Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan
Pbk, Gollancz 2003
Poor Richard Morgan. He has got to be cursed with some of the worst book covers I've ever seen. Fortunately the content inside belies the terrible art decisions. This is the third Morgan book that I have read after Market Forces and Altered Carbon. Both were recommended to me by Olman and this author has proved a great find. He is extremely readable and although the plots are a bit more dense, I'd say he is like a sci-fi Stephen King or Elmore Leonard. I mean that in a positive way where the plots are fast paced and leavened with lots of snappy dialogue. Think vacation book.
Broken Angels is the second in a 'series' of 3 novels written so far featuring Takeshi Kovacs as the hero. I'm going to cheat a bit here and quote from an interview with Morgan where he describes Kovacs and the world he exists in:
OK - it’s about six hundred years from now and the human race has succeeded in colonising three dozen worlds in local interstellar space, largely thanks to the discovery of an extinct civilisation on Mars whose astrogation charts provided a nice clear map of where to go. It’s also a time when data technology has reached the level where a human personality can be digitally recorded, stored, transmitted and downloaded without too much trouble. There is no FTL travel (the colony barges all took a painfully long time to get where they were going - some, in fact, are still in flight), but it is possible to transmit data in hyperspace so close to instantaneously that the scientists are still arguing about the terminology. So that’s how most of the travel between worlds is done. You upload from a body at one end and get dumped in another one at the other. The process is called “re-sleeving“, and by extension bodies are referred to as “sleeves“.
This is also how the UN Protectorate polices its colonies from Earth - the cream (if that’s the word) of humanity’s soldiers are turned into ultra-conditioned combat personalities who can arrive in a new body on a new world and start slaughtering the locals with no more fuss than if they’d just caught a bus across town. In this, they’re a long way ahead of most people, for whom re-sleeving is usually psychologically traumatic. These specially conditioned shock troops are called, with typical political euphemism, “Envoys” and most colonial governments pray the Protectorate will never have cause to send them any. All of which keeps the interstellar peace nicely.
The digitised personality angle also allows practical immortality for those who have the wealth to afford new sleeves and the will to keep on swapping them. Aside from this privileged class, the only other people who get extensive experience of the process are criminals. Serious crime is punished by forced digitisation of personality and cold storage on disc for anything up to centuries of real time. Meanwhile, your body is sold off to the highest bidder or broken down for spare parts. When you come out, you get whatever clapped-out sleeve the penal system has to hand.
Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Well, your guide to this nightmare, fortunately, is Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-Envoy who retains all of the skills his profession has given him but none of the loyalty to his previous political masters. And like most ex-Envoys, he’s become a career criminal. Putting down a planetary revolt or stealing black software from a planetary government -all the same to Kovacs, so long as the rewards are appropriate. Not someone you want to tangle with. Anyone finding themselves between Kovacs and something he wants needs to step smartly aside while they still have the motor functions to complete the move.
Although the recurring character format is the standard in detective fiction, I was a bit apprehensive about stepping into this world again. My main reason being that it can happen that all the cool innovative things from the first book are just recycled and you end up feeling the second (or third...) in the series lacks for fresh ideas.
Definitely not so in the case of this novel. Kovacs is again the main character but he's on an entirely different planet facing entirely different situations. Altered Carbon was more of a mystery story whereas here the situation is a military/treasure hunt sort of thing. Morgan gives some more background into Kovacs motivations and where it really gets cool is in the missing Martian culture aspect.
A light problem that I had with this novel (as in previous one) is that I feel that he gets overly complicated with the plotlines towards the denoument. There are lots of things going on and you are both getting caught up in the excitement of the finale and trying to grasp the multitude of threads that are all being woven together (e.g. a sudden reappearance of a character only briefly encountered 300 pages ago). Some of Kovacs actions towards the end of the book seemed to be to be out of character as well. But these are minor quibbles. Overall, a solid and entertaining read.