As my science fiction odyssey continues, it was only a matter of time before I reacquainted myself with Kovacs, Richard Morgan’s cynical, unflinching and displaced protagonist, whom I first met in the remarkable Altered Carbon. It seems wrong to call Kovacs a ‘hero’ – the universe that Morgan envisages and creates is not a place for heroes.
Broken Angels isn’t a novel to read without having read its predecessor, Altered Carbon. From that novel, you’ll have learned that this universe is one in which life means less and death means more. That is because one’s ‘soul’ can be located in a small metal stack which lies at the base of the skull and can be ‘resleeved’ into the bodies of other humans or into clones. As long as the stack survives, life will continue, even if it has a face you can no longer recognise. When the stack is destroyed then this real death is all the more terrifying for its unusual finality.
In Altered Carbon, we saw the tragic and quite devastating repercussions of this body shifting on earth, when resleeving was predominantly for the rich, with the souls of the poor confined to virtual prisons or even oblivion and their bodies rented out to the wealthy. Broken Angels has a different perspective. Instead of human tragedy and a detective story, we’re taken off world to Sanction IV, a planet torn in two by war. Kovacs is now a mercenary fighting for the Wedge against Kemp’s rebellion. In this war, soldiers fight endlessly. Their mutilated bodies are rebuilt while, if they’re lucky, their minds can recover in a virtual pleasure dome. They are then thrown back into the fray.
Kovacs is distracted from the war by one of those Martian mysteries hinted at in the first novel. A gateway has been discovered that leads directly into space and a Martian starship, abandoned many, many years ago. Control of Martian technology is highly desirable and so Kovacs finds himself part of a team of resurrected soldiers and traumatised archaeologists whose aim is to reopen the gate and claim the ship.
Of course, it’s not that symbol. Others, from both sides of the war, want control of the gate and the discovery of bodies at the scene is a reminder that some may be nearer than had been thought.
Alongside the wonder of the Martian enigma and the quite beautiful remains of the vessel, we have the sheer brutality of the situation on Sanction IV. There are moments of horror here, the kind of horror that can send inhabitants of this universe insane. The title of the novel is very clever because there are broken angels everywhere, not just on the Martian ship. Kovacs has demons and the only way that he feels that he can survive here is to act in ways that, more than once, made me try to read the pages with eyes almost shut.
This universe is perfectly realised by Morgan, with it expanded to another dimension from Altered Carbon. It is a world abandoned by Martians, in which an individual has little control, where good has become lost in bad, and where alien technology offers dreams of solution but in reality is not understandable. Thoroughly absorbing science fiction mixes with a probing and disturbing look in to the human condition. Broken Angels is complex, raising questions about the nature of existence, and is both alarming and extremely rewarding. Kovac’s third journey is next and this time we’ll experience his own home world – Woken Furies.