An interview with Richard Morgan
Conducted by John Berlyne
London, 17th January 2002

Feature Book: Altered Carbon

Warning: Contains Spoilers - we don't usually include spoilers in interviews, and we even try to keep them out of reviews, but John and Richard were having so much fun talking about the thinking behind the character motivation that they let a few cats out of the bag. We've marked that part for you, and even if you read it, I don't think it would hurt the book, but be warned. - Ern

SFRevu: Richard, Altered Carbon is a first novel - is it your first published novel or have you been at this for quite a while?

Richard Morgan: It's my first published novel. When I graduated (which was a long time ago - 87?) I spent the year after that in London and I wrote a future noir novel then, which was called Ethics on the Precipice. Very violent, very headlong and actually not that well written to be honest! I pushed it for about two years, though meanwhile I was off in Turkey teaching, so it wasn't ideal! I finally gave up because it just wasn't going anywhere. Then I wrote short stuff that didn't have any success either. I submitted it to everybody and got it back with "Hmmm. Get back to us when you've developed!" - which was fair enough as I was what? Twenty-one. I certainly wasn't ready to be writing anything that had any depth. Then all through my mid twenties I was writing short stuff but because it was all very much ideas based, I wasn't very market oriented, and that was the problem. So, I was sending stuff off to Omni, Interzone, Amazing Stories etc, and getting lots of nice feedback from the sub-editors there, but not really hitting what they wanted

SFR: But you must have been clearly aware of the market to be targeting those kinds of publications.

RM: Yeah, but the thing I hadn't realized was there's not a great market for short stories anymore. It's probably harder to write and place two or three really good short stories in the field than it is to place a good novel. It's not like it was back in the sixties when there was a huge market for short SF. A couple of them were Kovacs [the protagonist in Altered Carbon,] so that's where he came from. I also wasted about two years in London writing and developing a screenplay which went nowhere because of the ambivalence of the characters. I had already started on Altered Carbon by this time. I had about four or five chapters and some rough ideas. Kovacs got transplanted into that and then I wrote it from'95 to about '98.

SFR: Were the previous Kovacs stories set in this environment [of Altered Carbon]?

RM: Yes and no! It wasn't as well fleshed out because obviously I hadn't thought about it as much - but the second novel, the sequel to Altered Carbon, is actually based on a short story that I wrote. One of the reasons it probably got turned down as a short is because there was far too much compacted into that format and it didn't explain itself well because it needed the space. The guy at Omni (Robert Kilheffer, I think, really, really nice guy) kept writing back saying "Yeah, you need to untangle your narrative," and the problem was I was trying to compact a novel into about 5000 words. It can't be done!

SFR: So was Altered Carbon picked up quite quickly once it was submitted?

RM: No. I pushed it all over the place - on both sides of the Atlantic. I was in Spain at the time and that's not an easy place to do things from that require post. The Spanish post is not that great! So, it went off to America and then never came back. It went off a second time and it came back in bits. I sent it to various people and again, they were nice but nobody picked it up and then I sat down and thought, well, there is a reason for this. So I spent the whole of the summer of '98 revising it, just cutting, cutting, cutting.

SFR: Did you have be quite ruthless?

RM: With myself, yes. "That's self-indulgent - take it out!" It was a very healthy experience realizing that, well, you want other people to read this. It's not just you. Very kind of "Rites of Passage!" After that, I went back to my agent, Carolyn Whittaker, who had turned me down nicely before and said "Hey, look! I've got this," and she said, "I'm sorry, I've got lots of work on. I don't have time to look at anything a second time." I sent it to Virgin, and got a very enthusiastic response, but they had just frozen their imprint at the time. It was just at the time when Virgin SF wasn't making them any money. The guy there wrote me this fantastic letter saying, "If we unfreeze, I'll get back to you. Meantime, try and place it with someone else. I think this really deserves to be published!" So, of course, I photocopied that and fired it out to other people and Carolyn was among those, and she picked it up and on the strength of that, had a second look and I had a contract with Orion less than six months later!

