Richard Morgan (2008)
I’ve done a few interviews with Richard Morgan. He’s a ferociously intelligent man, and generous with his time. I don’t agree entirely with his world-view (mine is a little rosier than his, is all), but he’s a great fellow to chat with. never less than stimulating. This interview was done just as The Steel Remains was coming out, in 2008. It originally appeared in Death Ray 15.
Watch as both of us protest manfully, and somewhat pathetically, that we are not gay. No sir. Not gay at all.We are slaves to our culture above all else. Hopefully, books like those in this Land Fit For Heroes series will stop we straight men behaving like schoolboy twats about it. Eventually.
Men of Steel
Richard Morgan is the man to watch, a force in British SF to be reckoned with. He’s bold, outspoken, and his books kick arse until it hurts. Bad, ruthless and very, very dangerous, his heroes are not the kind of people you’d want too close. Now, with the Steel Remains, Morgan’s bringing his particular breed of bastard out of cyberpunk and into the fantasy genre.
Richard Morgan is riding high. He’s just snagged the Clarke Award for his novel Black Man, a near future tale of genetically altered sociopaths and prejudice. Last time I spoke to him, on a long ago day, he’d just hit the big time, his second novel Broken Angels was out, his first had been snapped up for a film script, allegedly at a net gain of a million dollars for Mr Morgan, and this at a time when a million dollars meant a million. He’s been living the dream of the writer, fully funded by his scribbling habit. We talk for some time about his life in Scotland, where he lives with his Spanish wife. He says it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, as the dream ceases to be a dream and becomes a job, still, he says, it’s a beautiful life, and that should I chance across one of those authors who moan about the pain of art, I should dish out a slap. As you may be aware, Morgan is an outspoken chap. He’s not got the rage of a Harlan Ellison, say, but he’s one of those authors whose blogs speak of a similar passion, and a similar low tolerance for bovine idiocy. His books, great blends of noir and hard ass SF, roughly grab the reader’s face and point it at uncomfortable truths. His latest, The Steel Remains, takes a sidestep from SF into fantasy. It’s the tale of three warriors, ex-heroes, who are called together one more time to save the Empire they once served. The switch from one genre to another is a risky move for most authors, but not for Morgan, and his publishers, Gollancz, are totally behind him.
“First of all, I am swimming in the right direction, because the fantasy market is bigger than the SF market,” he says. “They’re not going to say ‘Ooh, no, don’t write a book we can sell to five times as many people.’ I guess were I a successful fantasy author trying to write for the hard SF market then I might encounter resistance. One of the things that has been said is that The Steel Remains is not so much a fantasy novel by Richard Morgan, but a Richard Morgan novel set in a fantasy context. I don’t know if that is true, but it is certainly flattering. The material has changed but I have made no concession at all. I am not interested in writing in a different style, I am interested in writing in a different subject, but I write in a certain way and I am not am going to change that in order to meet a demographic.”
The Steel Remains exhibits all the hallmarks of Morgan. Hard bastards who save the day, his trademark ‘uncomfortable heroes’, are at the fore. Morgan writes what he wants to read, he says, and what he wanted to read was a fantasy that was true to itself. Violence is depicted realistically, as you’d expect, and his unflinching desire to show us how nasty life can be gives us a dark world where the actualities of feudal life are not swept under the carpet.
“I have been asked if I found it difficult to transfer my ‘noir tendency’ into fantasy. But you look at a fantasy setting, most are set in a world with rigid societies, there are guys wandering around with heavy duty weaponry on their hip… It is exactly the kind of seed bed you need for all the grimy, horrible things that happen in noir fiction. The world of The Steel Remains is far more brutal that anything I have written in the Kovacs books. In terms of just day-to-day life in a fantasy setting, it’s way beyond anything in any kind of cyberpunk universe. A William Gibson landscape is practically urbane compared to a Tolkeinesque landscape. But I’m not doing anything other than use what’s already there, what the material presents, and it began to occur to me as I was writing this that what is really going on in the genre, is that a large number of fantasy writers wilfully ignore the implications of the world they are setting their story in,” he explains.
He’s right, of course, and it winds me up too. What really irritates is the predominance of inflexible patriarchal societies which, somehow, are stuffed full of incredibly strong-willed female protagonists. I like an emancipated lady as much as the next man, but when authors set up a male dominated environment, and then make no kind of effort to tell us how the central lass manages to beat the system, is lazy writing.
