Friday, January 15, 2010

Market Forces

Market Forces by Richard Morgan, 2005.

A very cold, cynical and brutal book. Highly pessimistic framing for its setting, plot and main character. Yet excellent in overall quality, delivers many insights through a strong narrative, and confirms Morgan as one of the top genre writers and someone worth reading. Set a few decades in the future, it charts an environment in which major Western companies have privatized most major functions, including foreign policy. The narrative tracks Chris Faulkner, an up and coming operative in Conflict Investments, and their work to reinforce and topple regimes expressly for the sake of profit and profit alone.

The book is ultra-violent, ultra-sexual, and quite explicit in the portrayal of both elements. Yet this isn't done gratuitously or to tell a story for the lowest common denominator, it's part of a very focused view at forces that don't get enough narrative attention generally. Most notably, capitalism. It was very interesting to read this right after Night Watch, since a lot of my criticisms on that--backing away from the grimness of the premise, undermining credibility of the setting, issues with the main character--are fully fulfilled in Morgan's book. The standpoint is an environment in which some of the worst trends of the modern world are intensified, where major corporations exist completely unregulated (and are to a large extent dominant). This means an amoral focus on profit that leads to those without power suffering so those with power, from in the systemic (helping arm a group of rebels in Cambodia to overthrow the regime, giving lip service to good human rights, but making absolutely sure the new government puts in neoliberal export-focused economic conditions) as well as the personal (In an early scene, Chris and a coworker are out in the rougher parts of town looking for a good bar. Some teens approach their car with knives looking to jack it. The coworker shoots all three of them, including one that tried to surrender. The later police investigation never comes close to indicting him).

So many of the Gibson-inspired cyberpunk dystopias feature a similar setup of rampant corporations, but make a narrative focus to bypass a lot of how twisted a dystopia this would be. Neuromancer was dark, poor and ugly, but not crushing in this way. Morgan invests in his premise, portraying a world where, by the operation of the free market, crime is atrociously high, most of Europe lives in slums, and the power brokers are systematically callous, because that's where the profit is. On occasion some give charity or offer justifications for why their approach works, but it comes down to competition against the other guy, an understanding that if their country doesn't arm Latin American despots to straffe civilian villages someone else will, and it'll be their buck made. A lot of the patterns here and basic logic is coterminous with the modern world, but Morgan's future is starker, with less pretentious, and with a fuller exploration of the toll this system takes--particularly what it does to someone amongst the top tier of the enforcers.

Violence is central in this work, and is shown as ubiquitous and Janus-faced. Violence operates on the personal level, the corporate, the political, the global. Violence operates in self-defense, in open battle, to coldly murder the guilty, to slaughter droves of innocent. Viiolence is personal, abstract, collateral damage, entertainment, concealed, tolerated and illicit. Moreover, the corrosive moral force of it is portrayed deeply in this novel. The typical structure of the Holywood action movie or the written thriller is subverted, violence is not redemptive, not a force for the individual to step into heroism. As Chris fights and kills more and more across the novel he simply becomes numbed to it, casual in the tools and mentality used to take another life. The book doesn't simply repudiate the use of force either, as people in this book that abstain fully from violence leave themselves or others open to violation by those with less scruples.

The sexuality is also interwoven and diversified powerfully. At times the actual narratives focused on this seemed less necessary to the existing narrative, but thematically the focus works well. Breaking down this issue, the book shows sex for:
*intimacy. This involves a sign of connection and merger, occuring largely
*commerce. Like everything else, it can be a structure of the market, an act performed only for financial gain, which achieves such only because there are people interested in purchasing it. There's a minor recurring character who, late in the book, lays on the ground details of her past career in porn, which had been alluded to from early on. On a strict level of the story this doesn't substantively change or advance events, but in connecting the
*lust. A distraction, an activity of bodies that temporarily evades the need for thought. This aspect becomes crucial late in the work.
*dialog. Specifically, having sex so as to brag about it to one's buddies later. This appears throughout the book, most heavily in the character of Mike Bryant. Such a motif gets at a lot of what the book investigates, through sex, violence and other arenas. Masculinity, the set of mystique and expected norm associated with men, how they attempt to act to fit in, specifically to fit in as one of the dominant. There are subtexts in terms of race and gender that are wonderfully realized, highly bound up with the above. Much of the book is in a sense about men deciding what code of masculinity and self-definition to embrace--and to a large extent they fail miserably in this.

One of the recurrent questions across the book is what exactly the context of Chris and his wife Carla's relationship is. Are they an intimate union or a meeting of services and resources? Is Chris in actual love with Carla or merely supporting her; is their sex a meeting place or just the services rendered by a whore? Carla worries about the status of their relationship from early on, particularly as Chris changes, eventually this rises to verbal confrontation, still later Chris states flat out that for what he earns in his morally troubling job her quiet support as well as "an occasional blow job" is a bargain. Market forces again, connections of capitalism that run through desire as well as repression. There are so many novels that if exploring Chris' story--whether to glorify or condemn his violence and the unregulated capitalist model he facilitates--would have cut or reduced the status of his marriage. Really, though, this is the center-piece of the complexity of Morgan's story, the way capitalism incorporates physical bodies in its framing of their actions. Sex and violence run across the global system, offering at once intimacy and distance, codification and power, profit and loss.

After reading this book I viewed it as quite good. After organizing my thoughts into this review, I think it's a great work. To be sure it deals with a lot of ugliness and unpleasantness, and a lot of the book is ugly and unpleasant. Yet it deals with important issues and complex topics in a complex way, and the amorality of the protagonist, the narrative and the setting help frame what is--for the first time in his writing career--Richard Morgan taking a substantive literary stand. It's worth reading for that alone, doubly so for all the small details that make this, unfortunately, a strongly plausible future and, even more unfortunately, parallel a lot of what is happening now.

This book reminded me of and is better than: Watts' Blindsight
This book reminded me of and is worse than: Dick's A Scanner Darkly

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