SFR: In terms of the substance of the novel, how would you describe it in a sentence?

RM: Future Noir. It's not a sentence as there's no verb in there!

SFR: A number of things struck me about the book. Not the least of which is that it is pretty violent stuff. Was this dictated to you by the setting you've created or was it just something you wanted to put in there anyway?

"I'm a firm believer in that if you're going to have violence, it's got to be Tarrantino type violence rather than A-Team violence! The violence has to repel."

RM: If I had to define what the book is about, rather than the story it tells, it is about power and the corruption of power. It's about the way power works in many different ways. What kinds of power people have, how they deploy it and so forth. And unfortunately, power implies violence. There's always violence behind any kind of power. So, inevitably, since it's about life, death, conscience, people being made to do things they don't want to and so forth, the violence had to be there. And I'm a firm believer in that if you're going to have violence, it's got to be Tarrantino type violence rather than A-Team violence! The violence has to repel. I don't like the kind of violence that people read and then go "Yeah!!" It has to be violence that although you might go along with it and think, "Well, he's got this coming" or whatever, behind that has to be "Oh, God. That's pretty unpleasant, really!" So, it wasn't difficult to make Kovacs a violent man, but it was difficult to make him a realistically violent man.

SFR: Can you define what an "Envoy" is for us?

RM: Well, they're basically work in two ways. You can send them to fight as soldiers, or you can send them to do diplomatic stuff. The point is that it doesn't really matter, because the way they've been trained or rather unpicked and reassembled mentally, they're just very good at dealing with things. What has been removed is all the things that human beings think about before they deal with things - like should I really do this? Or what about the other side of the equation? That's not part of what they do. You send them and they do it. Before I went to university, I worked on the loading bay of a department store and I knew a guy who used to be in the navy who was telling me about the Commandoes. The thing about them, he said, is that just do as they're told. You point them at something and say, "Kill that," and they do. That's it. And so I thought, yes, this is what I want. They're soldiers and essentially, if you are a soldier, you do what you're told. You kill people and you blow things up - that's what you're job is. The Envoys are a bit more sophisticated. They way they kill people and blow things up is often much more subtle than just landing and machine-gunning everybody. But essentially it is the same thing. They'll go and do whatever needs doing to get the situation back to what The Protectorate wants. One of the things that that comes up in the second [forthcoming] book is he's [Kovacs] saying the way the Envoys are sold to the peoples of The Protectorate are that they are these big, bad marine motherfuckers who will come and do you over. The truth is that they're actually less violent than that and much more scary because they'll come and they'll go and you won't even know they've been there. Two people will have died mysteriously, but we'll have got the result we want. If we can't get the result we want like that, then we'll come in force and then you'll really know about it.

SFR: Is Kovacs disillusioned with this set-up?

RM: Well, the thing about the Envoys is that they're great while they're being Envoys but if they step out of it, they're just too dangerous to have around. So, they can't get credit, they can't get decent jobs. They're not allowed near the machinery of power because they're far too dangerous. So the only path they have is criminality and they're very good at it because criminality involves a lot of the same sociopath ideas - don't worry about the consequences, just do what you've have to do. So they're very successful as criminals, and that's where most of them end up. Kovacs ends up in criminality and it's easier than being an Envoy. He's burnt out really. He's not the hero that he sometimes paints himself. I think the idea of him being a criminal is relaxing for him. Easier to do.

SFR: I was really intrigued by the central concept of Altered Carbon. I suppose the idea of people downloading their personalities is in itself, not entirely original, but you delve deeply into the ethical considerations of this. Rich folks "resleeving" themselves into clones of their bodies. Poor folks putting themselves "on stack" and renting out their bodies etc.