“I am sure I am going to take a lot of flack for the sexuality in The Steel Remains. I don’t mean the gay thing,” (of which, more later). “But sexuality in general being front and centre, even though sexuality is front and centre in human society. Until you have reliable contraception, women are fucked, quite literally, and the idea that any other than a small handful of women could have any kind of power in that kind of feudal universe is just ludicrous, it’s far more beyond belief than any of the magical stuff. What I quite liked about Tolkien was that there were no women on the battlefield except for Eowyn, and she has to pretend to be a guy. That to me rings far truer. There’s this kind of equal opportunity meme going on in the science fiction community, and okay, we are 21st century citizens, but this gets transferred across unrealistically. I don’t think it’s the desire to be politically correct, I have seen that attack levelled at a number of writers and it’s unfair. I think the problem is, or one of the dynamics, if you like, with the soft end of the ‘fantasy product’ is that it is being written for a demographic of people who do not want to confront the hard edges of reality. They want somewhere safe and comfy that they can go off to. And I think that as long as they admit that, then I have absolutely no quarrel with them. I think it’s the same with the cosy crime fiction, you look at the websites and the people that like cosy crime just say, ‘I don’t want to read about the sort of the nasty seamy side of this that and the other’. I have no objection to any kind of literature. If people subsist off Star Wars tie-in novels, if that’s what works for them, that’s cool. But it annoys me when the same people say science fiction gets not respect in the mainstream. It’s not reasonable to expect the very pulpy, tie-in stuff that you like to be taken seriously as literature. I think that’s the disconnect. I saw the same thing in comics, the people who scream the loudest about comics not being taken seriously, if you look at what they’re reading, are you surprised? People like Marjane Satrappi, who wrote Persepolis, or Joe Sacco, who does Palestine, they’re not interested in that argument, they don’t care.
“So, if you want to read about this kind of mock feudal society where everyone is really nice to each other until the dark lord arrives, fine. I would no more criticise that than I would criticise hamburgers, but if that person then wants that to be taken seriously as meaningful literature well, no. Come on, there’s no meaningful human dynamic to it, it’s utterly unrealistic, you have to accept that. It’s not what I want to read.”
That said, even in the context of his own book, Morgan is cognisant of the limitations of the genre. He cites Peter Jackon’s The Lord of the Rings movies – he often talks about films, he’s got a cinematic imagination, it seems – as an example. That they’re epic, amazing, but if you think about them too hard, it all beings to fall apart. A good point, it always bothered me that Minas Tirith stands in the middle of a virgin prairie. Like, where are the farms? What do these guys eat?
“Yeah,” Morgan says. “I went back afterwards and reread the books. Tolkien gets round that with the worst kind of infodumping. For those who hold his memory in sacred esteem it really is very clumsy indeed, but he obviously tripped over the food issue too. I remember Mike Harrison, when he first put up a website, before he got cautious, he posted a whole stack of stuff that he’d written over the previous twenty years. In one, he’s saying, actually the whole power of Tolkien lies in this very mythic iconography, and as soon as you start asking yourself questions about how Orc regiments would be organised or whatever, you destroy the power of it.
“I think it’s worth backing up to Tolkien’s sources. What the original mythology did, was to paint, in very broad strokes, some startling human truths. I was very impressed with Beowulf as a film, because it takes all of the ambiguity that you can find in Norse mythology and reimports it. This sense that there’s another side to men who can butcher with equanamity. They aren’t likely to be nice guys, and whatever triumphs you have, you’ll get old and the cycle will turn and it will be over for you. Beowulf used this very cartoon style of filmmaking to bring in these important human truths. It stands in very stark contrast to 300, where they absolutely do not want any human truths, not even any historical truths. I have a real problem with 300, it is one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences that I have ever had, it managed to be facile and superficial at the same time as being very deeply offensive.”
Morgan’s views on heroes and heroism are at the heart of Morgan’s work. Morgan’s characters succeed because they’re very human. Not in the modern Hollywood parlance, where they doubt themselves all the time and are really decent people, and just need to be given one last job protecting a little girl to find themselves, but they’re really human in that they are a bunch of fuckers. You wouldn’t want to live next door to Morgan’s heroes, regardless of whether they save the day.
“Fiction in general, and Hollywood especially, likes its heroes but it likes them in the worst possible way, it wants to make them into ordinary men. And by definition a hero is not an ordinary man. There’s a power in the hero mythos, but there’s this terrible sense that it has been bent to fit in with our sensibilities, and we’ve got to be comfortable with our heroes. Ian McDonald and I interviewed each other at Eastercon a few years ago, and someone in the audience said ‘I can’t enjoy a plot unless there is a me shaped hole in the story’. And Ian McDonald said ‘Well, what the fuck are you reading for?’ The whole idea that you have to be able to latch onto a character, preferably the protagonist, and feel that they speak to you personally, and feel that they are the kind of person that you would like to be, it’s just… You can’t have that and at the same time have all the power of all the awful, dark violence which informs the hero mythos. When I started writing the heroes of The Steel Remains, although you’d be able to see things in them that we could respect or be impressed by, at the same time there are elements of their character that are going to be utterly, utterly unacceptable. The mistake Hollywood makes very often in believing that there is something intrinsically very nice about humanity.”
