Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Black to the Future

In the UK, at least, we call the blending of science fiction/fantasy elements with crime/mystery fiction “future noir.” Leading exponents of this subgenre include Michael Marshall [Smith], Jon Courtney Grimwood, and Paul McAuley. In fact, I really enjoyed McAuley’s latest work, Players, which added a nice twist to the police procedural. A hunt for the killer of a girl, her body found in an Oregon forest, soon leads to the disappearance of her boyfriend (later to turn up dead in a Nevada desert) and an Internet millionaire whose fashioning of a global multi-role-playing game may have led him across the line into insanity, and also blurred the division between virtuality and reality. I am surprised that McAuley’s work isn’t more widely read.

No such concerns surround Richard Morgan, who’s now one of the leading British lights in future noir.

I first met Morgan after the publication of his mind-bending debut novel, Altered Carbon, which I added to the roster of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2002. As I wrote back then:
If Raymond Chandler had ever spent any amount of time wallowing in the cyberpunk movement of the 1980s, I’m pretty sure he could have written Altered Carbon, an absolutely stellar first novel from Richard Morgan. The only difference would have been the producer that purchased the rights; in Morgan’s case, it’s Joel Silver, the man behind The Matrix films. In Altered Carbon, mankind has become digitized, downloadable and transferable, thanks to cortical stacks implanted at birth that record your lifetime. And if you can afford it, you can live forever, uploading your consciousness via “sleeving” into fresh bodies whenever one runs out.
Morgan followed up that first audacious book with Broken Angels (2003), Market Forces (2004), and Woken Furies (2005). All of these works are striated with hard-core action and brutal violence, but they also burn bright with humanity. None, though, has been so eagerly anticipated as Black Man, released earlier this month in Britain by Gollancz and coming to U.S. bookstores in June, published by Del Rey under the title Thirteen. I was hooked after reading the publisher’s synopsis of this novel:
One hundred years from now, and against all the odds, Earth has found a new stability; the political order has reached some sort of balance, and the new colony on Mars is growing. But the fraught years of the 21st century have left an uneasy legacy ... Genetically engineered alpha males, designed to fight the century’s wars have no wars to fight and are surplus to requirements. And a man bred and designed to fight is a dangerous man to have around in peacetime. Many of them have left for Mars, but now one has come back and killed everyone else on the shuttle he returned in. Only one man, a gen-engineered ex-soldier himself, can hunt him down--and so begins a frenetic manhunt and a battle [for] survival. And a search for the truth about what was really done with the world’s last soldiers. BLACK MAN is an unstoppable SF thriller but it is also a novel about prejudice, about the ramifications of playing with our genetic blueprint. It is about our capacity for violence but more worrying, our capacity for deceit and corruption.
Writing at his Web site, Morgan remarks of Black Man: “I think it’s safe to say I gouged more out of myself to write this novel than anything else I’ve worked on so far.” (He follows that with an excerpt that gives a good flavor of the full novel.)

Being a big fan of Morgan’s fiction, and after having shared beers with him at various events over the years, I felt free to ring him up recently and chat a bit about his new dystopian noir novel and what else he has been up to over the last couple of years.

Ali Karim: How did your British publishers take to the title of your latest book?

Richard Morgan: Fine, absolutely copacetic. In fact, it was partly my editor’s idea--or, at least, he encouraged me in the choice, when we were discussing alternatives to my ... rather uninspired working title. He then went away and briefed an absolutely kick-ass cover for the book before I’d written more than the first few chapters. Which put me under a certain amount of unlooked-for performance pressure, actually. [Laughs]

AK: And what about your American publishers?

RM: Um, less fine. ... They were very uneasy about the title from the beginning, and in the end I told them it was fine to change it if it was going to make them that nervous. I really wasn’t that bothered one way or the other; Thirteen is a pretty solid thematic summary of the book in its own way, and Black Man wasn’t in any case the original title I had in mind--though I do think it’s very powerful in a way that Thirteen maybe isn’t. In more general terms, I think it’s a shame Del Rey have to worry that the title of a novel alone will spark an instant negative response, rather than trust that people will read the book and then judge; but then again, they’re at the sharp end, culturally, and I’m not, so it seems reasonable to be guided by their sense of things. In Europe, the titles of my books are very rarely a direct translation of the original English, and I don’t get upset about that, so it seems a little churlish to start throwing fits about this. The content of Black Man hasn’t changed from one edition to the other, and obviously that’s what counts.

AK: I see that Black Man has just hit the top 20 hardcovers in the UK, so what’s more important to you now--critical appreciation from your peers (such as winning the Philip K. Dick Award, which you did with Altered Carbon) or commercial success in terms of book sales?

