Three weeks ago I finished Broken Angels, the second book in Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy. I’ve been struggling with this review ever since. Broken Angels is good noir science fiction. It is well-written. I just didn’t like it.
In some places in the book the timbers of the plot show through the flash-and-dazzle, but that is no more than a nuisance. Kovacs is a believable character in a complicated and exciting situation. The world, Sanction IV, is not well drawn at all, and that is deliberate. Sanction IV’s civil war is is just One More War on One More World. The planet’s people, its history, its culture and its future don’t matter to the people Kovacs works for, or to Kovacs himself for that matter.
On medical leave from the government-sponsored military, Kovacs is drawn into a scheme to claim an alien artifact, a starship parked in orbit around the planet. To pursue this prize, Kovacs goes AWOL, sort of, frees a local archeologist from an internment camp for dissidents, and makes a pitch to a “lean and hungry” corporation to bankroll the expedition.
As he unrolls this adventure for us, Morgan juggles a number of serious themes: corporate interests and war; academia and religion; the mind-body split; and the impact of genetic engineering. Published in 2003, Broken Angels struggles with some of the same questions Paolo Bacigalupi addressed in The Windup Girl. How do you know if your insight, your impulse, is coming from “you,” or just your programming? If you are conscious of your conditioning, can you overcome it? If you are a product of conditioning, do you really have free will?
Kovacs has two levels of conditioning; the genetic tags in the cloned body or “sleeve” that he wears, and the deeper, permanent Envoy conditioning which actually changed his consciousness (or, as Kovacs subversively refers to it, his soul). Consciousness in this universe resides as digital code in a cylinder embedded at the base of a person’s skull. This “cortical stack” can be retrieved from any piece of dead meat and installed in another “sleeve.” Where Kovacs is from, clothes do not make the man.
In an early scene in Broken Angels, Kovacs goes to a “Soul Market,” where shoppers can buy cortical stacks by the pound. There’s a war on, killing soldiers and civilians alike, and cortical stacks are piled up in huge bins, waiting for someone with enough interest or money to re-sleeve them. The stacks are tarnished and grotty, with bits of spine still clinging to them. It’s a vivid scene. Well, done, Mr Morgan! Human life is worthless! We get it.
After he reconstitutes a group of soldiers, Kovacs leads the expedition to the alien portal that opens into space, where the starship waits. This is one area where you can see the author forcing the plot. “Oh, no, someone sabotaged our salvage beacon! We’ll have to go through the portal and install a beacon on the ship manually.” Dude, it’s an alien starship! Did anyone think for two seconds that your characters weren’t going to explore it?
They do explore the ship and this part of the story is wonderful. Then they are captured by the military. The last third of the book is a prison break. One of the team is tortured to death, but off-stage, so the reader hears his screams as the rest of the team discusses escape options.
Even with glitches, Broken Angels works well as an adventure. Morgan also does a good job of imparting information that will help the reader understand things in Woken Furies, the final book of the set. In the first book Altered Carbon, I developed some sympathy for Kovacs as he tried to do a couple of tiny things to change the balance of power in a stacked-deck world. In Angels, Kovacs is the one doing the stacking. He spends most of this book fighting down his impulses toward decency. Am I wrong for wanting the decency to win, just once, just for contrast?
I’m giving the book three stars because I think that Morgan achieved his goals. The book is well done, just not to my taste. He has created a credible dystopian future, and while I can quibble about gaps and inconsistencies, for the most part it works. If you like military science fiction, cool gadgets, virtual sex and alien starships, there is a lot to enjoy in Broken Angels.