Interview with Richard Morgan
Richard Morgan’s debut novel Altered Carbon (2002) made him an instant cyberpunk legend and won the Philip K. Dick Award. Since then he has written two sequels, Broken Angels (2003) and Woken Furies (2005). His novel Black Man (2007) won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and Market Forces (2004) won the John W. Cambell Award. In 2008 he began the Land Fit For Heroes series, starting with The Steel Remains, which saw Morgan embracing grimdark Fantasy and winning legions of new fans.
The Fantasy Hive were lucky enough to speak to Richard Morgan on the 2nd of February, the day that the Netflix TV series adaptation of Altered Carbon was released.
The Netflix adaptation of your debut novel Altered Carbon is released today. What’s the experience been like, seeing something that you crafted on the page being remade for the TV?
Mind-blowing! Pretty amazing! This has been coming for a very long time, in the sense that the book was published in 2002 and there was a major movie option there and then. In my innocence I thought that would happen pretty fast, and then of course it didn’t and it didn’t and it didn’t and it didn’t and it didn’t. But the thing is, I think I always knew that if that movie had been made, say, in you know 2004, it wouldn’t have borne much resemblance to the book. They would have taken the core concept, the protagonist, maybe a couple of secondary characters and then it just would have been a standard issue PG13 CGI-fest. And it was a lot of money, so I wasn’t fussed. I was all well, it will bring people to the book. I was very sanguine about that. And one of the sort of thing that’s amazing from watching the episodes and also having been part of the the process in the sense that I was a consultant on the show and so forth, is just how bloody much of the book is in the show. And I’m talking about entire scenes that are almost line for line the same as the book. Whole sequences that I had written without ever, I never dreamt they’d appear on the screen. And not only are they appearing on the screen, they’re appearing on the screen pretty much exactly the way that they’re written into the book, the way I envisioned them. Having watched the show, I’m now looking at it and going, it is literally as if someone has been in my head and carted this stuff out. So yeah. I’m walking on air.
Having watched the show, I’m now looking at it and going, it is literally as if someone has been in my head and carted this stuff out. So yeah. I’m walking on air.
Do you think that the genre fiction TV landscape has changed since then so that it’s more accommodating of the themes and the levels of sex and violence in the book?
Oh hell yes. It’s interesting, because some of the critical reaction that has been less than stellar has been focusing on the violence and saying, “Ooh, very violent!”. But the truth of the matter is, it’s not very violent. It’s about the same level of violence as you see in a lot of genre shows. It’s just that the violence is delivered with weight. It has a texture to it which you don’t very often see in SyFy channel stuff. Because, at some level that is being done in a decaffeinated form. In the sense that you’ll have fist fights, you’ll have balletic Kung fu, you’ll have gun battles, but there is this sense in which it’s all toned down for PG13 consumption, basically. And I think one of the things Joel Kinnaman has kept going on about when he’s interviewed about this show, which I would dovetail with, is that this is an adult show in the true meaning of that word. In the sense that it’s an R rated show, there is no attempt to sort of soften or pull back on any of this stuff. And I think that’s great. Not because I want to see bone-crunching violence on the screen per se, but I think science fiction has suffered for a very long time from being too hived off into this YA soft play area. And it’s not where it belongs or indeed where it’s always been.
I think science fiction has suffered for a very long time from being too hived off into this YA soft play area. And it’s not where it belongs or indeed where it’s always been.
If you look back to movies like Blade Runner and Alien, late 70’s early 80’s, that DNA was very much in those films, and there was at the time a willingness to go there with that stuff. But the problem is that grown up science fiction sort of went away towards the end of the 80’s, and there was a down change into a much more palatable Saturday morning cinema type aesthetic. And that’s had its logical extension in the Marvel Universe blockbuster. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as far as I’m concerned, if people seem to like it. Obviously it sells well, it does very well at the box office, but it is at some very fundamental emotional level, it is for kids. That’s the understanding. And that’s fine, kids’ gotta have entertainment just like everybody else.
