I don’t read a lot of science fiction. That isn’t to say that I don’t like sci-fi, because anyone who knows me will tell you that I love it. The problem I have (when it comes to reading, that is) is that there’s just so many books out there that I’m hoping to get to in this lifetime that the harder sci-fi tends to get brushed over in favor of the lighter sci-fi. I like most of my fiction to go down like a swallow of good whiskey: the more I have to force it, the less inclined I am to truly appreciate what it has to offer. Consequently, hard sci-fi is forever stuck on my shelf … but, every now and then, I pluck one down and give it a read, as was the case with Richard K. Morgan’s BROKEN ANGELS.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Takeshi Kovacs is a genetically-engineered soldier-for-hire (kinda/sorta) available to the highest bidder. Though he’s part of a particular regiment, he’s never above lending himself out for odd jobs so long as the price is worth the effort. As fate would have it, Kovacs has found himself under the employ of a band of like-minded mercenaries who may just have uncovered the find of a generation: it seems that the extinct Martian race may very well have left behind a clue to where they vanished, and that answer takes the shape of a dimensional gate that opens up on the far side of everywhere. But the gate’s closed, and only one woman – an archaeologist held captive by the political enemy – knows how to open it. It looks like this money might not be as easily earned as Kovacs first thought.
There are plenty of differences between hard and softer science fiction, but – so far as I’m concerned – much of these variances all boil down to one basic concept: world-building. Harder science fiction tends to involve a greater requirement on the part of the writer to flesh out the vast universe within which to set the story. This means greater backstory, more richly detailed backgrounds, and more stylistic considerations when crafting the prose used to unveil the plot. And what writer Richard K. Morgan has done here (in his second novel involving Kovacs and this unique take on tomorrow) is nothing short of legendary, though it may be one that’s difficult to follow.
Suffice it to say that this is the distant future, and mankind is no longer limited to exploring just Earth. In fact, mankind’s limitations would seem to have disappeared entirely, as consciousness itself can be swapped from one body (or ‘sleeve’) to the next, giving the average Joe multiple lifetimes of experience upon which to live a life. Because of boundless opportunity, it kinda/sorta smacks a bit disingenuous for all of this to boil down to a single femme fatale (or sorts) behind it all – wouldn’t we have evolved beyond such simplistic considerations? – but maybe that’s all that’s left to a uniquely human adventure.
Also, there are vast differences between the technology of today and tomorrow, and I found it a bit treacherous at times keeping straight exactly what Kovacs and the others couldn’t do. They seemed almost superhuman, and because of this I had a difficult “investing” in them as truly fallible people. One of the reasons folks like me even crack open a book is to find someone – a character, a hero, or an anti-hero – to identify with; but these variations of mankind are so far removed from me that I just didn’t identify much with them.
Still, BROKEN ANGELS offers up plenty of other reasons to pay close attention. For starters, there seem to be so many layers at play in almost any given situation that it’s nearly impossible to guess what’s in store for the soldiers of fortune. I can say that I guessed how Kovacs was going to dispatch the bad guy in the final showdown; so either I paid too close attention or Morgan made it too easy or that familiar inkling that goes hand-in-hand with a great crime novel molded well into these future settings and my comfort with those novels (I read a lot of crime) put my brain into sync with the work. The future with Kovacs is a great place to visit, but I’m not all that convinced I’d want to live there.
I’m not going to lie: Morgan’s wordiness gets so overwhelming at times I had to slow down and reread certain passages in order for this nimble brain to understand precisely what was going on. Even now – having reached the end and knowing full well just who was guilty of what – I’m not entirely convinced I understand all of it. Perhaps that’s the greatness in discovering some authors: you’re almost guaranteed to see, learn, and appreciate more on a second viewing … should you ever pick it up again.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED but don’t expect this one to be an easy read in the slightest. Morgan has probably forgotten about as many science fiction concepts as most readers can remember. He brings an entire world to life so vividly that it gets hard to take all of it in, and while others might pass that off as a strength it’s likely to seem more like a burden to casual readers. Still, there’s an almost timeless quality to his prose and where it all ends up – in fact, the ending could quite possibly be picked out of any noir-ish novel of the past century – and that serves to remind the audience that no matter how far you find yourself flung into tomorrow there’s always bound to be a healthy amount of today somewhere within the pages.