Morgan, who is a keen climber, cites Joe Simpson, the climber who is at the centre of the documentary Touching The Void, as an example of a man who possesses a hero’s drive. Cut loose by his climbing partner after an accident, he fell into a crevasse. Terribly injured, he nevertheless managed to make it back across a glacier to their camp.
“The more you watch, you realise Simpson is probably not a particularly nice guy,” says Morgan. “In his own words he’s very much a loner, very stroppy. One of the things that comes up is the guy who stays in base camp, the guy they’d sort of met, he’s saying at one point during the interview that he knew something must have gone wrong, and thought maybe they are not going to come back. He found myself wondering, if one came back, which one he wanted to come back? He realised that he wanted the other guy, Simon Yates. This guy clearly didn’t like Simpson very much, or at least found something about Simpson that was indigestible. Simpson says things like, ‘I’m the kind of guy who likes things my own way, and I don’t like it when things don’t go my way’. But he behaves in a way that makes you go, yep there’s a reason that this man dragged himself a mile and a half with a broken leg. Deeply embedded in the core of this guy, the thing that makes him able to do this incredible stuff on mountains, is also this thing that probably means he’s not the nicest person to have around. That’s the element that’s missing in fiction, the idea that by definition heroes are not comfortable people, and the more heroic they get, the less comfortable they are likely to be. This is where the comic book world is in trouble, because comic book heroism is so massively overstated. You can’t have someone who strides majestically into a room and slaughters everybody in there, and then is kind to kittens. It’s an impossible stretch, it’s one of the reasons that I don’t read much in the way of comicbooks. It is impossible to link that back to the cuddly mores that the core comic book audience seem to want. In The Steel Remains, you’ve got the steppe barbarian who is shagging 15 year olds, the gay guy who is such a fucking snob… But for me this is the meat of good characterisation, you find the little points of leverage that kind of make them other, that distance themselves from you at the same time as bringing you close.”
Reading some of Morgan’s opinion articles, you get the feeling that he is somewhat exasperated with the human race, that he regards people as locked into their own perceptions of the world. And occasionally it can look like he thinks that people are generally too dumb to know what is good for them. Despite his protestations of tolerance, he comes dangerously close to raging against them. It’s the conundrum that faces all proponents of tolerance, not just how far do you tolerate the intolerable, then how cross do you get? He’s sworn off internet catfights now, but that is not going to stop him challenging his readership: The Steel Remains, a book being published in one of the most conservative of genres, features a lead character who is openly gay. Not only that, there’s graphic gay sex in the book. This is another bold move, but we have to ask why. Is it Morgan saying again ‘This is just how it fucking is’? Not really. Lead character Ringil sprang into his mind fully formed, in a short story he wrote for the hell of it. Though it failed to sell, he wrote worked on the idea a bit, adding a couple of characters based on ideas he’d had as a teen when he’d been “reading a lot of Moorcock.”
“I just liked this idea of this seedy, down at heel guy that used to be a hero, but now he’s reduced to hanging out in this tavern, occasionally shagging the stable boys. It seemed like a fun thing to do,” he says. “As to where the inspiration to make him gay came from, I think oddly enough it was Rod Stewart! His song, ‘The Killing of Georgie’, which is about a young gay guy. He leaves where he’s from, and goes to New York, and he gets into a fight and dies as the result of what looks like to be a homophobic battering. Although it’s kind of left ambiguous as to what the fight was about. But what struck me at the time, god knows, I must have been about 12 or 14 when that song first came out, was the whole idea that this guy, Georgie is very much plugged into the New York gay thing. He’s not quietly gay. He embraces that flamboyant gay culture, as it is perceived generally. But at the same time it appears that he is a pretty good street fighter. The song says a fight starts, but not why, and he’s trying to see off six guys or something, so it seems that this guy knows how to handle himself. It’s so long ago now I honestly can’t be sure. But I think that’s one of the elements that fed into it, this guy who has all of the attributes of being stereotypically gay, but at the same time, if you push him… That’s what appealed to me.
“When I came back to idea and I started to talk to my editor about doing this book, one of the things that came apparent was, well, by making him gay you’re setting him free. By definition, he needs to be of the nobility in order to get away with doing half the things he does, because a peasant would just be taken away and executed. But I’m very realistic about these things, if you have grown up in this stratified society and you are part of the upper levels of that society, you are not going to rock the boat. You’d be very happy, especially if you come from a culture where there is no reason to see that there’s anything wrong with that. Going to back to Tolkien, Aragorn might not want to be king, but he never questions his right to be king, it just isn’t an issue. So I suddenly realise, I’ve got a very powerful lever here, because Ringil’s sexuality is the reason why he will be a malcontent, this gives me the leverage to turn him into a Kovacs type figure, which I would have not earthly hope of doing otherwise. It’s like anything else, once you start writing, if the dynamic works, then it just starts to gather force as you go with it, and it increasingly became apparent that you could define the whole character, especially Ringil’s whole character around this very bitter rejection of everything he’s grown up with, and that comes from his sexuality.”
What is especially pleasing about Ringil is that he is a tough bastard. There is a stereotypical image in modern culture of the effeminate queen, but of course, this is a fallacious cultural construct. Even more so than Georgie in Stewart’s song, Ringil is a man’s man, in more senses than the one.
“Yes, very much so, he’s gay in the Spartan sense. This is what lights his fire but, you know, so fucking what? There’s no reason why gay sexual acts can’t be tied to a far more forceful male character.”
Does he think The Steel Remains is going to set the cat among the pigeons a little bit?
“Well, you can always hope. There is an element of me I suppose that kind of rejoices at causing a fuss, it’s always nice to rub people’s faces in their failure to take something into account. I think there’s been a little bit of queasiness here and there about the gay sexuality, especially the fact that the sex scenes are very much in your face. And there’s been a certain amount of uncomfortable maneuvering to say ‘I’m very comfortable with this but I still thought that this was gratuitous’. I know at least one reviewer who has basically said that he thinks the gay sex scenes are utterly gratuitous, but this is the guy who reviewed Altered Carbon in glowing terms when it came out, despite the fact that there are sex scenes in that that are every bit as in you face and squelchy as anything I’ve done here. I would have to say I think the sex in The Steel Remains are far more pertinent to the story than the sex in Altered Carbon.
Morgan is avowedly not gay, and replies in a similar manner to which all heterosexual men, when quizzed about their bedroom preferences do. He certainly did not do any research, let’s get that clear.
“I sent it to someone who is gay, and said look, can you have a look at this for me and tell me if you don’t fall about laughing, and he came back to me and said ‘Phew! I don’t know what you want me to say but this is quite horny, a lot of people are going to want to know where this came from’. So I went, Ah, riiiiiiight’. But I am very proud, that I have managed to write a convincing gay sex scene. That is pure writer’s craft. You could argue quite convincingly that in most of the sex scenes I have put into previous books, well, this is Morgan fantasising in his fiction. But to write something that is absolutely is not my bag, but to be able to make it work for those whose bag it is so they can get off on it, I’m very, very proud to have done that.”
There’s a certain amount of nervous laughter around this topic, from both of us. When you get down to it, it’s funny the way we view sex in our culture, there’s an author here who’s written a gay character, with gay sex scenes. So what, is his intellectual stance, But he is also quite clearly a bit worried that people will think him gay. It really is a big deal, even in our fairly laid back era.
“It is less about the sex than it is about cultural assumptions,” he says. “I mean, a woman who admits she has had a same-sex relationship with another woman is risking little, if anything it gives her a certain amount of kudos, because it will be seen as cool and edgy, and it’s a standby male fantasy. For a man to do that, it is such a colossal cost, to his self-image and his image in the social context he moves. It calls into question he’s not a real man, he’s weak, he’s effeminate, it’s such a damaging thing to allow in the door, but it is a cultural thing. In ancient Greece, this just wouldn’t have been an issue.”
As Morgan said earlier, sex is such an important part of our lives, so much hangs off our sexual identity, that if you rock that or wobble it, it can be very emotionally damaging. In fact, even my comments on the issue are making me want to protest my heterosexuality (I’m not gay either, by the way. Really, I like girls).
“One reviewer did confess to me yes, this is even slightly arousing, you know. Again that made me proud. The thing I would compare it to is there’s a fantastic book by Pete Dexter called Train, and it deals with golf. I am not interested in golf at all, it bores me rigid, and I certainly can’t see why anyone would be passionately interested in it. But you read Train, and for a while I can see why someone else might be interested in it. I am hoping that this is what works in the sex scenes in The Steel Remains, it isn’t going to make you think, ‘Ooh, maybe I should go out and shag a bloke’, but it’s going to make you think ‘Uh, I can see why gay guys would get off on this’. I suppose that is what all fiction is trying to do, it’s trying to take you to a place you wouldn’t go normally and show you something and say, ‘Yeah, how do you feel about that?’” We both laugh again. It’s funny, we have lots of violence in books, and nobody assumes a writer is a murderer, but chuck a bit of gayness in there…
“It’s true,” says Morgan, “you very rarely get someone asking authors the question: ‘So, have you ever killed anybody?’”