Broken Angels

Broken Angels - Richard K. Morgan Richard K Morgan's first book, Altered Carbon introduced us to Takeshi Kovacs, a bitter cynic with a heart of gold and the best psychosocial training humanity has been able to muster in this post-cyberpunk setting. In Broken Angels Takeshi comes back thirty years later as a lieutenant in Wedge's Wolves, a notoriously "effective" mercenary army involved on the interplanetary force's side of a recently colonized planet's war for independance. While getting put back together on a causualty ship after his unit was annhilated, he learns of an alien artifcact so valuable that, providing he can get to the artifact first and deliver it to the right buyer, he can live in luxury for as many lifetimes as he can imagine.

Takeshi is a bit different in this book than in Altered Carbon, befitting the typical post-cyberpunk themes of personality transformation and transcendence. I felt it was the same evolution of tone between Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig's renditions of James Bond. Takeshi has become something less of a rake, but more bitter and cynical at what he increasingly feels are the futile machinations of capitalism and the human destruction left in it's wake. While he's still as self-obsessed as ever, and still has the razor wit and scathing sarcasm I love so much, there's a new undercurrent of rage and futility underneath his cynycism. He makes a deal with a major interplanety cartel to bankroll the operation to recover the artifact, and he finds himself hating himself for the moments of kinship he feels for the executive - he knows they're both cogs in a machine much bigger than the planet they're on, both doing whatever they need to do to get their piece of the immortality that money can buy. The team of specialists they assemble, a group of battle hardened specialists recruited from a bucket of cortical stacks purchased by the kilogram, also become mirrors of Takeshi's increasing frustration with the way the world around him works. While he feels a kinship with each of the professional soldiers, and he certainly relates to their recent deaths, he sees their youthful bravado and fledgling sense of immortality for the nieve inexperience it is. Where the soldiers look up to Takeshi as a hero who fought in the most important battles of the last two centuries, Takeshi sees in the soldiers a collection of tools of The Powers That Be, not yet burned out and burdened with the memories of dozens of horrible deaths - both their own and of those their companions and comrades.

The political posturing in this book is kept to a dull roar in the background, and doesn't interrupt the story but rather provides a backdrop for the duplicities and scattered allegiances. The story is ultimately about sacrifice, selflessness and redemption. Nobody's hands are clean by the end of the book, and everyone has suffered at the hands of each other, their consciensce, and the weight of an alien culture so far advanced "...(the aliens') plans for reliable FTL drives could be hanging on some collector's wall somewhere - upside down." An excellent vehicle for the other overarching theme of the book, which explores the ideas that for as much as humanity feels it's accomplished at this point in the timeline, we're still a bunch of children who can't stop fighting with each over the scraps of detritus left by a culture so far advanced they'd already abandoned this part of the galaxy by the time hominids were starting to come down out of the trees. Who decides what's really so great about what a person, or a political movement, or a block of capital believe? Does the power to affect lives, or live forever matter as much as being able to wholly trust even one other person? Is there some kind of divine intervention involved? Some of the characters in the story are motivated by religion, and Takeshi engages one in what might be the most cogent description of why I am atheist I've ever read:

"Really." I leaned forward, searching his face for some trace of irony. "You believe this shit, right? I mean, seriously?"

The Mandrake exec watched me for a moment, then tipped back his head and gestured at the sky above us.

"Look at that, Kovacs. We're drinking coffee so far from Earth you have to work hard to pick out Sol in the night sky. We were carried here on a wind that blows in a dimension we cannot see or touch. Stored as dreams in the mind of a machine that thinks in a fashion so far in advance of our own brains, it might as well carry the name of God. We have been resurrected into bodies not our own, grown in a secret garden without the body of any mortal woman. These are the facts of our existence, Kovacs. How, then, are they different, or any less mystical, than the belief that there is another realm where the dead live in the company of beings so far beyond us we must call them gods?"

