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Broken Angels

by Richard Morgan

(Gollancz, £10.99, 394 pages, trade paperback, ISBN 0-575-07324-1; also available in hardback priced £17.99; published 20 March 2003. Mass market paperback, 6.99, 490 pages, published 18 December 2003.)

If Richard Morgan's first book, Altered Carbon, grabbed your attention by the cover scanscruff of its neck then Broken Angels will lock it into a sustained Half Nelson. Takeshi Kovacs is still with us and Morgan's disturbing style is just as focused as before. However, this is slightly more thoughtful and expansive (and, dare I say it, more 'mature'?) book than the first, although just as fast-moving and intense.

Kovacs now has a 'good' job working for a mercenary corps that is being paid by the UN Protectorate to suppress a revolution on the planet Sanction IV. Recovering from the disaster that was his last mission, Kovacs is approached with information about a startling piece of newly uncovered Martian technology just waiting to be dug up in a piece of no-man's-land on Sanction IV (the 'Martians' aren't actually from Mars, but the first remains of their civilisation were detected there so the name has stuck). He takes the bait and, after rescuing the artefacts' discoverer from a concentration camp, and with hard-won sponsorship from a middle-sized corporate player, assembles and joins a team to unearth and assess the Martian artefact.

Once this band of archaeological guerrillas have arrived at the site they have a number of urgent problems to deal with, not the least of which are imminent death by radiation poisoning (following a nuclear strike on the nearest city), the presence of a saboteur on the team, an experimental colony of nanobots seething away nearby, possible attack by rival corporate-sponsored groups and, last but not least, the utterly unknown nature of the Martian artefact they're trying to recover.

Let me put it this way: Broken Angels is at its most laidback right at the beginning when Kovacs, very severely injured and chemically poisoned, is dumped onto the ice-cold floor of a hospital ship in Sanction IV orbit along with most of his badly wounded colleagues. After this, things generally get grimmer and tenser in geometric progression.

Morgan's style remains visceral: lots of blood and graphic detail with no pain or misery spared. Where his detail differs from the usual military pornography is that it focuses upon the horrific pain and damage that war, weapons and (interestingly and entirely connectedly) corporate greed causes. Yes, the future is impressive; yes, the weapons are sometimes cool; yes, the soldiers wielding them are as hard as nails; but there's no glamorisation here -- quite the opposite, in fact. The future is now but with bigger guns, space travel and holovideo. Sparkling technology and the knowledge left us by the Martians has not significantly improved the lot of anyone but the rich.

Takeshi's own business of war and killing is as good as it ever was -- not that it's any less weary, cynical and soul-destroying. The heroism and glory such a life might appear to involve are largely projected retrospectively onto it by chickenhawks who weren't there at the time and don't know what they're talking about; any genuine heroism that does arise seems inevitably, in Kovacs' eyes, to be counteracted by the pointless suffering and death of innocents.

Altered Carbon was a focused invective against the dehumanising effects of technology and the money required to afford its benefits; Broken Angels reaches further outside the personal and into the social dimensions of Morgan's 26th century, albeit mainly by widening the focus upon exactly the same problems as Altered Carbon. Comparisons with, say, Blade Runner and cyberpunk are inevitable given that both depict the future as shaped (if not quite actually run) by huge corporations with only their own profits in mind. It's obviously not a new idea in sf, but Morgan writes so well that this carefully revealed recombinant vision of a future spinning agonisingly out of control never feels like it's repeating either itself or others.

Broken Angels is another superb book by Morgan, it grips like a vise and squeezes so much cynicism, rage and action into just 394 pages. If Altered Carbon was a headstrong breakdance then Broken Angels is a demanding ballet.

Oh, and Morgan acknowledges a debt to John Pilger at the beginning, which can never, ever be a bad thing in my view.

Review by Stuart Carter

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