Broken Angels

Broken Angels is Richard K. Morgan’s second science fiction novel, the sequel to Altered Carbon (which I wrote about here). That is to say, the two novels share a protagonist, and are set in the same universe; but they are very different sorts of books.
Where Altered Carbon was a futuristic, noirish detective novel, Broken Angels fits rather into the military/adventurer genre. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is a mercenary-for-hire, as are many of the other characters we meet. Yet who Kovacs, or anyone else, is really working for, remains unclear until the end of the book.
The high-tech concerns of the previous book — “sleeves,” or alternate bodies into which your mind can be downloaded, and the use of virtual reality for torture — are just background here, taken for granted as everyday actualities of the world(s) of the novel. Mostly, advanced technology is manufactured for, and used by, the military. We get everything from bodily implants that turn you into an unstoppable killing machine, to devices that take control of your neural system and make any thoughts of resistance impossible, to self-evolving, genocidal nanobots of amazing viciousness and efficiency.
And that’s just machinery for everyday use. The really high-tech stuff in the novel, left behind by a vanished alien civilization, is beyond the understanding of the human characters, who merely scavenge it as they can.
What we get, beyond the technology, is a glimpse into a society of unremitting brutality: a brutality that is not the least bit alien to that of our own world today. The 30-odd worlds of Morgan’s fictional universe are controlled by large corporations, who will stop at nothing to get the obedience, and the profits, that they want. The “market” is “free,” so that anything can be bought and sold — provided that the corporations don’t just kill you to get what you are trying to sell to them (after torturing you to find out what you might not be telling them). Because everything is regulated by money, backed up by force of arms, there is of course no such thing as voting, or as freedom of expression.
Beyond this, endemic warfare engulfs many of the 30-odd human-inhabited planets in Morgan’s universe. War takes place, usually, on a planetary scale, with “tactical” nukes as one of the milder weapons in everybody’s arsenal. On Sanction IV, the planet where Broken Angels is set, an ongoing war between forces loyal to the corporations and ostensible socialists has resulted in massive slaughter, large areas dosed with high levels of radioactivity, and most of the living population confined to concentration camps. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of room for free-lance mercenaries, like Takeshi Kovacs, to engage in lots of mayhem on the side. Sadism is the rule on a micro- as well as a macro-scale, and nobody is incapable of betraying the people closest to them.
What makes this harrowing vision work is the unglamorized ugliness, as well as the intimacy, of Morgan’s descriptions of violence. His fatalistic characters (few of whom survive) take such a level of murder and destruction for granted; it’s the only thing they know. The novel teeters between a generalized Hobbesian vision of the inevitable war of all against all, on the one hand, and a finely honed moral and political outrage at the machinations of power and exploitation, on the other. There’s not a shred of utopian hope in this book, no suggestion that a better world is possible; but at the same time we are never allowed to forget that all this is not just a generalized result of “the human condition”, but the very specific and carefully machinated outcome of particular institutions and power relations.
Broken Angels is plotted fairly conventionally, and in spite of everything the cynical action-hero protagonist triumphs (or at least survives and gets rid of his enemies) at the end. (There’s even the conventional big shootout in outer space for a culmination). But this predictable genre stuff doesn’t really get in the way of Morgan’s dystopian vision. Morgan pulls no punches, andBroken Angels is considerably darker and more disturbing than the “cyberpunk” fiction of the 1980s ever was. Because Morgan’s vision of corporate domination is much grimmer, and unrelieved by any glimpses of chic nihilism or countercultural hipness.

Comments are closed.