But I think along that road science fiction has sort of suffered very badly because the assumption has been it’s for kids and it’s not for anyone else. So you’ve ended up in this situation where it’s very hard to make a genuinely adult science fiction story. One of the reasons that we have Altered Carbon now in the form it is is because Laeta Kalogridis, the woman who optioned it when Warner Brothers let it go, she wanted to make a movie but she literally could not get it done. Because she was writing screenplays that were coming in over the three hour mark that were deeply specific to what was in the book, and you just couldn’t get the studios to go for it. They wouldn’t do it. Because for them, as soon as you start talking about balletic Kung fu and spaceships, it’s like oh, yeah that’s kids’ stuff, that’s SyFy channel.
So you know I think that’s one of the things I’m really pleased about, is the fact that this is a show that you can put on the shelf next to stuff like The Sopranos or The Wire, in terms of the level of address that it takes. Also it’s very dense as well. It expects you to be paying attention. The plot is complex – because the plot of the novel is messy – and there is that sense that you can’t get away with just, right so he’s the hero and that guy’s the bad guy and we all know how this comes out now. Again I think that’s the kind of thing that had it been a movie, at some level studio executives would have come in and they would have said, this is way too complicated, 15 year old kids are going to see this, they aren’t going to be able to decipher this. So yeah I’m delighted that it’s come through at a time when long form television is shaping up to be the premier adult medium. And it gives us a space to breathe that I don’t think we would have had 15 years ago, whether it’s on film or TV.
Your work balances intense violence and exquisite prose, pulp action with philosophical concerns. Does art need to have elements of both to keep you interested?
I think for art to work for me, it needs to be visceral. That doesn’t have to be violence, that can mean a number of things. I like art house cinema as much as the next person, but there’s definitely a vibe that I get sometimes with art house movies where I’m sitting watching it and it’s sort of the chin stroker moment, in the sense that you are literally sitting there stroking your chin like this, and you’re like, mmmm, very clever, yes I see what you did there, that’s very clever. And that’s fine. That’s a form of art appreciation, there’s nothing wrong with that as such, but ultimately I find that quite shallow. It’s interesting cause I’m an inversion of the way it’s genuinely viewed, in the artistic world, I find that kind of chin stroking appreciation to be quite shallow, because I don’t think it gets into the guts of being human at all. I think it’s quite cerebral. For me for art to really work, it needs to hit me in the guts as well. Obviously you don’t want something that is just visceral. You need it to mean something, you need to have some significance stacked behind the impact. But I would say that yeah, the premier forms of art, whatever they may be, whether they are hung on a wall or whether it’s in a movie theatre, I need to feel engaged at a gut level. And obviously the twin engines of human gut level engagement are sex and violence, because what we are really talking about here is arousal, and those are the two big governors in that sense. Sex and violence. And then there are a whole series of other things that flow from that. Because from violence there’s a kind of exhilaration that comes from it, but also it’s sickening at some level, and the payoff usually for violence is grief and loss. All of those things need to be in a show. And that’s one of the things again that I find very often that kind of YA level entertainment doesn’t do, it will provide you with your kickass combat scenes, but there isn’t any sense at the end of it that anything’s been lost…
There’s no price.
There’s no price. And again, referring back to the Marvel blockbusters, so often the superheroes are fighting mechs, or something that doesn’t really matter. And you can smash up all the mech armies you want but fundamentally there is no feeling behind that. Kill some actual human beings, who actually were born, were children once, maybe have families, that’s where the impact comes from. And it’s a double edged impact, because you get the excitement of the fact that this guy is killing his antagonist, but you’ve got the backing that these antagonists are themselves human. And I think that’s indispensable, I always worry when I don’t find it. With some shows that I’ve seen recently that are tied to the Marvel Universe, that’s the sticking point, is you suddenly realise that actually you’re not getting that sense of cost and loss and so forth.
It’s now 16 years since Altered Carbon was released in 2002, and there’s been a lot of political and technological change since then. How do you feel about it as a view of the future now compared to when you wrote it?
I have a feeling I wasn’t cynical enough to be honest. There have been some significant changes between the show and the book, and you’ll see them, once you watch it. One of the interesting ones has kind of crept up on me, it’s that the show is extremely hard on the Meths, on the 1%, as we would now call them. And looking back at the book, I find I went quite light on them really. There’s a kind of disdain in Kovacs when he deals with them. He doesn’t like rich people, he doesn’t like this sort of elite society. But there is also a kind of live and let live dynamic as well. His stance is largely, ok you leave me alone and I will leave you alone. And I find that interesting, and I think to be honest if I was writing the book now I wouldn’t be quite as sanguine about that as I was back then. I wrote this in the 90s. 90s were quite a cuddly period of recent history! There was a sense that the Cold War was over, and the cuddly face of capitalism was going to come out, and there was a feeling that it had all come out well in the wash. I didn’t consciously think about those things but I guess that that must have influenced me to some extent. And so although the book is very critical of wealth disparities, there isn’t a sort of visceral hatred of these people. And that’s what’s changed in the show; it’s far more powerfully condemnatory of the 1%. Rightly so I feel, you know, I look back and I look at all the opportunity that there was in the 90s that has just been pissed away, and you think well, this hatred that is now bubbling away, you guys have pretty much earned that. So I kind of feel that maybe the book is not as cynical as I thought it was when I wrote it.
Although again another way to view it would be to say well it is as cynical because Kovacs gets off at the point where there’s not much he can do about this. Just get out alive, you know. And that’s very much the dynamic the book ends on. He’s pretty disgusted with the Meths and everything their society represents. But in the end he walks away. He’s had his personal revenge for being fucked about. There are people in the book who go unpunished for some pretty horrible things that they did. Because he just chooses to walk away. And also because he’s been affected by these people in ways he’s maybe not comfortable with. The show is not like that. The show is far more vicious in its attempt to see justice done.
What’s next for Richard Morgan?
I am currently completing a science fiction novel called Thin Air, which is set in the same universe as Black Man, albeit 100 – 150 years after the events of that book. And it’s not really related to that book in any way. But the assumptions of the universe are similar. You’ve got your genetic variants, you’ve got a colony on Mars, you’ve got the beginnings of humanity as an interplanetary species. And it’s hard boiled and it’s full of neon. Anyone who likes the Kovacs books is going to be pretty at home in Thin Air. And if it takes, we’ll see how it looks, you can never tell with a book whether you’re happy with it until after it’s published I think! But if I’m still happy with it when I look at it in a year’s time, then we might go down the road of a couple more of those.
Meantime, Dynamite Comics are doing a graphic novel spin off of Kovacs. I’ve agreed a deal with them where I’m not doing the writing as such, they’ve got a writer on board, and my job really is showrunner. I’m there to give guidance on the universe and the rules of play and so forth. And I’m doing a little bit of dialogue tweaking as well, so we go back and forth on, well would Kovacs actually say this or not, and there’s a panel coming up where I’m doing two pages. Where he’s just said to me, look I’d like you to just write this yourself, I would prefer to leave it blank and you fill it in. So I’m guesting for those two pages. And that’s quite exciting actually because it’s a lot of fun letting someone else run with it and seeing where they go. I’ve been involved in the writers’ room for season 2 of Altered Carbon, and I hopefully I’m continuing to be involved if there’s a season 3. So that’s on the cards as well, that’ll be ongoing. Gonna be busy! But I’m looking forward to wrapping Thin Air up, getting it done and then we can get the editing process, and hopefully it comes out July this year. I’ve been away from science fiction for a long time now. It’s interesting to be back. Back in first person as well, not done that for a while.
Thank you Richard Morgan for speaking to us!