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'Give me a grizzled, world-weary veteran any day - Richard Morgan on Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon UKAs the author of Altered Carbon, the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning Black Man, The Steel Remains, the upcoming The Cold Commands and a host of other acclaimed works, it isn't an exaggeration to say that Richard Morgan is one of the most significant figures in science fiction and fantasy today. 

He's also - if you'll excuse the moment of shameless fannery - one of the most significant figures to us. The lure of Richard Morgan is what brought Jared to his first British convention and it was our review of The Steel Remains that brought more people to this site than... er... us. We're indebted to him on many levels, not least of which is the simple fact that we love his books.


PK: You’ve commented that the process of becoming a full-time writer was incredibly rapid (“Gollancz published it. Hollywood bought it. I gave up my day job.”). The pragmatic financial bits aside, was there a moment when the switch flipped and you knew it had capital-h-Happened? Or was it a slowly dawning awareness that your life had changed...

RM: I think it was the film deal that did it. Of course, I was blown away when I got picked up for publication, and again when I got all the great reviews. Truth was, I was even blown away when I first managed to get an agent, it had been so long coming. But it was the movie deal that secured me a life as a full time writer, and I was always well aware of that fact; the sad truth is, the pragmatic financial bits are the bits that really count - without that film money, I could never have gone full time. And more importantly, nor would I have had the freedom I then enjoyed to write exactly what I felt like writing instead of churning out a series of no doubt lucrative crowd-pleasing Altered Carbon copies.

PK: Until Black Man came along, Market Forces seemed to be the most overtly philosophical of your books. As well as its seething anti-capitalist vision, it seems to introduce the most savage of your settings - one where unfettered ruthlessness is required to survive.

Was this the dawn of the virilicide concept which you later explored in Black Man?  This is the very definition of a “chicken or egg” question, but when DID that theory crystallise? Is it something you now look back and find in your early work, or something you intended from the start?

RM: The Virilicide was a concept spawned during the writing of Black Man, and intended specifically for that context; but it grew out of something I’d been noticing for quite a few years, which was how profoundly ill-suited your basic male mindset is to peaceful modernity. You can see it in the way girls are overtaking boys in academic achievement in schools, the way hyper-masculinity disfigures immigrant communities and social classes with poor levels of education or social success, the way fundamentalist strains of the great patriarchal religions are steadily gaining ground, the way low-status males have of going off with a bang, killing themselves and sometimes, tragically, large numbers of those around them....

All these things seem to have in common a (male) mindset which just cannot - or is perhaps simply not prepared to make the effort to - deal with the sophistication, complexity and soft power dynamics of the modern world. Disadvantaged females seem generally to have a - reasonable and intelligent - inclination towards educating or organising themselves out of that disadvantage; disadvantaged males, on the other hand, just seem to want to kill and smash stuff, often including themselves.

I simply extrapolated the trend, and assumed that as modernity continued to accelerate and increase that pressure for sophistication, nuance and higher education in life, so you’d see a massive spike in the amount violence done by uneducated, unsophisticated males to both themselves and those around them as they continued to fail and flop in the net. And while I wouldn’t say that this is something I find in my earlier work per se, I suppose I have always leaned towards exploring the tensions and limits of maleness in my heroes, so there is certainly some long-running thematic resonance, yes.  

PK: Any chance of a sequel to - or anything written in the same world as - Market Forces or was it always meant to be a standalone?

RM: Always a standalone - everything I had to say on that particular subject, I said in the one book. In part that’s because Market Forces was always far more of a deliberate allegory than any of my other work. It was my shot at making a dystopian statement along the lines of Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. And books like that aren’t really admitting of any kind of sequel.

PK: As well as your books (and a video game), you’ve written two comic book miniseries around the Black Widow. This being in the ancient days before Scarlett Johansson and Iron Man 2, Ms. Romanov was a bit of a B-Lister at the time. Why’d you choose her?

RM: She was the first character Marvel (in the shape of kick ass editor Jenny Lee) pitched to me, and it was love at first sight. A refugee from the crumbling wreckage of a defunct Soviet Union, living as a sell-out in the capitalist west; a woman in a world of men (at the meta-narrative level of American Superhero comics as well in a more basic fictional sense); a stone killer, hard as nails and drop dead gorgeous into the bargain - I mean, could you ask for any richer, more dynamic material? I still love what we managed to get away with in those two graphic novels before the plug was pulled - and of course I cordially despise the business-as-usual tits-and-ass stuff that the character has been used for since.  

PK: The Black Widow was also your first central female protagonist. Was that part of the appeal of the character? Or part of the challenge? Did writing the Widow help prepare you for Archeth, in The Steel Remains?

RM: Certainly there’s an attraction in writing strong female protagonists - I’ve been a feminist all of my adult life and a lot of the rage that drives my writing is engendered (ha!) by the endemic oppression of women, so creating characters able to kick against those particular pricks is great. And that was doubly so in the arena of superhero comics which I found to have some stunningly unreconstructed attitudes to gender. But I don’t think the Widow was a special case here, or presented any special challenge - I’ve been writing tough female characters ever since Kristin Ortega in Altered Carbon and in fact it was that fact that made Jenny Lee call me for the Widow gig in the first place. So really, Archeth Indamaninarmal is just the latest in a long line of take-no-shit women I’ve tried to put on the page.

PK: As you show on your blog, you have a very thorough process of preparing for for each novel (down to carefully selecting the writing soundtrack). Is there a difference in how you go about writing for different genres? Did you need an entirely new music collection before you can start writing fantasy?

