Stories, History, and Takeshi Kovacs

This piece on the original Star Wars contains an interesting snippet:

When it was released, it wasn’t labelled Episode IV – that tag was added for the 1981 reissue – but it did give the impression that its story was already well underway. Nodding to the Saturday morning science-fiction serials that inspired him, Lucas included a so-called “opening crawl” of introductory text which explained what went on in the previous notional episodes: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.” And from then on the film maintains the mischievous illusion that, if we’d come to the cinema a week earlier, we might have seen those Rebel spaceships striking from that hidden base. We hear that Obi-Wan Kenobi served Princess Leia’s father in something called the Clone Wars, that Darth Vader was Obi-Wan’s pupil, and that Han Solo has fallen out with a gangster named Jabba the Hutt. There are references to an “ancient religion” and an “Imperial Senate”. And, of course, there is the declaration that all of this happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”. These allusions heighten the wondrous sense that the adventure we’re watching, as amazing as it is, is just one of the many which have taken place in this particular far, far away galaxy.

Providing a deep sense of history to a story can make all the difference, and this is something JRR Tolkien obviously knew. There are scenes in The Lord of the Rings where characters come across colossal statues of long-dead kings who ruled over empires which vanished eons before. Throughout the book there remains an enormous weight of history, much of it only hinted at or – like real history – incomplete, with the connection between the past and present not fully understood or explained.

Star Wars doesn’t quite do that, but it achieves the same effect of making the audience believe that the action on the screen is part of a much larger storyline that has been running for centuries. This makes the audience invest more in the outcome than if it were taking place in isolation, as so many films are.

However, referring to previous events carries a certain risk:

…tantalising cases which are mentioned but not described in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books (“The politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant”; “Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife”). We know that the texts being cited aren’t real, but it’s intoxicating to imagine that they were.

I haven’t read the stories in question, but I am reminded of the smart-arses who produce the Cinema Sins series when they covered Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (3:07 and 16:13):

Indy makes a casual reference to an adventure that would easily have made a better movie than this one.

This was precisely my thought when I read Broken Angels Richard Morgan’s second Takeshi Kovacs novel. Readers may recall that I thought the first novel, Altered Carbon, was superb and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Alas, the follow-up doesn’t even come close.

It started well, with Kovacs recovering on a hospital ship orbiting over a planet ravaged by a war between government-hired mercenaries (of which he is one) and a brutal revolutionary. After reading Altered Carbon I was hoping the sequels would focus on military campaigns, similar to what Heinlein did so well with Starship Troopers, and when Broken Angels opened in the middle of a war I thought that’s what we’d get. But instead we end up going on an archaeological dig which takes far too long and when they find what they’re looking for Morgan’s storytelling – and even his descriptions – go rapidly downhill. In the middle of it all the hero decides to tell us about adventures past:

Envoy conditioning gives you a handle on most kinds of fear, but you’re still aware of what scares you because you feel the weight of the conditioning coming online. I’ve felt that weight every single time. In high orbit over Loyko during the Pilots’ Revolt, deploying with Randall’s vacuum commandos around Adoracion’s outer moon, and once, in the depths of interstellar space, playing a murderous game of tag with members of the Real Estate Crew around the hull of the hijacked colony barge Mivtsemdi, falling endlessly along her trajectory, light years from the nearest sun. The Mivtsemdi firefight was the worst. It still gives me the occasional nightmare.

At which point I dearly wished I could read about these rather than the convoluted tale I was wading through at the time.

There were some good moments: Takeshi Kovacs is still an awesome character, even if he engages in far too much white-knighting over a woman he doesn’t know and who hasn’t done anything to earn his obsessions. The technological aspects are good too, and most of these are retained from Altered Carbon. And there are a few scenes which stand out, not least their first encounter with one of the feared Corporations which are bankrolling the war.

It would be unfair to say that the Corporations are depicted in cartoonish fashion in Broken Angels, but the overall message is clear: corporations and governments are bad, m’kay. By the end I had gotten a little fed up of the moralistic posturing of Kovacs who has carried the worst elements of his character over from the first novel along with the best. When he fights the main villain at the end, I’m not even sure what his beef is: he sounds like a confused teenager.

But all is explained at the end when we get this note from the author:

This is a work of science fiction, but many of the books that influenced it are not. In particular, I’d like to express my deepest respect … to John Pilger for Heroes, Distant Voices and Hidden Agendas, which together provide an untiring and brutally honest indictment of the inhumanities perpetrated around the globe by those who claim to be our leaders. These writers did not invent their subject matter as I did, because they did not need to. They have seen and experienced it for themselves at first hand, and we should be listening to them.

If you’re using John Pilger’s writings as the basis for a story, it’s not going to be very good.

Nevertheless I stuck it out for the third Takeshi Kovacs novel, Woken Furies. Like the second one it started well, and then got very good as Kovacs found himself attached to a bad-ass group of mercenaries who make their living decommissioning rogue war machines out in a wasteland somewhere. I was just looking forward to another few hundred pages of these adventures when the lead female tech takes a funny turn along with the plot and Kovacs goes white-knighting for the rest of the book. Once again there are some good scenes but the story is all over the place and by the time the ending came I didn’t really care about any of it.