"Buddhists will tell you that you're suffering because of something you did in a previous life...that's not cool, because I can't remember doing this!"

RM: The seed idea of this was indeed an ethical one rather than an SF one. I was having this huge head-to-head with this Buddhist (and I have to say here that I rate Buddhism higher than most other religions) but you're faced with this basic problem, and that is that people suffer. Christians and Muslims will tell you all sorts of shit about why that is, but Buddhists will tell you that you're suffering because of something you did in a previous life. And you think, Ok, well that's fair. That's cool. And then you think, well, no, that's not cool, because I can't remember doing this! And if I don't remember doing it, I didn't do it, essentially. Ok, spiritually maybe I did, but I don't know that - and so the whole argument pivoted around that. If I don't remember it, I didn't do it, I'm afraid! 

[SPOILER] I don't know if this should go in the interview because it will spoil the ending, but the obviously the point being that what Bancroft does, he basically judges and executes himself and the new Bancroft hasn't committed the crime and so in a sense he can morally justify what he's done. "The man who committed this crime is dead" and as his wife says, it's not fair. Because now he's guilty again as he's found out - and that was what I wanted. 

That was the nut of it. And so I though what's the technology involved in this? It's going to have to be future, and quite far future at that. And as soon as I did that I thought, yes, Kovacs. He was there in these short stories and things and so I brought him in. He's such a blunt instrument that it's perfect. He will batter his way through these moral considerations and that leaves you with little fragments of morality lying around which you then have to think about yourself. It's like any technology. If you take transplant technology, which is a great advance, and probably will increase the sum of human happiness eventually, but then there are all the moral considerations. You get kids off the streets of Rio and kill them to get their organs. And we can start to clone organs now and we can probably clone whole human beings and harvest their organs. (Like in Spares by Michael Marshall Smith) So what appears to be a technological gift to the human race is not, it's much spikier than that. I don't think there's a stance on it. You can't ever say if it's good or bad, you can only say it's there, and let's see what happens. That's what I wanted to do in Altered Carbon, just explore all of the spikes going in all directions and see what happens. [END OF SPOILER]

SFR: To me, it seemed an entirely successful exercise in that respect. There is a wonderful scene where Kovacs encounters a character he has already "killed", yet she bares him no malice for this resleeved version does not remember being murdered.

RM: Well, she's a Zen Buddhist! Not modeled on the one I had the argument with, but modeled on the same idiocy! I think the problem with idiocy is when idiotic ideas are presented in books, they're very often the ideas of weak people and I wanted this come from a strong person. This is the way she lives her life. You wouldn't buy into this, but she does and it works for her.

SFR: But if the technology really existed, you'd have a very good argument for living your life that way.

RM: I was reading a travel book once and this guy was saying he was saying he was staying in a Buddhist monastery somewhere and the abbott would sit and talk to him in the evenings. And in this humid climate you got these mosquitoes, big ones and because this guy didn't believe in killing anything, he'd let them come and sit on his face and feed. The other guy is kind of slapping himself all over and saying "I can't believe you're doing this" and the Buddhist says "Look, by the time they've landed on me they've already bitten me. So killing them doesn't help and I don't believe I should kill things just out of pique, so what's the point?" - and I think he's absolutely right. But there's no way I'd ever behave like that! And that's a nice dynamic, as it allows you to show both sides of the argument.

SFR: The other big consideration in Altered Carbon is that of swapping bodies and what happens when you meet somebody you know, but it's not them! It's someone else just riding around in his or her body. You explore this idea with Kovacs and the female police officer he has to work with.

"...people talk about how physical things don't matter. Bullshit!"
"You can be physically attracted to people who repel you as people."