I looked away, oddly embarrassed by the fervor in Hand's voice. Religion is funny stuff, and it has unpredictable effects on those who use it. I stubbed out my cigarette and chose my words with care.

"Well, the difference is that the facts of our existence weren't dreamed up by a bunch of ignorant priests centuries before anyone had left the Earth's surface or built anything resembling a machine. I'd say that on balance that makes them a better fit than your spirit realm for whatever reality we find out here."

Hand smiled, apparently unoffended. He seemed to be enjoying himself. "That is a local view, Kovacs. Of course, all the remaining churches have their origins in preindustrial times, but faith is metaphor, and who knows how the data behind these metaphors has traveled, from where and for how long. We walk amid the ruins of a civilization that apparently had godlike powers thousands of years before we could walk upright. Your own world, Kovacs, is encircled by angels with flaming swords”"

Whoa. I lifted my hands, palms out. "Let's damp down the metaphor core for a moment. Harlan's World has a system of orbital battle platforms that the Martians forgot to decommission when they left."

"Yes," Hand gestured impatiently, "Orbitals built of some substance that resists every attempt to scan it, orbitals with the power to strike down a city or a mountain, but who forbear to destroy anything save those vessels that try to ascend into the heavens. What else is that but an angel?"

"It's a fucking machine, Hand. With programmed parameters that probably have their basis in some kind of planetary conflict”"

"Can you be sure of that?"

He was leaning across the table now. I found myself mirroring his posture as my own intensity was stoked.

"Have you ever been to Harlan's World, Hand? No, I thought not. Well I grew up there and I'm telling you the orbitals are no more mystical than any other Martian artifact”"

"What, no more mystical than the songspires? His voice dropped to a hiss. Trees of stone that sing to the rising and setting sun? No more mystical than a gate that opens like a bedroom door onto”"

He stopped abruptly and glanced around, face flushing with the near indiscretion. I sat back and grinned at him.

Admirable passion, for someone in a suit that expensive. "So you're trying to sell me the Martians as voodoo gods. Is that it?"

"I'm not trying to sell you anything," he muttered, straightening up. "And no, the Martians fit quite comfortably into this world. We don't need recourse to the places of origin to explain them. I'm just trying to show you how limited your worldview is without an acceptance of wonder."

I nodded.

"Very good of you." I stabbed a finger at him. "Just do me a favor, Hand. When we get where we're going, keep this shit stowed, will you? I'm going to have enough to worry about without you weirding out on me."

"I believe only what I have seen," he said stiffly. "I have seen Ghede and Carrefour walk among us in the flesh of men, I have heard their voices speak from the mouths of the hougan, I have summoned them."

"Yeah, right."

He looked at me searchingly, offended belief melting slowly into something else. His voice loosened and flowed down to a murmur. "This is strange, Kovacs. You have a faith as deep as mine. The only thing I wonder is why you need so badly not to believe."

That sat between us for almost a minute before I touched it. The noise from surrounding tables faded out and even the wind out of the north seemed to be holding its breath. Then I leaned forward, speaking less to communicate than to dispel the laser-lit recall in my head.

"You're wrong, Hand," I said quietly. "I'd love to have access to all this shit you believe. I'd love to be able to summon someone who's responsible for this fuckup of a creation. Because then I'd be able to kill them. Slowly."

The end of the book does an excellent job of wrapping up the myriad interpersonal conflicts, and in proper cyberpunk fashion, does not offer a happily-ever-after ending. Nobody finds enlightenment, though a few people do get rich beyond anyone's expectations. At the end of the book, humans are still acting like petulant children lobbing tactical nukes across the landscape, the same forces that are willing to sacrifice thousands of lives for a profit margin are still in charge, and Takeshi is still cynical and dispossesed. He and the surviving members of his team spend a month of subjective time in a virtual construct during an eleven year flight to a settled planet away from the war, and while he enjoys the company of his new comrades, he ultimately realizes "This afterlife shit is overrated".