Friday, April 5, 2013

Takeshi Kovacs trilogy by Richard K. Morgan

I mentioned in my review of Neuromancer that it must be really frustrating to achieve your greatest success on your very first time out, because then no matter what you do, some jerk is always going to be comparing your later efforts to your first one and saying that it’s pretty good but . . .  Today, I’m going to be that jerk in discussing the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, which is absolutely one of the best SF works of the past two decades, and at least arguably one of the all-time greats.  Perhaps Morgan will surpass his own work someday, but so far I don’t think he has.  But no one can take this achievement away from him, and in my mind it puts him right up there with anyone you care to name in the field.

These three books – Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, and Woken Furies, deal with the adventures of Takeshi Kovacs (that’s the Slavic pronunciation, by the way, you uncultured lout).  By any reasonable standard, Kovacs is a huge asshole, and even that is an understatement.  He’s at best an antihero and only then because the people he’s up against are even worse than him.  If you looked at a list of his many crimes you’d see just about everything on there except possibly sexual assaults, although in the second book he does engage in some dubious erotic healing techniques on a woman who’s really in no position to give enthusiastic consent (and in any event, this is probably more related to George MacDonald Fraser’s discovery in his first Flashman novel that rapists make worse protagonists than murderers, rather than Kovacs’ firm ethical standards.)

He’s introduced in the opening of the very first novel having just robbed a biotechnology firm on Harlan’s World, a Podunk colony planet out in the middle of nowhere, and as he and his girlfriend are post-coitally discussing how to dispose of the score they are raided by the police and shot to death.  Incidentally, this was a righteous shoot since the girlfriend took down a few officers with a toxic flechette pistol and Kovacs really was reaching for his gun at the time.

Now generally being killed tends to interrupt one’s social schedule and make it difficult for you to star in an SF trilogy from that point, but in the 25th century as it turns out everyone has a “cortical stack” implanted which holds all memories and personality, and it’s of pretty solid construction.  So while it’s by no means impossible to permanently get rid of somebody by destroying their stack, it’s not going to happen in your ordinary garden variety accident or gunfight.  This technology also makes people somewhat casually dismissive of their bodies, or “sleeves”, as if the flesh wears out or gets destroyed you can always just get a new one from somewhere.  The authorities also don’t bother putting physical bodies in prison, either; they just put your stack on a server somewhere and auction off your body, and when you get out you get whatever derelict they have available.  It also means that it’s reasonable to expect Kovacs to serve every day of the 120 year sentence he draws.

Except that’s not what happens – his digital personality gets freighted to Earth, where he’s reawakened in a pretty nice body and told that he’s being hired out to an absurdly wealthy tycoon as a sort of parole.  The tycoon, Bancroft, has recently been restored from backup after someone destroyed both his stack and his head.  Official verdict:  suicide.  Bancroft doesn’t buy it and asked around to some of his friends, one of whom recommended Kovacs as a nasty dude who could look into the situation, with force if need be.

As it also turns out, Kovacs used to be a UN Envoy, one of an elite group of super soldiers who make even other hardened badasses piss themselves with fear.  They are, essentially, weaponized sociopaths.  Given that anyone can get put into a huge muscleman body grown out of a vat, what distinguishes the Envoys is their mental conditioning.  This includes, but is not limited to:  resection of normal human fight-or-flight responses, eidetic memory, language retention, disregard for social dominance rules, and general fearlessness.  An Envoy has no scruples whatsoever when it comes to mission completion and thinks nothing of killing fellow humans.  They also have whatever powers would be handy when Morgan needs it for the plot, which I’ll give a pass.  Anyway, they’re so scary that upon leaving the Envoy Corps, they’re forbidden to run for political office or hold high corporate positions because of the threat they pose to the average Joe.  Perhaps because of these restrictions, ex-Envoys account for a large portion of the violent crime in the Protectorate.

Like most really good SF, Altered Carbon and its sequels aren’t really so much about the technology itself as it is about making some point about people.  The effect of cortical stack technology has had an alarming and constrictive effect on society.  It’s all well and good to think that it would be great to be backed up in case you have some horrible accident, or get sick, or whatnot.  But what about if Stalin had access to this technology, with off-site backups and an array of new clone bodies to get reincarnated into over and over again?  Or Steve Jobs?  Imagine if there wasn’t any way to climb the career ladder because the CEO and every middle manager on down was immortal.  And imagine if these people were constantly afraid of what they had being taken away – like today, but even more so.  This isn’t a dystopia, exactly, but the UN government is oppressive and heavily captive by powerful corporate interests.  The people with money and power are planning to keep it forever.

