Richard Morgan is the author of six novels: the cyberpunkish Takeshi Kovacs trilogy beginning with the Philip K Dick Award-winning Altered Carbon (2002); standalone near-future satire Market Forces (2004), which won the John W Campbell Memorial Award; Black Man (2007), which won the Arthur C Clarke Award, and fantasy The Steel Remains (2008). All are notable for their engagement with masculinity, and with forms of oppression; also for being violent, action-driven thrillers. He has also written two volumes of Black Widow for Marvel Comics. Morgan was one of more than 80 writers to respond to the 2009 BSFA survey, and his responses are reproduced below.
1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?
Yes, I do. I can rattle on about noir crossover and slipstream with the best of them, but in the end, what I’m writing is quite recognizably SF (and more recently Sword and Sorcery), and pretending otherwise would just be deeply sad!
2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?
Well, take your pick – space travel, alien worlds, dystopian futures, jacked up gene engineered super-soldiers, exotic weaponry and tech … It’s all in there somewhere.
3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?
It’s funny because I don’t remember ever actually making that choice at a conscious level. I think it was simply a case of writing the kind of books I wanted to read. At the time I took my first tottering steps towards writing publishable material, I was also wedded well and truly to the SF&F genre. I just never thought to change. And to be honest, SF&F is still my first love, even now. There’s really no other type of fiction out there that gives you the same latitudes of discretion with regard to the reality you’re creating.
4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
A pervasive sense of cynicism and despair, maybe?
To be honest, I think the overall flavour of my work probably owes far more to American templates than it does British. Noir is largely a US invention (with a little focal help from the French), violent anti-heroes have had their modern testing bed in American fiction since at least the thirties, and so really has science fiction as a mass market dynamic. And what’s often forgotten these days is how dynamically subversive all of that stuff was. Currently, we have this perception of American SF as a bit staid and conformist/conservative, while the UK is the powerhouse of brutal malcontent genre work full of edgy political and cultural content. But most of us included in that stable are actually mining the rich seams of style and subject matter laid down by former practitioners on the other side of the Atlantic – guys like Sheckley, Heinlein, Bradbury, Bester, Pohl and Kornbluth, and of course the whole cyberpunk crew, who in turn owe a huge debt to old style American noir. I don’t think there’s anything specifically British in my influences that can stack up against all that.
5. Do British settings play a major role in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?
No – though British protagonists have, a couple of times. I think my problem with British settings is that I find most of the UK just too comfy to be useful as landscape. An American once said to me, on the subject of wilderness, Yeah, you guys don’t really have any of that, do you. The whole country is just like this big park owned by the Queen. A little harsh, maybe, but I know what he means. Give me the deserts of Arizona, the mountains of the north Norwegian coast, Istanbul and the Bosphorus, the Peruvian altiplano or western Australia’s coral coast; there’s an exotic appeal to these places, a drama of place even before you start to tell a story located there. And then, of course, there’s off-world, which is even better because it can be anything you want it to be. What I’m interested in exploring in my fiction is human intensity, whether that be via a dynamic plot or desperate characters or both. And I find that intense landscapes or exotic cities work best as backdrop to that kind of story-telling. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t tell an intense, dynamic tale in a British setting – many authors do, and I’ve even done it once myself – but for me the inspiration of place just doesn’t hit as often or as hard on my home turf.
6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?
In genre, William Gibson, Poul Anderson, Bob Shaw, M. John Harrison and Robert Sheckley, probably in about that order. Out of genre, the whole of the American hard-boiled crime writing tradition right back to Chandler and Hammett, but most notably Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet and American Tabloid, and James Lee Burke’s early Dave Robicheaux novels. To that you’d also have to add the influence of cinema, but that covers everything from Bladerunner to Jesus of Montreal, and it’s very hard to play favourites.
7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Not really – I’ve been lucky in both cases to get publishing houses and editors who are quite content to let me do my own thing and apply only the necessary minimum of professional oversight when the manuscript comes in. I keep hearing horror stories out of the US about massive editorial pressure to mutilate manuscripts so that they fit better into this or that template or demographic appeal, but I have to say from a personal point of view I’ve never suffered even the hint of that. Both Gollancz and Del Rey have always been behind me a hundred percent.
There was of course the briefly (internet) famous Black Man/Thirteen controversy, but what got lost in the flurry there was the fact that – though I was, and remain, somewhat bemused about the why of it – I really wasn’t bothered about changing the name; my books, after all, are often re-titled in European translation, and even the original UK name sometimes changes from the working title (Altered Carbon was originally called Download Blues, Black Man started life as Normal Parameters, and so forth…) so bitching about the US change would have seemed a little hypocritical. Thirteen was my own idea as an alternative title, and the conversations I had with my New York editor about it were very much along the same lines as the ones I had with my London editor about dumping Normal Parameters in favour of Black Man. My only real concern when my books are published is that the content should remain unadulterated, and in that, I’ve detected no measurable difference in attitude anywhere I’m published.
8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Well, yes and no. You do see some minor cultural hiccups sometimes when my work crosses the Atlantic – for instance, there were a number of comments criticising the amount of foul language used by the characters in my last novel, and these complaints were almost exclusively American in origin. The British (and Australians and Norwegians and French and Italians and just about everybody else) just took it in their stride. Ditto complaints about the explicit sex in my books, and bad reactions to the explicit political commentary in a couple of my nearer future scenarios. So it would certainly appear that, in general terms, there is within the US SF&F readership a group of people who are far more uptight and tender in their expectations than any you’d find on this side of the Atlantic. Sort of controversy virgins, I guess you could call them, going to the literary marriage bed in the expectation that it’s all going to be dewy-eyed candle-lit, air-brushed cuddles.
