domenica 24 agosto 2008

An Interview to Richard K. Morgan


he has just finished writing his first Fantasy novel, while the third chapter of Takeshi Kovacs' cycle will be released soon in Italy. Richard K. Morgan, one of the most interesting contemporary SF authors, reveals backstage and inedited aspects of his stories.

Interview by Francesco Troccoli, all rights reserved.

Hello Richard, let’s start with a simple question: any idea on how much we still have to wait in Italy for the translation of Woken Furies? And, is that the last chapter of Takeshi Kovac’s cycle?

Well, it is certainly the last chapter of the Kovacs cycle for the moment. I really feel that I’ve used up most of the potential in the character and the scenarios, and since these books have been as much about character as anything else, I think mining the potential any further is likely to have a weakening effect. Every single series character I’ve known and loved has ended up disappearing down a spiral of diminishing returns as the endless repeat novels wear them thin, and I don’t want that to happen to Kovacs. That said, if I ever have an idea for a truly strong, truly fresh novel with Kovacs in, I’ll certainly go ahead and write it. I miss the old bastard as much as anyone.

As for the Italian version of Woken Furies, if it’s not already out by the time this interview goes to press, it won’t be too long after. I’m in fairly regular contact with my Italian translator, the genre-famous Vittorio Curtoni, and others involved in the production of the book, and my understanding is that the translation is pretty much done and polished. So – not long to wait now!

Any news about the movie from Altered Carbon?

No, none really. The option has been renewed and the film is still in development – but of course that can mean anything or nothing. Keep your fingers crossed!

I think you said last year that you should hate P. K. Dick because every time you have an idea, you discovered he had it first. Furthermore, many people say the atmospheres you create can remind his - but, frankly, I can feel Kovacs is still a very decent human being, beyond his super-powers and his cynic approach to life. Do you believe in human beings?

Do I believe in human beings? Well, to be honest I don’t really have much choice – they’re all we’ve got. For me, the frustrating thing about humanity – and this is what comes out in Kovacs’ cynicism – is the appalling sense of waste, of wasted potential in how we behave. But of course that sense of waste is an illusion; we are the way we are as humans, and part of how we are is the way we aspire far beyond our (immediate) capacity to achieve. We dream of things like justice and equality for all, and then become very disillusioned when we can’t pull them out of the hat immediately. But that’s like me aspiring to run the marathon and being disappointed when I can only do a few kilometers before I collapse. Want to run a marathon? You have to train. Want a just and egalitarian society? You have to take the long view. It takes a long time to achieve anything worthwhile, and you have to be aware of your limitations as you do it. The problem is, of course, that the only cost of slow and steady training for a marathon is time and a few aches and pains (and maybe a slight decrease in my self esteem!) The cost of slow social progress, on the other hand, is measured in very real human misery, and human misery can be a hard thing to watch. The impulse to do something quick and violent to counter it is inescapable – but of course as history shows, that impulse is totally wrong-headed, completely counter-productive in ninety percent of cases. We have to understand that before we’ll get anywhere. So yes, I believe in the potential of humans to build a better world, but I think we’ll be a while getting there, and we’ll only manage it by becoming aware of our shortcomings – and that means all of us. This is a realism that has to being inside each individual.

In this dystopic future, mind can be up- and downloaded into/from the body. A certain degree of separation between body and mind is a pillar of so called western world philosophy, beginning with Plato (who believed that “ideas” are already there in the mind of a new born) and other ancient Greek philosophers, up to the XVI century with the concept by René Descartes of the separation between RES COGITANS (mind) and RES EXTENSA (body). On the other hand, in other cultures, like the Oriental ones, body and mind are much more linked to each other as to almost represent a single entity; upon this second idea, one could argue that separating body from mind (what we do in our western culture) could be cause of serious psychic diseases. Any comment? how does your thinking deal with all this?

Ultimately, Altered Carbon and its sequels are a variant on noir fiction, and noir tends to sidestep the big philosophical issues (in their overt forms, anyway) and to focus on smaller scale practicalities. Not the broad theoretical injustice of sexual oppression in general, but the suffocating sordid squalor of a single prostitute’s room. Not the injustice of war as an overarching concept, but the brutal personal experience of a single soldier in the field. And so forth…. The characters in the Kovacs novels may occasionally brood or meditate upon the bigger picture (Kovacs himself is after all highly intelligent and articulate) but they spend most of their time grappling with small-scale specifics. Hopefully, the books bring out some of the ground level impact that a separation of mind and body implies – what do you gain, what do you lose, what is the emotional and social cost of the technology? And of course, the books do imply that there is damage involved in this process at both a personal emotional and a social level – it isn’t a “clean” technology we’re talking about here.

Is mind something divine in your opinion? / Is it “superior” to body? do you believe in God?

No, I’m an atheist materialist. Mind is no more superior to body than muscle is to fat or cats are to dogs. Each serves its purpose, has its own validity, and there is a constant interrelation of influences back and forth. Our minds are formed by the bodies they find themselves in – that much is obvious. Borne into a strong body, you’re much more likely to develop a positive attitude to physical activity. Borne into a male body you’re likely to have an overdeveloped tendency towards confrontation and violent demands. And so on. But there is also feedback from this: as we get older we are constantly making mental choices which have a major impact upon the development of our physical being as well. Shall I become a boxer or not? Shall I eat too much sugary food? And so forth. It’s helpful, I think, to see mind and body not as two separate things, but as two aspects of a single ongoing physical event – that event being your life.

When mind is downloaded into a new sleeve, one could argue something very powerful happens when real light hits the eyes of a new body once again. Does this represent a sort of re-birth? how a mind will deal with a new body? what is your idea from a philosophical / psychological point of view?

Ah well, that would be telling. Gotta read the books and see for yourselves…..!

Let’s move to the other novels. Market Forces and Black Man: two types of nearest future earth. Are they intermediate steps on a way to next Kovac’s Protectorate world?

Not really, no. They have a number of ideas in common with the Kovacs books, it’s true – corporate power run wild, the colonization of Mars, central characters who are comfortable with violence. But that’s really just an indication of the areas in fiction that fascinate me. There is no intended connection beyond that.

What is the status of Land Fit for Heroes? Having read the other books, it is hard to figure out which kind of fantasy world such an author can imagine…

Land fit for Heroes
(now retitled The Steel Remains, in the UK at least) is finished. I handed in the final draft last week, and it should be out in August of this year. I think the best way to describe it is as a low fantasy novel – set in a fairly standard high fantasy landscape but with characters and attitude which are the antithesis of what you’d usually expect to find in a standard high fantasy novel. It’s brutal, amoral, noirish and deserves a soundtrack by the Rolling Stones - Street Fighting Man, Gimme Shelter, Respectable, Sympathy for the Devil, stuff like that…….

Are you also spending time working on graphic novels?

Not at the moment, no. My run on Black Widow for Marvel wasn’t hugely successful (at least not in terms of sales) and I haven’t been invited to continue it. Can’t really blame them!!! I do have some good ideas for GNs and some kind editorial offers from various places, but right up until a couple of weeks ago I was too busy with The Steel Remains to give much thought to side projects. Now I’m done, and have a bit of downtime, well, we’ll see……

In an interview, you said: "Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a willful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses." Does this also apply to what we use to call democracy?

Well, you could see democracy, active democracy, as an antidote to that vision. But I think in most modern nations, democracy comes under constant threat from exactly the dynamics I’ve outlined there. Look at Bush in America, Berlusconi in Italy. They both fucked democracy up the arse, and the respective populations stood by and let it happen, in some cases even applauded the rape. (In the UK, Blair did something less violent but just as sleazy – more like date rape with Rohypnol, maybe). I’m very much afraid that humans seem to be hardwired for hierarchy, xenophobia and stupidity in the face of complex issues. It’s a constant struggle to beat that tendency, to fight it back with education and justice and intelligence.

Who are you favorite sf authors? other than PKD…

In fact, Dick really isn’t a favourite of mine – I mean, I have an immense amount of respect for his incredible inventiveness, but stylistically I think he’s quite limited, and of very varied quality. That’s to be expected – when a man is jacked up on amphetamines and turning out half a dozen books a year, quality control is going to be tough to do. So while I think Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said are inspirational pieces of SF, I can’t say I’d ever go back and read either of them again from choice. William Gibson’s work, on the other hand, I can go back and read time and time again because there is an intense stylistic quality to the work that rewards repeated visits. I think Gibson still remains my favourite genre writer.

Do you see differences between the way men and women write sf stories? (I am thinking of Ursula K. Le Guin for example)…

Yes, definitely. We all bring our own individual sensibilities to the work, and I think there’s no doubt that male and female sensitivities, though often interlocking, are very different. Speaking of Le Guin, The Dispossessed is one of my favourite novels in any genre, the kind of book I would love to have written myself. But I think a male version of that novel would have been very different, and quite inferior. It would have been far angrier, far more violent, and probably ultimately far more despairing. The value of The Dispossessed is exactly that it short circuits those feelings, and gives you a sense of hope despite everything. Women are generally far better than men at hope, in life and in their writing.

Any impression about non-English language sf writers? S. Lem? M. Ende? others?

Well, possibly my favourite writer in any genre is Haruki Murakami – and I think it’s safe to say his stuff could be called SF, especially his last novel Kafka on the Shore (though saying that will no doubt scandalize a great number of mainstream critics). But in general I tend not to read that much SF in translation. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s just that there is so much genre stuff out there written in English, I’m statistically very unlikely to pick up non-English writers unless they come with very high recommendation. I have read some Lem – the Pilot Pirx stories – and thought they were pretty good, but that’s really about the full extent of my experience.

I can read in your website (which by the way I think it’s great, and the coolest thing is that it’s also a blog): “Wow - how much did some people hate Black Man/Thirteen? They hated it a LOT!” - how do you deal with readers?

As respectfully as I can. For me writing is an act of (or at least an attempt at) communication. My books have things to say as well as a story to tell, and the hope is that the reader picks up at least some of that along the way. You’re trying to provoke an emotional response, but also some thought, some reflective consideration. When that works, when readers “click” with the book, it’s a great feeling. When they don’t, when a reader gets angry with something I’ve written, it’s usually for one of two reasons – either they disagree violently with what I’m saying, or they’ve missed the point. If they’ve missed the point, then that’s a great shame and I do attempt now and then, on the site or in responses to e-mails and on convention panels, to explain what I think they’ve missed, in other words to try and re-open the line of communication. But if the anger comes from a disagreement over what I’m saying, then there’s not much you can do.

what is the nicest thing a reader told you about a book you wrote? what is the worst (if any bad was said)?

One reader told me that the positive ending of Woken Furies had inspired him to fight off a long term illness he’d been suffering from – and that really moved me. Someone else told me the Kovacs books were helping him get through his divorce (which, to be honest, I found a bit alarming!) Also, I had a huge number of readers contacting me after Market Forces telling me how much the book spoke to their own nightmarish working lives inside corporate America – nice to know I hit the nail on the head there – though again I was a bit alarmed by the one who asked if I really believed that Chris Faulkner’s brutally nihilistic violence was the only option I saw for someone in that situation. Eeeek. No. Put the shotgun down…..slowly….and let’s talk this through…..

As to the worst, well, check out or – there are plenty of them! Market Forces and Black Man in particular came in for some heavy insults, largely I think because of the politics. But to be honest with you, the thing that hurts an author most is not a furious negative review – that just means you’ve succeeded, you’ve managed to get an emotional response out of that guy. No, the worst review you can have is the shrug, the “Meh….’s alright…” Because that means you’ve failed. The opposite of love isn’t hate – it’s indifference.

When and where do you write? night/day? home/holidays? drinking/smoking?

I’m incredibly disorganized, unfortunately. I tend to write whenever I feel the urge, whatever time of day or night that happens to be, or when a deadline is approaching and I really have to get the work done. The truth is I tend to work better under stress than not. You’d think at my age I would have developed a more mature approach to this, but, uhm, no….forty two years old and still doing my homework last thing on the bus into school…………

Have you got personal “counselors” (friends, wife, whoever) to whom you submit your chapters to taste reactions before getting ahead in a story or do you first get straight to the end before letting sbdy read the story?

I certainly don’t mind people reading my stuff while I’m producing it, I’m not a prima donna about that kind of thing. My wife sometimes reads over my shoulder – but she’s not really into SF or fantasy, so that doesn’t happen very often. And I’ll occasionally let a friend or industry acquaintance have a look at a couple of chapters if they’re interested and I happen to have the stuff to hand. But to be brutally honest, I’m rarely interested in what anyone else thinks about the work until it’s done. If they like it, that’s nice; if they don’t, too bad. You have to have a sense of your own vision when you write a novel, and while it doesn’t hurt to hear other opinions, you can’t afford to keep chopping and changing to please other people. I usually have a pretty good idea of where I’m going (in terms of themes and subject matter if not actual plot) and it’s not a path anyone else can walk for you.

Is it more important to finish a story or to publish it? I mean, which is the most emotional part?

First time around, it’s publication – no question. Nothing can match the thrill of getting published for the first time. It’s like losing your virginity under the very best of sexual circumstances. But after that first time, I’d say it’s the completion of the work that counts more. When you type the last words and know it’s done, you’ve said what you wanted to say – that’s a very powerful feeling indeed.

Did you ever write a novel and decide not to publish it?

No – well, in fact yes, sort of; my first ever completed novel, Ethics on the Precipice, written back in 1988-9, now no longer exists. It was just too embarrassing to look at, so I destroyed it. But to be honest I don’t think my editor would have been happy to publish it either – it really wasn’t very good. As to writing something acceptable to my publisher and holding it back – no, I wouldn’t do that. I don’t have that kind of money, or that much free time to waste!

What would you say to someone whose dream is to become a sf writer?

Prepare yourself for a long, hard and lonely road. Make sure this is really what you want. If you’re hoping for money or fame, forget it. Your chances of making a lot of money from novel writing are next to zero – you’d be better getting a job in banking or broking. And if it’s fame, well, you’ll get more of that just from showing your tits (or whatever) on national TV. The truth is that I have been incredibly lucky – 80% of writers never get to give up their day-job, and even those who do can find themselves struggling to make a decent living from their books. This is doubly the case in genre. Robert Sheckley, one of the finest imaginers of Golden Age SF, died a pauper, desperate for charity to pay his hospital bills. That’s an extreme case, of course, but so is the story of my success. The truth lies somewhere in between.

But if you can accept all that, and still want to write SF – then I wish you the very best of luck; and you’re going to need it.
Per visualizzare la versione in italiano cliccare il link di seguito / For the Italian translation go to:

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