Read April 2014
Recommended for fans of Richard K. Morgan
Some times a book doesn’t get to be judged as a stand-alone work. When it’s the third book in a loosely connected series featuring the same lead character, what happens in books one and two are going to affect book three’s read. After enjoying Broken Angels (second int he series, review here), I immediately requested Woken Furies from the library. Sadly, it was a serious disappointment both as a series installment and as a stand-alone read. Be warned: this is a long review, mostly because I want to elucidate my specific concerns, as there aren’t many reviews that don’t praise this book.
Tak Kovacs is back on his home planet in a sub-standard sleeve (body), borrowed as the part of a deal with a mid-level gangster. He’s having a drink in a local dive bar when he finds himself defending a disoriented woman against persecution. It turns out she’s committed the sin of running around town with her head/body uncovered, and the priests want to punish her. Kovacs takes exception, a brawl ensues and he and the woman flee. Shortly after, he’s introduced to her mercenary crew and bunks down for the night with them. Sylvie, the woman he rescued, is deCon, a heavily electronically augmented and networked person. The crew takes contracts fighting against sentinent human-killing machines in the wastes, and have been networked together. After being attacked during their sleep and a crew member dies, they all decide to flee to the waste, enabling them to upgrade Kovac’s sleeve and revive the fallen crew member. Once resleeved, Kovacs learns he’s been tracked by someone he knows all too well–an illegal copy of himself at a very young age. At the same time, Sylvie seems to have caught a virus and is behaving erratically, possibly displaying another personality. He and Sophie flee the wastes for a border town as events accelerate.
While Morgan clearly has strengths in technology building, he is less innovative with cultural building and ends up relying on problematic stereotypes. The most concerning is a fanatical religious order whose members believe in male control of women and that women need to be covered for modesty. The readers first learn of the order in the bar, but the issue continues to crop up as the fanatics pursue Kovacs. Unfortunately, because the order appears to be modeled on Islam, it feels more like thinly veiled current social commentary than sophisticated sci-fi allegory, as well as clear current-world secularism (and understand, this concern is coming from a non-religious person). Kovacs reinforces this theme noting women required to wear head covers, and voicing anger over the masculine control over women’s lives as he goes through this book. Actually, at first my assumption was that the veil issue was surrounding the data-cables and hardware in Sylvie’s head, which would have made for a far more interesting and appropriate use of veiling (since the order was renouncing sleeve technology). I wish Morgan had gone there instead.
What’s not to appreciate about the defense of female self-control? Well, while it could have been an interesting entry point into a traditional sci-fi exploration of cultural norms, it instead comes off like a straight white Western male protesting the hijab without understanding. There is a strong thread of frustration in various feminist movements that Western protests of female head-covering/body covering is cultural imposition, rather than truly supporting women’s self-determination, and Morgan’s depiction of the issue certainly seems guilty of that imposition. Later in the book, Kovacs dismisses the order as a relatively new institution, and thus is somehow delegitimized from freedom of choice. This concept was touched on briefly in the first book of the series, Altered Carbon, because the order rejects the stack/resleeving technology, but it was without the genderized connotations.
The whole mess becomes significantly more problematic when it is later explained as a vendetta against a woman Kovacs once knew (loved? the specifics are glossed over) who was killed for trying to get her daughter re-sleeved. It ends up being the worst sort of trope; that of the straight male moved to violence through grief/loss, with a cardboard prop of a female as justification of his behavior. Added to the problem is the specific story problem of Kovacs’ conception of women in this book largely as sexual objects; in particular, having sex with two different women, oogling a few others, and referring to at least a couple more in his past. In short, he comes off as the most annoying type of defender of female rights, the one that wants women to be free to fuck him. Any potentially useful book discussion in institutionalized control of women ends up being undercut by its casual and careless mention.
The thinly veiled-religious stereotypes and general sexism were distracting, but ignoring those highlighted other problems. Particularly, some of the character development shortcomings of Kovacs. At the end of Broken Angels, we were left with an almost hope, a sort of spiritual cleansing and expression of grief, a tired mercenary who just wanted to rest. In Woken Furies, the title is quite literal. Kovacs is full of rage, furious and angry at everyone, except the moments where he decides to articulate himself to his friends and complain that “nothing changes.” His vendetta against the religious order is one symptom of the rage, but it becomes more confusing as Kovacs discusses the futility of overthrowing governments. Instead of character progression, it becomes character backsliding, and it isn’t even clear why the change took place. Last we saw, Kovacs was vacationing with a couple of former teammates and sitting on a pile of money. How did we get to the broken-down miasma of rage and indifference left on Harlan’s world?
However, even more serious problems for me came from long dialogues about political insurgencies. I felt like I was reading crib notes from one of my political texts back in college. As Morgan never went into detail about Kovacs’ life as an Envoy, there is little sense of the stories behind his ideology, and thus the dialogue comes off as just so much dogma. Morgan is no longer telling a story; he’s elucidating a political analysis. Even worse: it isn’t a particularly inspired one (“the revolution just perpetuates the old crap with different leaders”).
Last on my criticisms is that Morgan used the semi-mystic Envoy background as general deux ex machina. “Envoy intuition” became the reason for Kovacs’ conclusions (except he was so often wrong in a majority of cases–”intuition” provided just enough forewarning to get him out of trouble safely, although companions didn’t fare so well). There’s all the times that “Envoy training” helps him distance himself and reign in his anger–except in all the cases when it explodes. A reunion with his Envoy teacher would be a perfect opportunity to explore more of that history. Instead, it becomes an opportunity for some explicit sex scenes.
Storytelling until Kovacs and Sylvie left the wastes was enjoyable; more focused plot, clear immediate and larger conflicts, interesting sci-fi angle with the sentient machines and the networked humans, interesting characters developing a ‘team’ feel somewhat similar to Broken Angels. I’m neutral on the writing; lets evocative than prior books, in this book Morgan seems to rely on sci-fi slang to stand in for descriptive concepts/world-building. By far the best part of the book was the exploration of the neurological enhancements on the mercenary personnel, and further implications of what that may mean in a society that has already digitized people’s personalities. Digitization is then connected to the Martians at the end in one of the more satisfying sub-storylines of the series. Although–dare I say it–it felt a little Matrix-y at the end. You know, Viva la revolution and the individual and all that.
Had I been Morgan’s editor, I would have had him take out the revenge plot against the priests, leave out the issue of the female veil and concentrate on what he does so well; imagining the possibilities of this kind of technology. Personally, I would have also cut the sex scenes as well, as they did little to add to the story, and in fact, likely detracted from it.
Ultimate judgement is my competionist self is glad I read it. The story-loving self enjoyed the tech and the chase, but became annoyed by the sexism and religious intolerance. The character-loving reader self enjoyed the beginning, became extremely bored with Kovacs new rage-fueled persona, was disappointed by the character degeneration from the Kovacs in prior books, and then puzzled by further inconsistancies in character. In short, I’m not sure I can recommend it. Set your bar low.