RM: This is a male/female thing and is an argument I have with a lot of women! No, not an argument, a discussion!! From my side anyway! But it's the idea of how much sex and sexuality is physical and how much of it has to do with "the person." I think there's a lot of rubbish talked about this. I think a lot of people talk about how physical things don't matter. Bullshit! They do. Everybody knows that and no one says it. You can be physically attracted to people who repel you as people. That was a nice thing to explore. She hates this guy for who he is, but at the same time, all this pheromonal stuff is there. What are you going to do about that? It's bad enough in the real world now when you deal with someone you don't like, but basically is very, very sexually attractive, but what do you do when it genuinely is a different person to the body that is walking around! It still fascinates me. It's not something I'm going to go back to in the second books, but maybe I will in book three. I don't think even in Altered Carbon we ever got to the bottom of that. Hopefully everyone who reads it, at the end has a slightly different angle on "Was that the right decision?" She goes back to her original lover. Does that make sense or has she started to fall in love a bit with Kovacs as well? And what things is she doing to justify it to herself?

SFR: Is it fun writing SF noir?

RM: Yes, it's a lot of fun. I like the intensity. Very often in SF you get a quite detached tone. A kind of very calm, cold overview. A lot of it is also in third person, which allows the author to stand back from the different characters and crime writing, even if it's not first person written, there's still a first person dynamic about it because the detective is carrying you through the story. It's a nice combination. I like what both genres give to it. SF has always been my first love. It's what I started reading as soon as I was in to adult books and is still the thing I go back to for thrills. Crime writing has got a very single-minded, sort of brutal intensity to it, which you don't often find in SF, I think. So for me, it's a great crossover.

SFR: Did you approach this then more as a crime novel rather than science fiction?

RM: More as an SF novel as it was the ideas I was interested in and how they impact. A crime book that I read early on, The Big Sleep, there are certain elements of that plot - very rich man buying the services of a slightly down-at-heel private investigator and the kind of irreverence the PI brings into his world, a world where he's used to being treated with massive respect…

SFR: … the vampy wife …

RM: Yes, that's also quite "Big Sleepy"! But I think Chandler is like an awful lot of crime writers of that generation. There's a very strong misogynistic streak in crime writing, which you've got to watch out for. I try to avoid that. I try to give the female characters much more of a share of what's going on. I don't know if I succeeded or not. You ought to feel at the end of it that Miriam Bancroft's not that bad a person, despite everything. She's done some bad things, but then so has everybody else. Kovacs at the end, who is he to be judging anyone?

SFR: These long-lived "Meth" characters, they're so old that they're bound to have done many things in their lives, and not all good.

RM: Yeah. Bancroft is a model of propriety but he's obviously capable of doing all sorts of horrible things and he has no respect for anyone who isn't a Meth - whereas Miriam Bancroft is a lot less certain of herself and her motivations and the rest of it but at the same time she's the one who says to Kovacs, "When you're this old, it's not that you don't care. It's that everything is just rushing past you and you want to grab on to something." There are almost no characters in the book that I really hate. Have you read a lot of Iain M. Banks? His SF stuff?

SFR: Yes.

RM: One of the things I love about The Culture novels is this very blithe … I think it crops up in The Player of Games where he's talking to the drone about the bad guys they're going out to waste, the game players that he's going out the beat and they're this horrific culture that we recognize is very similar to our own. Very blithely the drone is saying to him "You shouldn't feel too bad about them because to be honest, give or take a couple of ice ages, The Culture could have ended up like this and they could have ended up like us!" and he goes "Oh! Shit!" and then the drone goes "But it didn't turn out like that so not to worry. Let's go waste them!" … and that's a nice thing! To be able to accept that bad people turn out for a reason, but that they're still bad people and you've still got to deal with them. That's where my liberal sensibilities sort of run out. Sure, psychopathic killers, serial murderers, child rapists - all these people have a reason why they ended up that way. But that's not the point. Tigers have a reason why they're the way they are, but you can't have them prowling the streets of the city. So, there's an understanding and then there's a hardheaded practicality. Where they meet is where you do most of your thinking.

SFR: Is this planned as a three book series?