Richard Morgan has created a very good central character built around intriguing technology, but in attempt to make him more complex he’s added shallow traits which seem bolted on. I think he’d have been better off making Kovacs extremely one-dimensional and making everyone else more complex. This can work with bad-ass characters: look at Judge Dredd, for example. I think Morgan is a good sci-fi writer and can write some very good scenes, but his storytelling is poor. Altered Carbon was a sound enough story, but its real pull was the atmospheric descriptions and the central character. He didn’t come close to recreating the atmosphere in the follow-up novels and Kovacs alone was not enough to carry very weak and badly-paced storylines. I still enjoyed them, but I can’t help thinking that Kovacs, once established in Altered Carbon, would have been better off in the hands of a different author.

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13 thoughts on “Stories, History, and Takeshi Kovacs

  1. It’s a bit pricy but I’ll give it a look. In return, have you seen Dennis E. Taylor’s Bobiverse? Cheap and fun.

  2. I used to read a lot of SF – Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Le Guin – the classics.
    One of my all-time favourites is a slim book I never hear mentioned – ‘Who Goes Here’ by Bob Shaw. I read & re-read it in paperback, decades ago and am about to buy it on Kindle (at £1.99). I wonder how well it will hold up?

    Good if you like funny SF. Sort of Starship Troopers with a sense of humour.

  3. In front of me as I write this I have the first five novels of James S A Corey’s sci-fi series The Expanse and am eagerly awaiting the paperback (cheapskate that I am) issue of the sixth novel. It’s all rollicking sci-fi action involving the established but untrusting military powers of Earth and Mars, truculent asteroid dwellers, moons on the outer planets whose production of resources are essential to human life throughout the solar system and more that I won’t reveal here, all met by a small crew of reluctant but capable ‘fixers’ for wont of a better word. There are tough Martian marines, a spiky high official in the UN who barely trusts this crew but knows she (and us) need them and underlying events that bring both opportunity and danger. I love all of the books and while the sixth (‘Nemesis Games’) drew more criticism than enough I thought it still made a good story — and necessary to fill in character backgrounds.

    That’s the thing: an author needs a back story (especially with complex characters brought together in danger) but doesn’t need to reveal it all straight away. I think it’s all worth a read.

    On the other side of things I take Vox Day’s line that too much sci-fi is social justice crap these days. I read Becky Chamber’s ‘A long way to a small and angry planet’ and despite initially thinking it was okay in the end hated it with a passion. It’s all the thinking that today’s feeble social warriors embrace without thinking, including Ugh! No guns, ever!

  4. Lie you say an interesting character ad perhaps the TV series due (soon) will make something of him. The expanse series is ok and gets better but for a while its just crusties in space. I find the work of Peter F Hamilton and N.Asher the best out there at the moment.

  5. “look at Judge Dredd”

    One-dimensional characters can be highly effective if they exist within a one-dimensional world where nothing is more complex than them, or if their main function is to act as a window into that world. The former is most common in pulp fiction, such as “Flash Gordon” in the RKO Radio Pictures serials which were little more than a celluloid diagram of archetypes. The latter is common in video games, e.g. the hugely successful “Half Life” series in which the protagonist Gordon Freeman is never heard to speak or exhibit any personality other than that which the player chooses to give him. Judge Dredd is an example of a character who can be both, either moving the plot forward by his own actions or acting as the reader’s window into his strange future world according to whatever the writer and artist consider to be expedient at that moment.

  6. It’s all the thinking that today’s feeble social warriors embrace without thinking, including Ugh! No guns, ever!

    I’m reminded of Larry Correia’s admonition that you can put your agenda in your book all you like, just make sure it’s entertaining first. For example, James White is a dedicated pacifist, and so his Sector General novels contain no physical conflict of any kind. They’re pretty awesome medical SF drama for all that.

  7. Thanks for the sci-fi recommendations folks. Larry Correia definitely deserves a closer look, I think.

  8. Agree wrt Morgan.

    “Saturn’s children” is the sci-fi book I have enjoyed the most in recent years. Also quite liked “Accelerando”, which tracks a family through the singularity.

  9. BTW, Tim, did you ever read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”?

    No, I didn’t. I chose between Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress when looking to move beyond Starship Troopers with Heinlein, and chose Stranger. I had several goes at it but gave up about a fifth of the way through: I found it incredibly dated and the storyline boring. Is Moon better?

  10. We had a similar conversation on your “Altered Carbon” post – .

    Here’s what I said then:

    It’s different again from either of the other Heinlein books mentioned. It’s perhaps a bit closer to “Troopers”, since it’s a story about a (partly military) conflict – a colonial revolt on the Moon.

    Bits of it will seem dated – especially anything related to computers.

    Personally, I loved it so much that I took my online name from it (but obviously, you might not share my tastes).

    If you have seen (and enjoyed) the TV series “Firefly” (and/or its cinematic sequel, “Serenity”), then I think there’s a good chance that you might enjoy it.

    [Additionally, Tim Minear – the co-creator and executive producer of Firefly – wrote an adaptation of “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” which can be found with the aid of Google.]

  11. We had a similar conversation on your “Altered Carbon” post –

    Oh, I am sorry! I should have spotted that. I did appreciate the comments at the time, and I intended to go back over them in drawing up a list of books I need to read.

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