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Woken Furies (Takeshi Kovacs, #3)Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Third in this loose trilogy about the soldier/mercenary/criminal re-sleeved into a new body, this time back on his home planet, and the revolutionary politics he stumbles into.

Disappointing. I enjoyed this trilogy because the scifi future it envisions – consciousness stored on neural stacks that can be installed in successive lab-grown bodies – allowed for discussions of cognition and agency and biology, which I dig. This book, though -- *shakes head*. This is an overlong "gritty" slog, and by "gritty" you can fill in lots of artistically dead women for the purpose of making the protagonist feel bad, and repeated violent set pieces with no purpose but to be violent. Honestly, this read like the shooting script of a blockbuster I would assiduously avoid ever seeing. Blech.




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The Cold Commands (A Land Fit for Heroes, #2)The Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


So it's weird, but I don't really get fantasy-scifi. I like fantasy, and I like scifi, and I love cool genre-bendy remixy mashuppy things. So you'd think putting scifi in my fantasy would be like putting peanut butter in my chocolate, but it's actually more like putting cottage cheese in my chocolate. Just because someone on Top Chef thinks it's a good idea doesn't mean we plebes actually want to eat it, amiright?

I dunno, I've also seen this as a bit of a personal failing, a weakness of imagination, maybe. It's just, you start mixing scifi elements -- aliens and tech -- into an epic fantasy story, and it doesn't feel like a cool J.Z. Vs. Vivaldi mashup to me, it just feels discordant and sloppy and untidy.

Any recommendations on this, btw? Scifi-fantasy blending that feels organic or cool instead of weird and rule breaking?

Aaanyway, so this book. I don't actually have much to say about it, obviously. Middle book of what was marketed as epic fantasy, but what is growing subtle scifi underpinnings. It's funny, because this book is tighter and more controlled than The Steel Remains, but I actually liked Steel better. There was something raw about it, like its messiness might end in your guts spilling out on the floor. There was less of a goring thrust to this one, and more fancy swordplay, if you follow me.

But you know, I just like his stuff. Always have, suspect I mostly will.




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Broken Angels (Takeshi Kovacs, #2)Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The misplaced titles game: Broken Angels ought to be the title of some rancidly sweet early twentieth century morality tale of former prostitutes finding God in a halfway house. In reality, it’s a psychopathically violent pseudomilitary skiffy tale of humans mucking about in the remains of the long-gone Martian civilization; the entire main cast spends about two-thirds of this book dying in agony from radiation sickness, and the remaining third poking into their consciences and not liking what they find. It’s actually pretty funny in places.



Okay, sold. I liked this psychological splatterfest quite a lot. It’s perhaps the first book I’ve ever read that successfully conveyed the wonder and existential horror of finding yourself a tiny wriggling human in the remains of a civilization millions of times older and wiser and more advanced.



And the more important thing: like Altered Carbon, this is a book about people as meat. Meat that panics and fights and fucks and dies. Meat that thinks, sure, and connects, and cares. But the thinking is just nerve impulses moving fast enough to get a tiny bit meta on themselves, and the connection’s just an evolutionary necessity. This is a series whose protagonist has rewired his empathy and emotional reactions so much that he can really get at the truth of what he is: thinking meat.



And the reason I think that’s cool is that it’s fucking cool. All those people – including scientists, and it’s a surprising lot of them – who believe in an animist theory of consciousness are missing the point, I think. Because if you pin these guys down and say, “okay, but why do you really think there’s some ethereal unmeasurable thing that is us? Why isn’t it just nerve impulses?” They’ll squint at you and say, “well, there has to be. I mean, it can’t just be nerve impulses, how is that possible?”



I think a lot of animists are animists for the sensawunda. The way to be amazed at how unbelievably cool we are. And I think that’s missing the point. You think some woo-woo force field you can’t see or measure or explain or even agree on naming is cool?



I think it’s the other way around. I think the fact that our consciences and empathy and dreams are just nerve impulses is amazing. That gets my sensawunda going like nothing else ever has or probably will. I mean, existential awareness arising out of biology. How does it do that? That is the most incredible thing.