RM: It's not planed that way. It was actually planned as the first of "a number" of Kovacs novels. It's looking like three novels at the moment, but I've also got this tentative urge to tell a Ryker story. We only ever hear about Ryker from people who disapprove of him to a greater or lesser extent. Even Ortega (who was sleeping with him) disapproves of him. I thought it would be nice to have a story told from his point of view because he's probably a much nicer person than Kovacs. He certainly wouldn't have had the total disregard for life that Kovacs has got. He's not a soldier - he's a policeman. He might be a bit of a brutal policemen but he certainly wouldn't have walked into the clinic and just wasted everybody.

SFR: But that was Kovacs' Envoy conditioning at work. Are the Envoys totally without morality?

RM: No - they just do what's necessary and that necessity, when they're working as Envoys, comes from whatever order's they're given. If they ever start to think about it, it comes from the necessity of surviving.

SFR: So they don't have the ability to make a moral judgement?

RM: In the same way that you might look at a painting and say I like the way the color works! It's not really an issue. The morality is underlying. Kovacs does some good things or you might say there are some good things that come out of his activities. But it's very much a by-product.

SFR: Is he amoral then?

RM: To the extent that most of us are! He's got a bit of a messed up past. He's damaged by his upbringing.

SFR: He clearly has a conscience though - yet he's the same guy who goes into the clinic and blows everybody away. He also, after his investigation is over, makes a moral judgment on Bancroft.

RM: Well, he doesn't like Bancroft. He doesn't like creatures of Power. He's seen far too many of them in the past. Bancroft is another one of these despite the fact that Bancroft is plausible, pleasant and has a lot of appeal. I guess Kovacs' motivations are just not as clear as he'd like to think they are. I tried to signal that at the end of the book. We like to con ourselves that the decisions we make are based upon a rational behavioural system - it's just not true. Most of what we do is governed by genetic instinct, biological instinct, what we had for lunch that day, how we've been feeling the last few days and on top of that there's a very thin coating of rational thought which is mostly after the fact.

SFR: So in the world of this novel, there's no such thing as "objective" morality?

RM: I don't think that exists anywhere!

SFR: Not even as an Aristotelian universal?

"Absence of pain, happiness. These are the things that matter. Unfortunately you're fighting a loosing battle against an entire universe that doesn't work that way."

RM: No. I'm very much in the Iain Banks camp. Absence of pain, happiness. These are the things that matter. Unfortunately you're fighting a loosing battle against an entire universe that doesn't work that way. Aside from that, I don't see any objective morality anywhere. I think we make it all up as we go along and we're wrong about 60% of the time. This thing with Afghanistan has been very instructive with that. Where do you stand? Well, you've got to do something about people like that. You can't have people killing six or seven thousand people because they're pissed off with the political situation. But do you go and drop bombs on small Afghan children to solve that problem? What do you do? You invade without bombing, lots of people die. There is no clean path through and I still don't know what I thing about this.

SFR: Is that essentially what you want a reader of this novel to come away with?

RM: What? Uncertainty? Ha!

SFR: Well, yes. I guess that's what I mean.

RM: In the end, I want people to read it and enjoy the story. I'm a storyteller rather than a moralizer. I want people to enjoy the ride. But, if there's anything above that … I think story telling is about feelings first, but if you can get people to think as well, that's nice. That's a bonus. On a thinking level, I want everybody who reads this book to come away thinking "Shit! I can't untangle any of this!!!" because then they're in the position that people like Kovacs are in. You've got powers of life and death. You're superbly trained and designed to do all sorts of super human things - but in the end, you're still in the position of "I dunno!" Hopefully, that's the appeal. I don't have a lot of patience with the sort of Martin Riggs [Lethal Weapon] characters in Hollywood movies where he's psychotically dangerous but he's nice to small children and kittens!

SFR: Thanks Richard. Great talking to you and good luck with the book.

© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu