Friday, March 13, 2020

Broken Angels By Richard Morgan

Broken Angels
By Richard Morgan

'And you still thought I wanted the command. Are you fucking insane?'"

Takeshi Kovacs page 146

Broken Angels is the second book in the Altered Carbon series, featuring Takeshi Kovacs. I already discussed Mr. Morgan in the first review, so I'm not going to repeat myself. Instead, I'll encourage you to read both the review of the first book and the first season of the Netflix series with a link at the bottom of this review. Broken Angels was published in March of 2003 by Victor Gollancz Ltd, a former publishing house that is now an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group. Which is a British publishing company owned by a French publishing company named Hachette Livre. Which is the kind of rabbit hole that Kovacs wouldn't approve of but would remind him of home.

Our novel opens with Kovacs far from home, on the deck of a hospital ship orbiting Sanction IV, a world being torn apart by a grinding and fairly brutal war. On one side, a native dictatorship that communicates mainly in twisted quellist slogans - communist propaganda style - and nuclear smart bombs (Good combination. Power to the people, and the atom.{It’s a dictatorship where people get arrested for questioning government decisions, there’s no power to the people here (GOD DAMN IT!)}). On the other side are the Cartels, a combination of interstellar interests that fights through slick ad campaigns, hi-tech mercenary companies, and the finest of orbital weaponry on lease from the United Nations Protectorate (Wait. So they’re in a civil war, and the actual government - a dictatorship no less - hasn’t locked them out of the media and is reduced to propaganda posters as a result? Or do you mean the native dictatorship is actually a rebellion?{No, it’s a civil war. Both sides hold large parts of the planet and have operating media networks. To be fair the Cartels have a native puppet government but frankly, it’s just a front for corporate power (Okay that makes more sense. The way you described it was… odd.)}). Even though in the last book there was an utterly idiotic ban on Envoys holding military or political positions, Kovacs is a mercenary officer with Carrera's Wedge, the most effective and unrelenting mercenary company on the Cartel's side (But… he hates these people. {He hates all of them at this point}). Because of that and the fact that they will not serve as security or pacification forces, they're always on the front line. As a result, they're suffering heavy casualties, which means both more and less than you would think. Due to the technology of the cortical stack, a machine implanted in the spine near the base of the skull that digitizes your consciousness, you can bring back people who were killed putting them into new bodies rather easily. However, they still remember dying (And Oprah just started handing out PTSD.) and after eight or nine times of being blown to small pieces and receiving minimal psychological care due to time constraints... Most people tend to go screamingly insane and I'm being literal about the screaming and insanity here (Oh yeah. Full-on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.). Of course, given the wonders of 26th-century medicine, a lot of casualties don't die. However, having your legs blown off for the 3rd time causes a lot of mental stress as well and the troops on Sanction IV are starting to feel the strain. Takeshi Kovacs, trapped on a planet that's not his, fighting for people he loathes against a government he holds in contempt and still carrying enough PSTD and other mental issues to employ a full psych ward... He is already in a bad condition to start a sustained campaign of open warfare (Well, I mean… there’s plenty of self-loathing to go around. I can only conclude he hates himself from this.{Kovacs hated himself long before this war (Yes, but now he hates himself even more.)}). By the first chapter, he's been doing this for a while and has been injured repeatedly. In fact, he's been part of the war since opening day (Dear God Why!?{because he was on the planet before it started, anything else is spoilers}). What's interesting here is that Mr. Morgan doesn't sit down and spell out the effects of this but they are plain as day to anyone who can read the signs. Not just in Kovacs but in the behavior of the troops, officers and civilians who are trapped in this war. Make no mistake on that, the soldiers and officers are just as trapped as the civilians, they just have the illusion of having agency to comfort themselves with because they're armed (It’s hard to frag officers and employers who have stacks and remote backups!).

Given all of this, it's no surprise that when a young man named Jan Schneider offers him a decent chance of getting out, Kovacs takes it. It also helps that if it works out Kovacs will find himself pretty damn rich as a result. Of course, anything that valuable is dangerous and taking this chance means exposing himself to a whirlwind of hidden agendas, treachery, and dealing with several devils at once. First, he'll need to break out an archaeologist who is being imprisoned in a cartel internment camp. Then he’ll need to secure financial backing for his mission from someone with enough power and influence to keep competitors away but still low enough on the ladder to be hungry enough to take the deal. He'll also need to assemble a team of specialists and trigger pullers to provide skills and vitally needed security. Why? Because Schneider says he found a Martian Spaceship, and if he's telling the truth humanity could find itself leaping ahead by centuries if not millennia and whoever possesses the ship could decide the fate of the human species. Let me explain.

