails in the developed world, and even the gentler souls among us seem more inclined to buy into New Age bullshit than face the facts constructively.

Kurt Vonnegut once proposed, in the book Cat's Cradle, that we should leave a message for any exploring aliens who might arrive on Earth after we've killed ourselves off through environmental damage. Carved into the wall of the Grand Canyon, the message would read - We Could Have Saved It, But We Were Too Fucking Cheap. Under that, I'd add the byline And It Was Too Fucking Complicated.

Against that rather despairing outlook, I try to focus on the speed of achievement in matters of complexity that we've shown in the last century, and think maybe we're in with a chance after all. From repeating world wars to the UN and a globally interdependent market economy in less than a century - that's got to be worth something, creaky and inhumane though the end product still is. Our communications and transport technology makes it increasingly difficult for the old apish tendencies of violence and oppression to take place without outcry and there is at least the concept of genuine democratic accountability around. Then again, we've also got the world's most powerful nation point-blank refusing to sign up to or accept the jurisdiction of any supranational body of governance or law (and the UK barking excitedly from the sidelines like the neighbourhood bully's pitbull), a global corporate stranglehold on the media, and a vast disinterested ennui with the whole democratic process among the people who have the most to lose if it goes. Optimism is bloody hard work!

SC: Do you think/feel we'll ever actually make it into space as a sustainable, ongoing venture?

RM: Oh, yes. If you mean by that, Offworld to one place or another, definitely. There's nowhere else to go, is there. And sooner or later, if we don't wipe ourselves out, we've got to dodge the next incoming asteroid, the next upwelling volcanic maxi-event, the pole reversal, and so on. Evolutionary success around that sort of thing is going to absolutely require mobility on, at a minimum, an interplanetary scale. We either go or we die out, and so far we've proved pretty tenacious in the face of external environmental threats. No reason why that would change - it's the internal stuff that's the problem.

SC: Do you think you and Takeshi Kovacs would get on if you met? Obviously you wouldn't want to piss the man off but do you think you'd like him and vice versa?

RM: Well, the man owes me his life, so he'd have to behave. Allowing that we both got wrecked enough together to open up, I suspect he'd think I was a spoilt stupid dilettante, and I'd think he was a dangerously unstable psycho. That wouldn't necessarily preclude us liking one another though. Oddly enough, we have the same sense of humour and, at a theoretical level, similar ideas about power and politics. I also suspect (and have found personally) that there's a curious attraction between emotionally stable and unstable people - they each seem to need the other to some extent. So, yeah, maybe we'd get on. I'm pretty damn stable, myself.

SC: A friend asks: "Though I enjoy owning the book (Altered Carbon), is it a crime that I have yet to read it even though it was given to me as a gift?"

RM: Not at all, as long as someone paid for it. In fact, this friend should get someone else to buy them Broken Angels as another present immediately (hardback copy, preferably). There'd be no need to read that either, if they didn't want to.

SC: What one piece of UK legislation would you impose if you had the power?

RM: Some kind of percentage enforcement system on government expenditure, whereby military spending would be index linked to spending on Health, Emergency Service and Education in sane proportions. If we can afford to fight wars in the Middle East on a regular basis, we can bloody well afford to pay our firemen, nurses and teachers properly, build decent schools and hospitals and send our kids to university without crippling them with decades of debt.

SC: Do you believe in life after death? Reincarnation?

RM: Nope. Uhhh, that's a bit dismissive, isn't it. I'm what could be called a functional atheist, but a theoretical agnostic. I don't know for sure what's out there of course, so in theory there might be a god and a continuation of existence of some sort. But at the same time, I know damn well that none of the crap human religion has come up with is worth any kind of serious consideration, so functionally...

SC: Are you perturbed by the idea of the eventual heat-death of the universe?

RM: Well, I'm not likely to be around, so I have to admit my concern is limited. Bertrand Russell got pretty bent out of shape about it, though. He felt the fact that the universe had to end made all human endeavour ultimately pointless, or at least made it hard to care about humanity as an on-going project. I haven't read him enough to know whether he resolved that crisis of humanistic faith, but I think it's far enough offf to dismiss, even for a philosopher. By the time we get there (if we get there) I'm convinced we'll have the technology to deal with it. Survivor types, remember.

