Saturday, 6 December 2003

Richard Morgan: Broken Angels (2003)

Edition: Gollancz, 2003
Review number: 1202

Richard Morgan's first novel, Altered Carbon, immediately established him as someone to watch in the science fiction genre. A year later, his second novel will have been eagerly awaited by those who enjoyed his first. In it, he picks up the story of former UN envoy Takeshi Kovacs again, some decades later; he is now involved in a brutal civil war on the planet Sanction IV.

Recovering in hospital from a wound, he is approached to take part in an illegal expedition, to form a group of mercenaries to make a raid on an archaeological site now on the front line. For Sanction IV is a rich source for the relics of a mysterious alien race, now disappeared, named Martians after the first planet where their artefacts were discovered. And the site, unknown to the major players in the war, contains an incredible prize, a still working hyperspace gateway decades ahead of human technology.

In the last decade or so, archaeology and technological relics have become frequently recurring themes in the trendiest science fiction. Dan Simmons, Iain Banks, David Brin and Alastair Reynolds are just some of the writers who have written this kind of story recently. It is an interesting development in mainstream science fiction, if hardly one without precedent (Arthur C. Clark's 2001 being an obviously closely related story, for example). Most earlier spacefarers are either humans blazing their way into a galaxy where they are technologically supreme (or morally superior), or part of a co-operative confederation of alien races. The political ideas behind these scenarios are quite clear even if they had been for many writers unconscious (the first in particular is connected to racist justifications of white American supremacy), but what the vanished aliens are trying to say is less obvious, at least to me. Certainly, one motivation for the increased popularity of the idea is some kind of nostalgia for the past, for a more cultured time; another is to deflate ideas of human superiority. It also makes creation of thriller style plots easier, artefacts providing concrete goals which are easy for the reader to grasp so that the author can put more effort into embellishing the background and emphasising the things that they want to say.

I'm not sure, however, that Morgan had much to actually say here. Altered Carbon had some new ideas in it, but Broken Angels doesn't; it could have been written by any of half a dozen current authors. That doesn't mean it's not a good science fiction novel; it's exciting and interesting, and well worth reading. It's just rather more in the tradition of Iain M. Banks than I expected as a follow up to such an original debut.

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