Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Richard K. Morgan - Market Forces

Conflict investment is the way forward…

Richard K. Morgan came to fame with his Takeshi Kovacs novels, gritty noir science fiction stories narrated by the titular antihero, featuring mind blowing action and an acute social conscience. Market Forces, the author’s first foray away from Kovacs, is at once Morgan’s best novel and his worst. His abilities to paint tragic, flawed characters are at their all time height, and yet other elements – world building, themes, etc – are occasionally so over the top that they shatter all immersion.

Market Forces takes us to the near future, where juggernaut corporations make their money by funding wars and dictatorships. It’s a brutal place, and Morgan doesn’t hesitate to make his views on capitalism clear, but believable (or, at least, this part is). The questions of ethnicity brought up aren’t quite as black and white as you might think, and Morgan makes us carefully consider just what our duty to our fellow man is.

Morgan’s novels have always been character driven, but in the past the hardboiled protagonist’s past and inner depth would only be revealed only as it interacted with the fast paced plot. Not so here. This is wholly Chris Faulkner’s story. The plot is loose as can be, essentially detailing Chris’s internal struggle as he tries to combine working for Shorn with maintaining some shred of human decency. Surprisingly enough, the few twists that the plot develops are mostly slight, unwelcome distractions from the crushing inevitability of the main storyline.

Chris Faulkner is not, and never was, a truly good man, and perhaps that’s what makes it so easy to sympathize with him. Some comparisons to John Grisham’s The Firm could undoubtedly be made, but Faulkner shows a degree of humanity a cut above the bestselling Mitch McDeere. Perhaps a part of that is, as I’ve said, his guilt. He is not, as Mitch was, almost blameless, but tempted to betray what he stands for. No. He’s an amateur suddenly thrust into the big leagues and horrified by the brutality of what he now sees, and yet his protests are never wholly stated. It’s occasionally hard to tell if what he despises is the practice, or the efficiency with which it’s carried out. Spending our time in Chris’s head, living through his interactions with those around him – from wife to competitor – it’s impossible to not be moved. The ending is, perhaps, predictable from the first few chapters, but that only adds to the poignancy of the journey.

Morgan’s writing has always been so gritty and raw that you can’t possibly disbelieve a word of it, and it’s just so here. The novel’s hardest hitting moments all come when Morgan shows us the cruel reality of his – and our – world and doesn’t let us look away. This isn’t nice and pretty, and there are no easy solutions. One of the best scenes of the novel occurs in a slum. The Do Gooders (Vasvik, Erik) are speaking to the Corporate Tyrant (Chris), while, next door, a man beats his wife, and a child cries. The solution seems so obvious, when analyzing it like this, doesn’t it? But no, this isn’t an empty morality play. This is real. People do horrible things to each other in Morgan’s world, and the punishment is worse than the crime. The good can’t act, and those that can don’t care to.

Vasvik stared into the middle distance with no emotion than a cat.

Another shriek. A meaty thump. Chris stared around and coughed out a laugh.

“You guys are fucking hysterical, you know that. Erik, with your fucking writing, and the fucking ombudsman here. All you going to change the fucking world for the better.” Suddenly he was yelling himself. “Look at yourselves. You’re fucking paralyzed, all of you.”

Something hit the wall, big enough to be a body. Blows followed, regular, spaced. Chanting.

you cunt, like that? your cunt like that? you fucking like that cunt?

He was in motion, and it was like the Saab ride home all over again. Embodied purpose, unstoppable. He went out, along the tiny entry hall, out the front door, left along to the next door. He kicked it in. Cheap wood splintered in the frame, the door flew back. Slammed into the wall, rebounded. He kicked again and erupted into the space beyond, through the hall and into the living room.


Unfortunately, it’s the incredible strength of Morgan’s realism that makes it such a pity when his brilliance is mixed with lukewarm satire. While on one hand we have a world falling apart, on the other we have corporate executives battling each other to death on the freeways. Yes, you read that right. The same corporate people that sponsor wars and control nations pretend they’re in Mad Max. On one hand, I understand what Morgan was trying to do here. If capitalism leaves all but the elite behind, crushing the dreams and life out of everyone else, what better personification of no-safety-net, ruthless, merciless capitalism could there be than a literal duel to the death? Unfortunately, it doesn’t come off this way as one reads. When Mike Bryant rams some hopeful newcomer off the road and into oblivion, I’m not thinking about the cruelties of an amoral capitalist society. I’m thinking about Burnout Paradise, and nothing better combats gritty, horrifying realism than the mental image of a slowly spinning crashed car, played out in slow motion before the respawn.

Furthermore, the class system in Morgan’s London surpasses believability. Yes, I understand that we’re supposed to believe that the gap between poor and rich has widened, that more and more of the world’s wealth is going into fewer hands, etc. Fine. But when you’ve got 97% of your population living in The Zones (think turbo slums, complete with near-total lawlessness and an unemployment rate to shame the Great Depression), I’m no longer so sure I can agree:

It was an abrupt transition. In the financial district, street lighting was a flood of halogen, chasing out shadows from every corner. Here the street lamps were isolated sentinels spilling a scant pool of radiance at their feet every twenty meters of darkened street. In some places, they were out, lamps either fused or smashed. Elsewhere they had been destroyed more unambiguously, rendered down to jagged concrete stumps still attached to their trunks by a riot of cables and metal bands.

Poverty’s one thing, but it becomes hard to believe when the divide essentially amounts to either being a corporate demigod with personal access to the rough worth of New Zealand, or living in a closet and making six cents a decade.

Market Forces is far from a flawless novel. In terms of world building and immersion, it often falls well behind his other works. And yet, I’m unsure that I’ve ever been as emotionally affected by a novel as I was by this one. Over the course of Market Forces, I felt Chris Faulkner’s elation, and I felt his devastation. By the ending, I was shaking with emotion. Yes, the large themes occasionally fall down the stairs – but they don’t matter. Everything they could ever have done and more is conveyed through the plight of a human being as sympathetic as any you’re likely to encounter. Recommended if you want to ruin your day in the best possible way.

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