RM: Well, I wouldn’t call it thorough! Yes, I listen to a lot of music, and I listen to it a lot while I’m writing - I find it helps to bring down the affective barriers in the conscious mind, helps you lose yourself in the story you’re telling. But I select that music for themes and dynamics rather than genre, and the truth is that thematically my fantasy hasn’t strayed very far from the rest of my writing. It’s still about love and loss, the abuse of power, the transient nature of friendship and desire, the backdrop brutality inherent in human affairs. So what serves for a climactic gun battle in Woken Furies, say, or Black Man will serve just as well for Ringil chopping up the opposition! And Gimme Shelter would be an equally appropriate theme tune for Ringil, Marsalis or Kovacs.  

PK: The Steel Remains is set up as the adventure after the adventure. Ringil, Archeth and Egar all have rich pasts that are never fully explored or explained. What drew you to write a series about established (or even “washed-up”) heroes, rather than starting from the beginning - stableboys, lost princes, apprentice wizards and the like?

Steel RemainsRM: Yeah, it was weird - quite a few people who didn’t like the book kept going on about how the flashbacks just weren’t detailed enough, we don’t see what actually happened in the war, I wasn’t telling the story right - as if they thought I’d somehow overshot my subject matter by mistake! It didn’t seem to have occurred to them that someone might actually prefer to take as their subject matter the experiences of a group of heroes after the Great War is done. But for me it was axiomatic that this was just a far more interesting place to go - by definition, the most interesting people, in fact or fiction, are those who have already lived a rich and full life, not those just starting out. Guys like Luke Skywalker leave me cold - they’ve been nowhere, done nothing, know nothing; they’re essentially a Boy’s Own wank fantasy of self-importance. Give me a grizzled, world-weary veteran any day, someone who’s already earned his stripes, paid his dues and collected the scar tissue along the way. And in fact, such characters are a staple of the noir form - how often, after all, do you get a cop or PI in crime fiction who’s just starting out, day one on the job? Noir is just not peopled by wide eyed bright young things - except maybe as cannon fodder!

PK: “A Land Fit For Heroes” can also been seen as a further exploration of virilicide. Three alpha personalities are out of sorts at peacetime, but when things kick off, they’re suddenly needed again. At the end of The Steel Remains our heroes (such as they are) are just starting to hit their stride. Will The Cold Commands see them take up the mantle of heroism? Or will they continue to be frustrated on their quest for purpose?

RM: Depends what you mean by heroes. Part of my thesis has always been that heroes are problematic, that they’re a very specific political tool for very specific political circumstances, and that under other circumstances that tool can turn in your hand and cut you up badly. It’s fair to say that Ringil, Archeth and Egar all find things to do in The Cold Commands and there will be drawn steel, desperation and bloodshed aplenty as a result - but to what extent all this can be construed as heroic is another, much vexed question, something which in fact forms a major thematic basis for the book.

PK: You’ve had some “un-fan” mail from The Steel Remains fans that feel that you “lured them” into reading something with a gay hero. Beyond the (ridiculous) politics of their belief, why do you think they felt “tricked”? Are there are certain immutable genre tropes? Sacred cows of fantasy?

The Cold CommandsRM: Well, I’d say there are certain immutable genre readers! :-) - that much seems undeniable; people who apparently have in their head a very clear-cut idea of what a fantasy novel ought and oughtn’t to be, and don’t like to see the salients shaken up. So instead of an unconstrained narrative leading you off into the wild unknown, these readers seem instead to be looking for some kind of buttoned-down guided tour of a place they’ve already been round a dozen times before. Like doing the Pyramids and the Sphinx and a cruise down the Nile every single time you go on holiday; like an episode of your favourite TV show (ninth season in) or a Big Mac and fries. You’re talking about a type of reader here who knows what they like, likes what they know, and just wants you to hit them with it again and again and again.....and again. And obviously a mindset like that is by nature likely to be very conservative, so it’s perhaps not surprising that a few of them reared up in horror when Ringil started getting it on. The curious thing is, given the obviously camp and flowery nature of the epic fantasy field in general, given the homo-eroticism inherent in all these big muscled men riding around on stallions with big swords in their fists, you really would think people should be better prepared! But then again, I think the mindset I’m talking about is pretty much solidly immune to sub-text or irony. Ho hum.  

PK: You’ve admitted in the past to sneaking a fifteen year old bottle of your favourite single malt into Altered Carbon. What are you drinking now?

RM: Less and less, actually - at 45, and newly a father, I’m finding that hard liquor in any quantity has lost a lot of its gritty appeal. That said, I’ve still got a big soft spot for my old pub standby, Jack Daniels on ice, as well as some of the pricier top shelf bourbons - Knob Creek, say, or Maker’s Mark. And more recently I’ve discovered the joys of Absolut Peppar - Swedish vodka infused with pepper - which goes down great in a shot glass at sub-zero, or in fruity cocktails where the pepper really slices across the sweetness of the juices. Fiendishly difficult to come by in the UK - but then that’s the fucking Brits, with our death-by-chocolate caramel-shot-frappe alco-pop sugar obsession, there’s every rainbow-coloured sticky-sweet variety of Absolut you care to name on the shelves over here, but can you get Peppar, can you, bollocks. Thank Christ for the internet!

PK: Thank you very much for your time - we're looking forward to The Cold Commands.


The Cold Commands, released this October, is already available for pre-order from your local bookshop. If, like us, you have acute Morganphilia, you may want to check out our rough bibliography of his works.