SC: When was the last time you danced?

RM: At a Brazilian Community charity carnival party, back in February. Feb 14th, to be exact.

SC: What most annoys you?

RM: Intolerance.

SC: Who do you admire?

RM: John Pilger (cited above) and my father. Arundhati Roy. Anyone who works for Amnesty International. People with principles who set out to apply them for the benefit of others.

SC: What ideas or kind of ideas are you toying with for your next book?

RM: The next book, Market Forces, is done and delivered. It's a departure from the other two - I'm giving Kovacs a vacation. Market Forces takes place a little less than fifty years from now and it's set in the arena of corporate international finance. The salients are that corporate financial institutions are now calling the international shots, right down to military and political micro-management. The CIA has been privatised, large political units like OPEC and China have been balkanised and regime change is decided on the basis of what commercial benefits will acrue. It's an amoral world, and that necessitates amoral agents, so the people working in the field are hard-faced killers who sort out business tenders and promotions in driving duels on roads that are now empty because stringent environmental legislation has ensured that only the very wealthy can afford a car.

At the same time, these people are human beings and so we get to see their lives from the inside, and understand some of what drives them. Imagine the Sopranos set in the City of London and salted with Mad Max and Rollerball.

After that, I'm getting back to Takeshi and the Protectorate. The third Kovacs novel is set on Harlan's World, which gives us a chance to have a look at the influences that made Takeshi who he is and to fill in some of the background detail around the other two books. Expect to run into the Harlan's World ruling elite, the Millsport yakuza, lunatic religious sects, deranged automated weapons systems gone bad and the drugged up mercenary decommissioning crews who make a living shutting them down, surfboard revolutionaries, Quellist cadres and some serious identity crisis problems for Takeshi. Now all I've got to do is put everything in some kind of order.

SC: Now that you don't really have to work do you work?

RM: At the moment I'm still enjoying the novelty - it's only been about eight months since I quit the day job. I still miss the teaching sometimes, but not, I think, enough to want to go back to it in any substantial way. It was a fourteen year career, and to be honest I think I'd pretty much played out all the angles by the time I left. I am going to do a couple of weeks teacher training this summer, as a kind of final goodbye. After that, I think I'll look around and see what useful volunteer/charity work I might be able to do. Maybe something for Amnesty International - I'd like to feel that at long last I'm putting something back, because I've certainly had enough out in terms of luck and support over the years.

SC: What's on your CD player today? Do you write to music at all?

RM: Uh, wait a minute, let's check. Ani diFranco - Little Plastic Castle, Sisters of Mercy - Floodland and a superb cutting edge Spanish hip-hop/flamenco crew called Ojos de Bruja. My CD collection is one of my few enduring obsesions and I'll listen to pretty much anything with open ears. I've got a bit of everything from Pavarotti to Cypress Hill and, yeah, I always write to music. Didn't realise why until a couple of months ago when I was talking with James Lovegrove and Adam Roberts and they said they do too, in order to lower their affective filters and forget what they're doing. And that's exactly it - the music takes your mind off what you're doing, stops you being self-conscious and lets you lose yourself in the writing. Works for me!

SC: "Hip-hop flamenco"???

RM: Yeah, honest. Hard to explain. Imagine standard flamenco guitar with lots of turntable scratch and vocals that are rap some of the time, trad flamenco the rest. Totally fucking cool, and a bit difficult to come by in this country, I suspect - my wife's Spanish and I picked this stuff up in Madrid. Amazon might have it, or a good Virgin Megastore World Music section. Otherwise, try FNAC on line.

SC: When is Market Forces due to be published?

RM: Spring next year, I imagine. Gollancz reckon on putting out one of my books every twelve months approx.


And thank goodness they are.
If you haven't seen it yet, I have a review of Market Forces online -
and see also my reviews of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies

© Stuart Carter 2003