That said, I think my books have found a readership in the US which is very much at ease with the kind of fiction I’m writing and relates to it every bit as enthusiastically as my British readers. And it has to be said that it was the Americans who started garlanding me with awards first. I picked up the Philip K Dick and John W Campbell awards a long time before I got the Clarke. So clearly I was speaking at least as effectively to the American readership (or at least a portion thereof) as I was to anyone in the UK. And there is maybe a more whole-hearted, passionate enthusiasm in play across the Atlantic, which embraces new things in a way the rather more conservative British literati take longer to do. Maybe. Truth is, in the end, I think it doesn’t do to make too much of this cross-Atlantic cultural divide – there are, of course, substantial cultural differences between the UK and the US, and I think anyone who’s been paying attention is probably aware of them; but within both populations, there is also quite sufficient variance of taste and mindset for a writer to find his or her audience and flourish in both countries.
9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?
That’s a bit of a minefield question, to be honest. I’m extremely wary of making prescriptive templates for literature, cinema, drama, genre, what have you, not least because hard on the heels of prescriptive comes proscriptive, and after that we’re all just down to tribal fucking squabbling and beating our sad little chests for attention in our particular corner. I have an instinctive dislike of the kind of person who can turn on a dime and give you a cut-and-dried answer to questions of this sort – science fiction should do X, good fantasy is Y, literature must be Z, and so forth.
That said, the project of creating fiction requires a skill set, like any other activity, and like any other activity, you can do it better or worse. So it’s not unreasonable to lay out some broad guidelines for best practice, and I don’t believe in special dispensations for genre here. A good SF or fantasy novel must be, first and foremost, a good novel full stop. That means engaging characterization, convincing sense of milieu, compelling story – in short, the salients of any good fiction. I have no sympathy for (or, really, understanding of) the mindset that says sure, the writing style is for shit, the characters cardboard, the settings unconvincing, but hey it’s a cool concept or a good fast moving story, so who cares? To me that’s like ordering a meal and saying you don’t mind the fact the steak is burnt to a crisp, the sauce cold, and the salad unwashed, because, hey, the chips are good. I mean, come on, people.
As to what all this adds up to in terms of effect upon the reader, I quite like Kafka’s “a book must be an ice axe to break the seas frozen inside our souls”. Good fiction moves you, I think, forces you to feel something when the storm of experience and day to day existence very often dulls that ability in us, especially as we grow older. And then there’s Bradbury’s argument for “telling detail”, as specified in Faber’s speech in Fahrenheit 451: “The good writers touch life often….[books] show the pores in the face of life.” Those two quotes balance out quite nicely, I think – you’re looking for something that provokes emotional responses and engagement, but from a basis that’s anchored enough in reality to convince. Without the latter, you’re just not going to buy into the fiction enough to care, but without the former you’re not going to care enough to buy in. So, as regards genre writing, I’d say that if your imagined future or fantasy landscape and the characters that inhabit it feel real and emotionally engaging enough to care about, then you’ve done your job well.
10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction as a genre?
A preparedness to accept very poor levels of quality in fiction (as discussed above) so long as the gosh-wow factor is cranked up sufficiently high. Recently I was asked in an interview if I watched much TV and in response I cited The Wire as the finest TV drama around. This wasn’t what the interviewer was after, so he rephrased the question and asked me if I watched much SF&F TV. But the way he prefaced the remark was, I think, very telling. Of course they’re not in the same class as The Wire, he said, but have you seen the new Battlestar Galactica or Heroes?
Now my question is why isn’t there any SF&F TV drama in the same class as The Wire? There could be – look at movies like Bladerunner or Alien, novels like Geoff Ryman’s Air or Peter Watts’ Blindsight, comic-book work like Alan Moore’s From Hell or Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s not that the talent isn’t out there – it’s that the genre as a consumer demographic assigns negligible value to that talent. We would rather wallow in threadbare franchise mediocrity and clichéd visions thirty years past their sell-by date. So sure, Watts and Ryman are in print – but set their sales against those of the latest interchangeable pastel-shaded elf or magician-in-training brick or the interminable Halo/Star Wars-type franchises. There’s just no comparison. Moore, on his own admission, can’t make a living out of stuff like From Hell – he’s forced back time and again to the superhero template. There never has been another SF movie to touch Bladerunner, and the Alien franchise has degenerated, god help us, into Alien vs Predator Requiem. People would – apparently – rather watch the same old same old: Spider-man 5, Iron Man 3, Batman Again, and yet more bloody Star Trek and Star Wars. And the sci-fi channel can get away with cranking out product that HBO would blush to be associated with. To briefly paraphrase the movie Trainspotting – it’s a shite state of affairs, Tommy, and all the CGI in the world won’t make any fucking difference.
11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?
Hmm – tough one. Would depend a lot on your defining parameters. In purely demographic terms, of course, you’re talking about the re-launch of Doctor Who and the advent of Harry Potter. Both of those have unquestionably sown the seeds for a massive influx of fresh, young readers and viewers into the genre, and we should all be very grateful for that. But taking a more quality-based and adult approach, I suppose I’d prefer to cite Iain M Banks’ re-invention of space opera in his Culture novels and China Mieville’s paradigm-shifting Bas-Lag fantasy trilogy – both those sequences have been a huge tonic for the genre in terms of imaginative power and reach; in many ways you could say that they were the base building blocks for the so-called British SF&F Renaissance.