Bancroft isn’t really all that bad as these things go, but he’s got Kovacs over a barrel in that if Bancroft is displeased then the parole gets revoked.  The remainder of the novel is very reminiscent of a postwar noir detective story, only unlike in Raymond Chandler’s stories they don’t just knock him out, but actually can kill him in virtual interrogation rooms.  There’s some loopiness, but it all ties together and it’s really great.  Kovacs makes a good hard boiled detective and even the ultimate antagonist is a Chandler-esque figure of organized crime.

It was perhaps inevitable that a sequel got made, but what is really striking about the sequels is how little they have in common with the first novel.  There’s a lot of throwaway details that come back into play (he mentions offhandedly another Harlan’s World Envoy who finally shows up in the third novel) but the genre is totally changed.  If you were expecting another detective romp in the 25th century, Broken Angels is not it.

Kovacs has gone back into military service of a sort, hiring himself out to a mercenary organization on the planet of Sanction IV, currently involved in a nasty civil war.  As an ex-Envoy he’s a desirable recruit, but mentally he doesn’t seem to be that interested in the conflict.  On one side is a corrupt group of UN affiliated, corporate backed status quo defenders, and on the other the rebel Joshua Kemp.  The UN Protectorate isn’t heroic by any stretch of the imagination, but Kemp seems like a neo-Maoist who’s more interested in erecting statues of himself than any real reform and doesn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons on civilian populations.  Kovacs claims at one point that he just signed up with the mercenaries because that gave him the best chance at getting a new body if killed there, and given his numerous allegiance switches this may even be mostly true.

Perhaps I should amend that a little bit – in this book Kovacs is totally out for himself.  He made a noble and selfless gesture at the end of Altered Carbon, but it would be hard to imagine him doing that here.  It may be because he’s older and even more jaded than before, but when he finds that there’s a chance to obtain an alien artifact he immediately ditches his enlistment obligations and attempts to cash in on it.  We already knew that he was a morally questionable individual, but in this book he slides very close into outright villainy, although in thinking about it he was pursuing a career in armed robbery prior to the events of the first novel.  Maybe comic-book level super villainy, then.  Anyway, I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that the actual hero of this book is mercenary chief Isaac Carrera, although it appears to be Morgan’s intent to portray everyone as a huge asshole.

Having made his score and escaped Sanction IV, the third book, Woken Furies, finds Kovacs back home on Harlan’s World engaging in a little recreational murder of some people who have annoyed him.  This one takes a little while longer to get started, but also contains the most interesting antagonist – Kovacs himself.  The ruling class of Harlan’s World surreptitiously took a backup copy of his mental state back when he was younger and still had some loyalty to the governing structure, and have sleeved this younger self in an attempt to get rid of the older Kovacs.  (Double-sleeving yourself in this way is highly illegal, which doesn’t stop it from happening occasionally throughout the novels.)  This one also features the possible return of revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer, who pioneered the concept of multi-generational civil conflict well before Kovacs himself was born.  As it turns out, Kovacs was only on Sanction IV in the first place to provide assistance to Kemp’s revolution on behalf of a Quellist cell before deciding Kemp was a jerk and defecting.

This third book is probably the technically best written of the three, but also tries to get into waters a little too deep.  Morgan writes really good action and suspense scenes but is not quite as good at philosophy and religion, both of which make up a large portion of this one.  But even the characters admit that they’re not sure what they’re proposing is better than the status quo, just that they want to change the power structure to make sure it’s not always concentrating in the hands of those who already have it.

There’s a ton of good world building and detail with just enough handwaving to make it all work.  The whole series is obviously a labor of love, and Morgan keeps it moving so quickly that you don’t have time to worry if any of it really makes sense.

At the end, when Kovacs is going along with a possible new revolution, he’s still not sold on whether it’ll work or whether it’s a good idea.  He’s not an idealist or an ideologue, and most of his capacity for group loyalty ended in a viral strike on most of his squad on a planet called Innenin.  As much as I like these novels, I also really respect Morgan’s decision to stop it here on the grounds that we’ve seen enough.

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