Market Forces - Richard Morgan

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Market Forces
Richard Morgan
ISBN: 0575075120 (Amazon link)

Richard Morgan's first novel was the superb Altered Carbon, known almost as much for its violence as for its rejuvenation of the SF mystery genre, successfully reintroducing some of the noir roots of cyberpunk. The sequel, Broken Angels, was equally well received and confirmed Morgan's place as SF writer of considerable ability. I really enjoyed both titles, and was looking forward to Market Forces, knowing that Morgan had opted for a change of pace, describing his work-in-progress as "The Sopranos set in the City of London and salted with Mad Max and Rollerball".

Chris Faulkner is a young executive with a reputation, newly head-hunted by the Conflict Investment division of Shorn Associates. Shorn made their money by carefully managing the many smouldering small wars around the world. They play both sides against the middle, primarily generating a revenue stream by appearing to prop up each side with partisan arm supply contracts. As you might have guessed, we're in unashamedly political territory here, with Morgan even providing a short reading list of works by Chomsky, Pilger etc in an afterword. Chris' world is a Thatcherist nightmare, a reducio ad absurdum of free-market deregulatory thinking. In this world, the City is inhabited by testosterone filled, pin-stripped boardroom warriors. Except that blood is literally spilt in the boardroom. Unlike other satires warning about the dangers inherent in certain schools of business thought, Market Forces isn't played for laughs. This isn't The Space Merchants or Jennifer Government, this is a much darker, much more cynical and sneering book.

The lack of comic effect is particularly pronounced given the risible central device used to make the reify the feeling that executives really are engaged in a bloody struggle - by 2040 road rage has been codified into a set of strict duelling guidelines, where executives can try to ram each other off the road Mad Max style. In this world, petrol is a scare commodity, and only the corporates drive on the neglected and decaying motorway network. Each financial house firm is allied with a car manufacturer, with an executive's mechanics playing squire to his knight. In Chris' case, his car is a Saab, and he's lucky, for he has married his mechanic, Carla. She naturally has a vested interest in ensuring Chris' custom battle-wagon has the best possible armour and tuning. When trying to get to a client's location to close a deal ahead of a rival firm, the executive is expected to turn up with blood on his wheels or not at all. (Quite why these things can't be carried out on the phone I decided not to think about.)

That this Mad Max setup doesn't come across as funny is testament to Morgan's skill at making Chris a very real character. The author straddles a fine line, making Chris an utter arsehole who kills for career advancement and manages foreign wars for a job, but who retains just enough of a decent core that we empathise with Carla's struggle to keep him human, to minimise his involvement with the excessive violence of his chosen career. At the start of the book, Chris is noted for his reputation from a particular high profile kill, but that was some time ago, and since then he's even been known to let survivors of a wreck live, or even ensured they have received medical care. Chris doesn't even carry a gun - something with Shorn want to change. They don't like ... lack of closure.

The office politics of Chris' new job are familiar; he soon becomes friends with one of his fellow executives, the ambitious and feared Mike Bryant, and manages to piss off his boss. The stress of navigating the corporate scheming whilst building a new reputation introduces tension to his marriage, exacerbated by Carla's father's disapproval of Chris. Carla's father is close to an authorial mouthpiece at times, with his short speeches being excused by his being an academic political agitator who chooses to live in the urban decay of the Zones.

The overall structure of the plot is therefore fairly predictable, but Morgan makes each step along the path feel new, with brittle, sharp prose that even manages to become uncomfortable to read when Carla and Chris take their frustrations out on each other. This is a Morgan novel, and while his tendency to use violence as punctuation has abetted, that merely serves to heighten the effect when his trademark solution to plot problems is required.

I'm a bit torn about whether I liked this novel. On the one hand, it had me glued to the page, but I started to resent the desire to read to the conclusion - Chris is quite despicable, and only the constant hope for redemption carried by Carla makes reading about him tolerable. The world-building is uneven - while road-raging is smoothly justified and there's a solid background built around the war Chris is managing, there's less of the extrapolation one might expect from a SF author. This world exists primarily to Make A Point, and while I was sympathetic to the author's viewpoint, that hurts Market Forces as a novel rather than as a polemic diatribe. Morgan isn't overtly preachy - hardly needs to be given his world-building! - but the unrelieved snarl at this possible future is always intruding into the narrative . The result is considerably more subtle than, say, some Ken MacLeod titles, but there's little sense of a novel behind the message. In some ways, this might have been a much more effective novella - long enough to deliver a solidly brutal message, but not long enough to weary the reader by hammering the point home repeatedly.

Overall? If you like Morgan's previous books, I don't doubt you'll find Market Forces a worthwhile read, but when it comes to his next novel, I would much rather see Morgan return to something like Kovacs universe, and broaden his focus again. With the caveat that the message may start to grate depending on your political tolerance, this is Recommended.

Posted: Wed - March 31, 2004 at 01:27 AM