Woken Furies is Richard Morgan‘s fourth novel, and the third in his “Takeshi Kovacs” series (following Altered Carbon and Broken Angels). (I wrote about Altered Carbon here, Broken Angels here, and about Morgan’s one non-Takeshi Kovacs novel, Market Forces, here).
Like its predecessors, Woken Furies is a combination of high-octane action/violence/thriller and science fiction. Morgan is so good at the former — machinating action with loads of unexpected twists and turns, and delivering really intense and visceral scenes of violence (“the grip on my fingers ripped the eyelid from the brow downward, scraped the eyeball and tugged it out on the optic nerve… He lost his hold on me and reeled backward, features maimed, eye hanging out and still pumping tiny spurts of blood…”) — that he’d probably be a lot more famous if he set his books, Robert Ludlum- or Tom Clancy-like, in the present. But of course it’s the science fiction aspect that really makes these novels so interesting and disturbing.
In Woken Furies, we have the staples of the earlier Kovacs novels — the technology of “sleeves,” new bodies in which your consciousness can be inserted, provided that you have preserved a physical backup of that consciousness (the “cortical stack”); the enhancement of those sleeves by all sorts of neurochemical enhancements and digital prostheses; and the special training Takeshi Kovacs has received as an Envoy (a former member of the elite UN corps that brutally suppresses rebellion and revolution anywhere in the sphere of human-inhabited planets), which makes him both superhuman and somewhat inhuman. In this volume, Kovacs returns to his home planet, Harlan’s World, and finds himself having to deal with yakuza, religious fundamentalists, out-of-control military AI killing systems, a brutal ruling class, and especially the legacy of Quellcrist Falconer, the legendary socialist-revolutionary theorist/activist whose words Kovacs had often quoted in the previous novels, but who now seems to have returned from the dead.
Kodwo Eshun has remarked on how Morgan’s novels seem to take a sort of morbid, macho pleasure — what used to be called a morose delectation — in reveling in the horrific excesses of capitalism at its most brutal and barbaric. The absolute cynicism of power, and the delight in exercising it as sadistically as possible, are constants in these novels, which simultaneously present them as inescapable and inevitable, regardless of the social arrangement, and rage against the politico-economic privilege that makes them possible. Not only Kovacs-as-narrator, but Morgan himself as well, seem to combine an utterly Hobbesian view of human nature with a Marx-like level of outrage at exploitation and oppression.
Woken Furies pushes this to almost schizophrenic levels. While the action here is not quite as all-out brutal as that of the military/corporate interventions in the hellish Broken Angels, here the drive to see the worst, and almost revel in it, is more deeply than ever before embedded in Kovacs’ character. Kovacs is consumed with loathing and self-loathing, though (as narrator) he never entirely ‘fesses up to it. Kovacs is offended beyond endurance by the exploitation, torture, and murder that are continually being inflicted on Harlan’s World (and all the other human-inhabited planets) for reasons of economic gain, or self-righteous religious dogma.Yet he clearly gets off on his own frequent opportunities to torture and kill, and scorns the politically idealistic values of the revolutionaries among whom he finds himself as either self-delusion or self-interested hypocrisy.
Woken Furies is an action-packed book, yet the action is often enough suspended for Kovacs’ rants against religious fundamentalists (one of the chief religions in the novel, the New Revelation, seems to combine all the most patriarchal and misogynistic aspects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as for dialogues/debates between Kovacs and other characters on the nature of power and the prospects for meaningful political change. Nihilistic cynicism and revolutionary “optimism of the will” dance cautiously around each other, trading insults while at the same time measuring possibilities, in a world in which bio- and informational technologies have at once extended human prospects to an almost utopian extent (the “sleeves” allow for enhanced physical well-being, enhanced mental abilities, and a life indefinitely extended in multiple bodies), and given new footholds for power (new opportunities for surveillance and control, for the extraction of surplus value, and for the opportunity to torture as well as kill).
In his new book Archaeologies of the Future (which I am currently reading, and will write about when I am done), Fredric Jameson explores the utopian impulse as it manifests itself in science fiction, working through this impulse’s multiple contradictions and impediments, and suggesting how the thrust toward radical otherness in science fiction is a way to keep the possibility of alternatives to capitalism open, precisely when we are being told endlessly that the market is everything, and that there is no alternative to the current reign of global capital. Morgan is scarcely utopian, in any sense of the word, but the very way that cynicism and rage work in Woken Furies lead to something of the same effect that Jameson finds in utopian SF texts by LeGuin and others. (And this is so precisely because Morgan is about as un-LeGuin-like an SF writer as could possibly be imagined). Though cynicism is often an alibi for acquiescence in the existing order (‘I know it sucks, but there’s no hope of anything better, so we might as well shrug our shoulders and get on with it’), the nihilist vehemence of Kovacs’ cynicism (and Morgan’s staging of it) prohibits any such resignation. And the technology of the novel’s world is just “estranging” enough (that is to say, strange in the very way it amplifies and extends what we recognize of ourselves today, so that that recognition is twisted as in a funhouse mirror) that a displacement of the deadlock of cynical power we find ourselves in today becomes just barely visible.
The novel ends, not just with Kovacs’ survival against vast odds (as was also contrived in the previous two volumes), but even with a muted sense of political and personal hope — one that also deliberately and creatively elides the traditional binary opposition between reform and revolution, between gradual change and radical rupture. (This latter seems to me to be crucially important: we need to get away both from the tepid reformism that in fact leaves structures of oppression unchanged, and the revolutionist gestures that romantically fantasize about starting over with a clean slate: both of these alternatives have proved themselves to be calamitous in the world we live in today. Neither of these all-too-familiar alternatives works to grasp the “seeds of futurity” — Deleuzian “lines of flight” or Whiteheadian “creative advance” — that exist as unactualized potentialities in the real world).
The price Morgan pays for this conclusion, however, is an almost literal deus ex machina. All three Kovacs novels are framed with the relics of the Martians, a now-extinct inhuman race (they are more like giant, intelligent, bats or raptors) whose abandoned technologies have been scavenged by human beings, and have indeed provided human beings with those very technological advances which have made the world of the novel (colonization of multiple planets, faster-than-light information transfer, cortical stacks and sleeves) possible in the first place. In all three novels, the Martian relics imply a sort of limit to capitalism, because they embody a degree of invention and creativity of which humanity — or capitalism — itself is incapable, and which it can only secondarily scavenge and appropriate. (Though the extinction of the Martians implies that their own society was far from being utopian or unproblematic either). But at the end of Woken Furies, the Martian technology is something more: its intervention from the depths of a dead and distant past, and at the same time from an incomprehensibly advanced future, provides the very sense of possibility that Morgan and his novels cannot imagine in the present: neither in the writerly present of the early 21st century, nor in the fictional present of the 25th. What are we to make of this intervention of otherness? How balance radical otherness (which cannot help seeming almost theological) and the potential, within capitalism, of altering and abolishing it from within?