RM: I didn’t know that--thanks for the heads up. [He lets loose with a long, unmoderated Roger Daltryesque scream of delight.] Ahem. Anyway, as far as critical versus commercial success is concerned, I think the honest answer is fairly obvious. You can’t eat acclaim. But you know that’s not as purely mercenary as it sounds. Thing is, high-volume sales pay the bills, and that liberates you to go on writing what you want rather than what you--and your publisher--think you might be able to sell and make a living from. And I’m old fashioned enough to believe that you get the best out of an author when they’re writing from the heart, not the wallet. I have never had a bestseller in the pure sense of the word, but the film options I’ve sold have enabled me to take risks with my fiction that would have been a lot harder to live with if I’d not been financially secure. Success, coupled with a due degree of humility and modest living, is a great facilitator of honest art.

AK: I know you like noirish crime fiction. Can you tell us which books and/or writers appeal to you from this subgenre?

RM: There’s a kind of trinity here--I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Block (primarily for his Matt Scudder series), James Lee Burke, and James Ellroy, all of whom are very hard-boiled but take very different approaches to how they render that ethos. Burke is passionate and naturalistic, all warm blood and brilliant colors and flowing lyrical prose. Block is more grave and workmanlike, and, in contrast to Burke’s beautifully rendered Louisiana and Montana landscapes, primarily urban--you can almost feel the stale air from the subway and the city street concrete under your feet in the Scudder stories. And Ellroy just writes like a maniac with five minutes to live--his prose is the most stripped and awesome thing I’ve ever seen done with the English language. Nothing else like him in the genre.

To that rather exclusive list, I’d also now have to add Pete Dexter, for his novels Train, The Paperboy, and Brotherly Love--I only discovered Dexter very recently, and he’s a real find. His prose tilts towards the lyrical end of the scale, but where someone like Burke tends to overwhelm you with the sensuous power of their imagery, Dexter is understated and severe. His novels are short and to the point, and the writing cuts like a knife. I’ve rarely seen anyone, in or out of crime writing, deploy such superb prose or such stark efficiency in storytelling.

AK: Are your readers primarily science-fiction types, or is there much crossover from the world of crime and mystery fiction?

RM: It’s hard to tell, it’s not something I really ask people. Certainly I’ve had fan mail [from] and conversations with people who read crime fiction ... but then I’ve also had mail from people who cite their common reading material as Philip Roth and John Updike, and who also like what I do. So who knows? Thing is, I don’t consciously see myself as writing into a genre. I write what I want to read, and though clearly these books are SF--they use an SF sensibility, and the machine that sells them is genre-based – I like the ‘future noir’ label, because I think it nails the human element that’s at the heart of how I write. I like technology as much as the next open-headed individual, but what really fascinates me is the way humans behave in relation to that technology--or perhaps more importantly the way they misbehave. The technology or the future geopolitical shifts fuel the plot, but in the end it’s the human dynamic that counts--if you’re not telling a human story, then what’s the point of writing?

AK: It’s been a while since we last saw you in print with Woken Furies. So, other than writing Black Man, what have you been doing over the last couple of years?

RM: Well, in personal terms the last two years have been pretty grim. I lost my mother to a stroke in early 2006, there’s been some other illness in the family, and all told I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time in hospitals, feeling like shit. But also, the new book, Black Man, has been a long time in coming to fruition--there was a huge amount of material to synthesize, and that took longer than I’d expected.

AK: I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.

RK: Thank you.

AK: In addition to preparing Black Man, you’ve also done so work for Marvel Comics, writing two six-issue miniseries featuring fictional super spy Black Widow. How did you get that gig?

RM: In the nicest way possible--I was invited in. A Marvel editor, Jenny Lee, had read my first novel, Altered Carbon, and liked the strength and diversity in the female characters. So she pitched me the Black Widow as a character, and I fell in love with it instantly.

AK: Are you a longtime comics reader? And if so, are you in the Marvel camp or DC?

RM: I’ve never been what you’d call a comics fan, no. I never bought the monthlies, either as a kid or an adult. But I have always had on my shelves a few sterling examples of the graphic novel form: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, some of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, stuff like that. More recently, I’ve become an avid fan of [Brian] Azarello and [Eduardo] Risso’s 100 Bullets, Mike Carey’s Lucifer, and of course pretty much anything by the great Alan Moore.

Looking at that list, I guess the Marvel or DC question sort of answers itself, right?

AK: Will you continue with this comics work?

RM: The comic-book thing is certainly on hold at the moment, but that’s logistics rather than personal preference. I’ve got some nice ideas, and some sympathetic ears at Marvel and Vertigo/DC, and in fact my own U.S. [book] publishers, Del Rey, have talked about me doing a graphic novel for them--but right now I want to focus on getting my next novel up and running. My genetic wiring is pretty classically male, in that I have a hard time concentrating on more than one thing at any given moment, so sidelines like the Black Widow tend to slow me down badly elsewhere.