Human expansion to the stars was not driven entirely by our efforts here. Instead what happened is that we found a buried alien civilization on Mars. The Martians were a winged species evolved from aerial predators. Even centuries after the first discovery very little is known about their culture, their beliefs, or their worldview and even less is known about the majority of their technology (Just imagine a time after humanity is extinct. How much of our technology would be completely opaque to the equivalent of a medieval civilization? How much of our knowledge would be completely inaccessible to them because of the way it’s stored, for instance? You can probably reconstruct a radio and see how it works, but you can’t do that with a computer because you need a certain baseline level of technology to even know what that little square rock in the center of the MoBo is really made of.). They were gone before humanity even developed fire but their technology was so ahead of ours that it might as well be magic (What with FTL comms and everything.). When humanity figured out what it found things went a bit nuts, to the point that firefights on college campuses between various maniac groups and the bodyguards of the archaeologists studying the Martians were becoming almost commonplace. When the dust cleared, however, humanity figured out enough to jump-start its expansion to the stars using maps that the Martians left behind pointing to habitable worlds, and technology developed from the study of Martian artifacts. While humanity doesn't have faster than light travel, the cortical stack allows for people to be shipped across interstellar distances without having to worry about the issues that affect generation ships (That the humans managed to reconstuct this much tech - which must have involved activating or rebuilding computer systems and interpreting the data - is really impressive.). Just slap a stack into a body when you need crew present and the ship is fine or just have an artificial intelligence take care of it, whichever floats your boat. There's also the technology of the needle cast, which allows for the transmission of information at FTL speed, including your consciousness. This means that humans can technically travel at FTL as long as there's a receiving station waiting for their transmission and they're willing to leave their bodies behind. Okay, back to the Martians. The Martians were well-advanced even beyond the needle cast; with hints and clues saying they had full-on Faster than Light travel but no one has ever found proof of that. An intact Martian ship? It would be worth more than the planet, any planet. That's without even bringing up where the ship is or how the first archaeologist team got access to it but I'm going to leave that unspoiled for the readers.

Given the stakes here, it's no surprise that just about everyone has hidden agendas and loyalties in play. So Kovacs has to work the discovery of the age while watching his back and front. If that's not enough there's the mystery of the Martians, why was this ship left where it was and what was it doing? Did something... Or someone happens to the crew? Which would be worse, and would it even be relevant after so long? Will Kovacs even be able to answer these questions or will environmental hazards get to him first? The war is ever-present and even in the far future, you gotta worry about radiation sickness. The answer to these questions can only be found the hard way as Kovacs works to earn what might one of the most expensive tickets off-planet in science fiction.

This is an older, more stressed out Kovacs that we're dealing with here compared to Altered Carbon. He's got a harder edge to him but in some ways is more brittle and tired. Mr. Morgan makes it very clear that the war is taking a toll on him and that damage is being piled on top of the damage that his past experiences have inflicted (And there’s a lot of that ladies and germs.). The other characters in the story are also pretty interesting, from the super dedicated special forces ninja Jiang, the calm and thoughtful Sun Liping, the young and cocky Yvette Cruickshank. There are more good characters than I really have time to list. Each of the mercenaries has a fairly distinct personality and relationship to Kovacs. We also see a spectrum of how various professionals deal with the strain of fighting for a living and how that meshes with Kovacs. We don't get to see a lot of how they interact with each other because Mr. Morgan tells the story relentlessly from the first-person perspective, telling the story strictly from the view of Kovacs which helps maintain the mystery I think. Mr. Morgan is also willing to interject some mysticism into the story; for example by having some characters recruited from a soul market run by followers of the Loa. I was glad to see that, as despite taking place in California, Altered Carbon was surprisingly devoid of North American traditions. Mr. Morgan does a lot of work to make Sanction IV feel like something besides a chunk of earth slammed on a different planet. The book is a lot grimmer in tone than Altered Carbon and way more brutal. Whereas Kovacs was somewhat restrained in his behavior on earth, on Sanction IV, he is way more violent and willing to use force to accomplish his goals. Which honestly is what you expect from a soldier trying to get out of a warzone but can be jarring if you don't realize what you're getting here. That said, this was a great read, with shocking revelations and a bone-jarring climax all undergird by the damage everyone suffers in war no matter the reason the war is being fought. I'm giving Broken Angels by Richard Morgan an A for that.

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Red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders.

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