Um, anyway. Needless to say, Richard K. Morgan is not an animist. And his crunchy skiffy is all about this stuff, under the blood baths and the space horror. And I really dig that.





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Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I have a really hard time with bodyswap. I will suspend my disbelief for unicorns first, let’s put it that way. It’s just that it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking science or magic, it does not make sense. Assuming there actually was some incorporeal you that could be lifted out of your body and popped into someone else (which I don’t assume, but we’ll come back to that), if you got popped into someone else’s body, you would not be you anymore. Because the whole thing is a fallacy, and there isn’t an incorporeal you that can be moved, because you are your brain. The two are indistinguishable. Anatomy is identity. Well, the pattern of electrical currents running through that anatomy is identity, but you get my meaning. And you can’t just swap physical brains, either, because brains don’t work in isolation, and they aren’t always in charge – there’s the adrenal system and the endocrine system and let’s not even get started on the sex hormones. And all these things are part of the youness of identity, that emotional centerpoint that says this is me, and makes decisions and feels things and remembers things.* So even assuming someone could isolate that pattern of electrical currents and extract it, trying to run it on someone else’s brain would be like me trying to run my iPhone software on my Blackberry.



This book is kind of about that. It’s a far future scifi noir mystery about a criminal brought to earth and “resleeved” in another man’s body for *gestures* reasons and stuff, and then he solves crime. And the book is partly about the dislocation of that, the dysmorphia of rapid transitions, and the way the biology of the new body leaves a residue of emotion for the new occupant. Our protagonist doesn’t just pick up the body’s smoking habit, but he also has an instantaneous, literally chemical awareness of the body’s lover.



But Morgan falls short for me. He hasn’t quite thought this stuff through, though to be fair he was writing before some of the more recent work on body identity issues came out. He could have sold me this book with its twisty mystery hook if he’d sold me on the technology. But his technology is basically just running personalities in bodies like software on hardware, and I don’t think he quite gets his teeth into it. So to me, it’s just bodyswap, even though he’s come up with some cool and plausible psychological consequences. I acknowledge this would not be a problem for, um, pretty much everyone else I know. And it is a cool book.



Huh, you know, I have finally figured out why Gender Identity Disorder and Body Integrity Identity Disorder and the dysmorphias – all the ways people feel that they do not fit in their skin, that this body is not “me” – are so fascinating. It’s because they offer the single counterfactual voice to the mounting evidence that our bodies are our thinking. Even if it proves only that sometimes the brain and the endocrine system can be wired to different places on the gender spectrum, it speaks to the resilience of self. Whereas the rest of the scientific literature is a flood of data informing us that “self” is whatever the body damn well tells it to be.



I think this is what this tremendous article is getting at, if elliptically. (Seriously, read that, you will not forget it for a long time). Identity is a property of meat. But we haven’t even begun to deal with the fact that for some people, the identity that arises from meat knows the meat is the wrong gender. How the hell does it do that?



*And we are actually very bad at knowing what is us, anyway – there is increasingly overwhelming evidence that our impression of choice and volition is largely false, because the thing we think of as me is just the clueless frontman for the real thinking we have no access to.



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The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes, #1) The Steel Remains by Richard K. Morgan


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Viciously gritty fantasy with a twisted sense of humor and queer protagonists. Retired soldier-aristocrat seeks his cousin, sold into slavery, and stumbles into imperial politics and a clash of elder races.

Well, damn. I was trying to think of a pithy way to get this book across. Because really, how do you explain a book whose major thematic movement is tied to an image motif of impalement – on spikes, on swords, on cocks, on doomsday weapons? Morgan has the remarkable trick of writing gaudy, gratuitous violence, then using its gratuity to push the whole unrelenting thing a bit deeper, which makes it not gratuitous at all, except that it still is. I'm not explaining this well.

I'm being kind of scattershot here, because I'm still processing. Not as subtle a book as I'd always like, but complicated, and richly backstoried, and interesting as all hell. This is not the sort of grittiness that makes me roll my eyes, it's the kind that makes the characters inside a pretty standard epic fantasy power structure into completely fascinating people. Sign me up for the trilogy.

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