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Market Forces

by Richard Morgan

(Gollancz, £9.99, 385 pages, hardback; March 2004; ISBN 057507567. Gollancz, £6.99, 469 pages, paperback, published 31 December 2004.)

Well, now, it appears as though we have something of a change of pace for Richard Morgan, the author who tore out of nowhere just a couple of years ago with Altered Carbon and Broken Angels, two violent, spiky and intense pieces of sf. But sf hiding a righteous anger at the state of the world.

Market Forces now steps down a gear (though only from fifth to fourth), to give a more restrained vision of a future hell set, interestingly, just 60 years into the future, not the 600 of previous novels.

In this future Chris Faulkner has just snared himself a new job with investment company Shorn Associates. "Great," I hear you say, "sci-fi accountancy -- whoo-hoo!" But hold your horses, my friends. In this future the eponymous market forces have entirely won out over any kind of shared social system or goals following a catastrophic series of global economic crashes decades ago. The full implications of this eruption are still working themselves out but Chris basically lives in a world just adjacent to Margaret Thatcher's wildest dreams somewhere between Mad Max and Monopoly. The corporations really do run the world now and according to strict free market doctrine -- a doctrine so strict that the corporate boardrooms are perhaps its ultimate horrific expression, as executives literally fight to the death on the roads for promotion and contracts.

The really big contracts in Market Forces come from Conflict Investment, managing the endless fires of small guerrilla wars that spark and smoulder around the world. These are tended and given tinder by investment companies, like Shorn Associates, who make a very tidy profit from sales of the arms and equipment needed to fight any war. They carefully manage the conflicts, alternately wooing and screwing dictators, freedom fighters and butchers alike to ensure the minimum disruptive change and maximum profit from their investments. Nobody gets in their way. Nobody is allowed to get in their way.

Chris is initially something of a superstar in this world; although he has relatively few deaths listed on his CV the ones that are there more than make up for this. His arrival at Shorn is controversial since it's been some time since he made a big kill -- he can't surf on his reputation forever and (because this is a Richard Morgan novel) he -- spectacularly -- doesn't. Morgan's depictions of road battles are truly stunning -- there are just three and none of them last long but all three are virtuoso displays of action writing. I challenge you to fold the page and put the book down in the middle of one -- you simply can't do it, so sleek and penetrating are they. The rest of Market Forces reads extremely well but these are three polished little hooks waiting to snag and cut your fingers as you turn the page.

What else? Well, this isn't just some ill-thought out liberal finger-pointing warning: the rise of a world where horrors like Shorn Associates can do whatever the hell they want becomes, throughout the course of the book, to seem quite miserably possible. If the shameful Zones -- the ghetto areas where ordinary (poor) people are contained in cutthroat poverty and misery -- seem to fall a bit flat I suspect it's because we only see the extreme rich and the extreme poor. We know there must be some sort of working middle-class because we meet one or two of them but showing us only the extremes makes the world seem improbably polarised, and is perhaps the one area where Market Forces fails to convince.

Chris is an interesting anti-hero because we know for a fact that he's not all bad, and there are tantalising hints throughout that he can be saved, that there's a war going on for his soul between his colleagues at Shorn and his wife. You can't help rooting for Chris because there seems to be hope for him: you really want him to triumph, to get the contract and the conscience. This off-balance tension between interest and sympathy, disgust and repulsion for Chris is superbly done.

And the politics? There's no getting round it, this is a political sf novel. The politics isn't too overt, isn't preachy, despite the dedication at the start and short bibliography at the end, because Morgan patently doesn't have, say, Ken MacLeod's dedicated and encyclopaedic political education. But Market Forces lies somewhere between Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants and Sterling's Distraction, (between the hallucinogenic madness of one with the hyper-reality of the other -- which is which? Discuss) in a zone of engagement and deeply felt anger, a John Pilger to MacLeod's Noam Chomsky.

I'm not sure that Market Forces will make you take to the streets in protest against the iniquities of capitalism and big business if you're not already that way inclined; it isn't that kind of book. The philosophical implications of absolutely free markets taken to their logical ends should certainly give you something to think about the next time somebody in a well-tailored suit tells you they're the answer to everything. Even the thoroughly repugnant (well, certainly to me -- I have known people who would disagree) senior executives of Shorn Associates -- true yuppies-from-hell-with-guns -- eventually seem shocked when they finally glimpse where the road they've chosen is now taking them. Market Forces is a warning as to how these things can suck us in, how slippery slopes can catch out people and, through them, whole societies. But rather than wave a banner in your face, slap a pamphlet in your hand and call you "comrade", Market Forces simply nods in the direction of an unpleasant future, looks back at you and raises a questioning eyebrow.

In between a slight surplus of sex scenes, that is.

So, Richard Morgan's third book sees him branching out a little and improving a little upon what he already does so well -- which is to say no incredible surprises here, just another "Certificate 18" killer read that you'd be a fool to miss!

© Stuart Carter 2003.
Market Forces is published by Gollancz in March 2004

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