Also, I think the Black Widow experience has made me realize I’m probably not cut out for mainstream Marvel/DC properties--Black Widow: Homecoming was very well reviewed, and I certainly enjoyed doing it, but as far as mass appeal goes ... well, there wasn’t any! The series didn’t sell very well, and it seems the overt politics and ambivalent attitudes to heroism, sex, and violence weren’t that happily received by the core comic-book readership. And those elements are integral to the way I write. Let’s put it this way--Spider-Man 2 and Sin City count among my worst-ever movies, and both were box-office smash hits, as well as sending the comic-book readership into ecstasies. Now, that’s a serious mismatch of target market and writer. And companies like Marvel and DC are in business to sell product to that market, not stroke the egos of difficult and unpopular auteurs. So while I’d love to write a third Black Widow--have the sketched plot lines, in fact--there’s no reason on earth why Marvel would pay me to do it. I think any future comic-book work I do is likely to be strictly marginal, own-character stuff.

AK: Going back to the subject of Black Man--can you tell us where the idea came from?

RM: That’s a tough one. More than anything else I’ve written, Black Man had no single starting point. It came together out of a whole stew of ideas and influences; stuff I’d been reading on future genetic science, other stuff I’d been reading on gender issues, a trip to the Peruvian altiplano, the state of contemporary U.S. politics, the rise of Islam and its influence on the modern world (and vice-versa, of course), nanotechnology, an enduring love for the city of San Francisco, and a new love affair with the city of New York, my time spent living and working in Istanbul ... I just picked an entry point and started writing.

AK: So far, antihero Takeshi Kovacs (introduced in Altered Carbon) has appeared in three of your books, so why turn now to writing a standalone?

RM: Well, I have a horror of becoming a series-character writer. All due respect to those who do it well, but every single long-running character-based series I’ve ever read and loved ends up becoming stale and repetitive. The character inevitably turns into a set of known reflexes and cameos, whether that be a penchant for icy one-liners or an innate facility with Italian cooking. Pretty soon, what you end up with is a routine, a situation where each new outing for the character is just a photocopy of a previous book with a few names and details shifted around. There was no way I was going to let that happen to Takeshi; I’d worked too hard to make each Kovacs novel different from the last. So I baled out while the format was still fresh.

On top of that, the subject matter of Black Man is such that I couldn’t really have used the Kovacs settings to deal with it anyway. In Takeshi’s world, the level of technology is such that you can sidestep problems like mortality and the prison of your own flesh. Black Man is set much closer to now, and so those issues are not yet avoidable--you have to meet them head on. In that sense, the book is much more like a contemporary crime novel in its assumptions as well as its tone.

AK: What is it about the dystopian future, as opposed to the utopian one, that appeals to you?

RM: That the former is far more likely than the latter; that we live and always have lived in a world that is closer to dystopia than utopia; and that, as long as the future contains humans, it’s likely to remain that way. Plus, to be honest, can you imagine a good thriller set in a utopia? It’d only be two pages long; a crime is committed--and then the kindly, super-equipped, and all knowing security services arrive, solve the problem of the tiny aberrational crack in our otherwise perfect world, and all is well again. Fade out to a happy ending. (Hmm, sounds a bit like an episode of CSI, doesn’t it ...) I mean, who’d want to read (or watch) something like that?

AK: What’s happening with the film version of Altered Carbon?

RM: Good question. All I know is that Warner Bros. continue to renew the option, and that everyone I hear from in the film world continues to be hugely enthusiastic about the project. Make of that what you will. Personally, I try not to obsess about it too much. Of course, it’d be great to see Altered Carbon make it to the screen, but in the meantime the option has enabled me to go full-time as a writer, and to write exactly what I want, as we discussed above. So I’m not complaining.

AK: With Black Man finally reaching bookstores, can you tell us what you’re working on next?

RM: Yeah, I’m off to write a fantasy novel. I’ve been talking a good fight for some time now about how it ought to be possible to import a noirish sensibility into a sword-and-sorcery world, and my publishers both [in the United States] and in the UK have been kind enough to (quite literally) buy into the idea. So now I have a three-book deal in fantasy, and a set of ongoing deals in future noir, with a rough plan to alternate the two. At times it’s a little confusing, but like I said before (or at least implied, I think) you’ve got to stay fresh. Otherwise, you’re not a writer anymore, you’re just a word whore. And who--huge financial benefits aside--would want to be that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ali, you never disappoint. This is a great interview. Very informative.