Richard Morgan's Market Forces is unlike his further-future, planet-hopping and body-swapping Takeshi Kovacs novels and equally unlike his Land Fit For Heroes epic fantasies; indeed, in a moment towards the end of Market Forces, Chris Faulkner even seems to draw the distinction between himself and Kovacs, the reader told that he couldn't identify with a precis of Kovacs novels.  Rather, Market Forces is a near-future, 1980s-inspired dystopia; a neoliberal, Thatcherite grinding-mill, dark and deeply political, whilst also being deeply personal.

Market Forces is an odd genre novel; most are, whilst having strong characters, plot-driven all the same, with the characters being secondary to the events of the novel.  This is as true in fantasy (what would The Steel Remains if Ringil was a different character? Now, how much more different would it be if the plot structure was changed?) as it is in science fiction (change Kovacs, and Altered Carbon is still basically the same; change the underlying thriller components, or the worldbuilding ideas, and it is a radically different nove); it isn't a bug, but rather a feature, of the majority of genre fiction, neither positive or negative, but simply a difference of emphasis.  The Complaints, a crime/thriller novel, was equally concerned with character and plot; change Fox or change the plot, and things are very different; but the character could be changed without changing the plot, and vice versa.  Market Forces is very different proposition; changing the plot wouldn't change the novel, although changing the worldbuilding would, but largely that because of the real heart of the novel: the character of Chris Faulkner.  Chris stands at the centre of this novel, with the plot, other characters, and to some extent worldbuilding moving behind him, influencing and being influenced by him; the maelstrom of Market Forces' fast-paced, anti-Thatcherite concept and plot exist to give us Chris, rather than Chris existing as a way to tell the plot (as in much fiction, good and bad).

So the first thing to discuss in the context of reviewing Market Forces is Chris' character.  He's not a hero, by any means; a product of his world, over the course of the novel Chris develops and changes very effectively.  Starting the novel, he is the new man in Shorn's Conflict Investment arm - Shorn being a financial investment powerhouse, CI being the branch which deals with international politics, ensuring power goes to whoever will make it most profitable in the sort of conflicts that are said to be endemic to places like Colombia.  He's got a rep as a cold, hard business man, ruthless but with humanity; and it's that humanity that's seen as a downside.  Over the course of Market Forces, Chris changes Shorn - or at least people in it - with his own ethos, which tends to the less lethal (promotion and tender are by fights to the death); but at the same time, Shorn - and forces within Shorn, naturally - changes Chris.  His humanity is slowly destroyed (the motif of his changing relationship with his non-corporate wife, Carla, is the best demonstration of this; as his humanity waxes and wanes, their relationship strengthens or collapses), and his compassion, ideals and personality are slowly broken down to be less human and more like a hyena (a motif that comes up a few times in the novel in regard to his character).  Chris sometimes knows that it's happening, and sometimes doesn't, and it's a brilliantly dark, painful and horrific portrayal of a person destroyed by achieving his aims and not knowing what to do next; though what those aims truly are is revealed as a late-game thing in the novel, powerfully and effectively.

The plot of Market Forces is a complex, and rather, strange one, which requires a bit of understanding of the worldbuilding.  Essentially, Morgan is positing the ultimate in Darwinian Thatcherite economics; the state has contracted almost completely, with healthcare privatised beyond even American levels, and the police run by corporations, and corporations are able to involve themselves in sponsoring regimes for financial payoffs - thus, in a more obvious and direct way than is presently the case, dictators are toppled not by their subjects but by their corporate sponsor, or propped up by them. In those corporations, it's a cut-throat world; to win a promotion, you have to kill (in a ritualised combat - Britain uses road-wars, with the intention to kill the opposing executive, Latin America seems to use knife-fights), and the same applies, against rival corporations' executives, in order to win contracts out to tender.  Into this world steps Chris Faulkner, and he's made friends and enemies in Shorn, shaking things up merely by his presence; but he's also having to deal with his actual job at Shorn, despite what seem to be attempts to sabotage him from above.  The plot is fast-paced, effectively and tightly written in a manner that takes us all over this post-Thatcherite dystopian London, from the estates - where the government contains lawlessness, rather than trying to fight it - to the heart of capitalism in the City.  The mix of corporate politics and Top Gear-style driving madness is really well handled, with the parallels between the two effectively drawn, and the fast-paced writing of the novel really adds to everything; but the brutality of those road scenes really works well, Morgan as normal not pulling punches but instead placing them well into the gut.  The development of the plot, as Chris is drawn deeper into the morally dark world of Conflict Investment and the (at times lethal) office politicking around him, and as he becomes more the hyena, abandoning his moral compass, is really well handled, without being either too clear or too mysterious; hints are given, but Morgan doesn't spell it out until the right moment at the very end.

All in all, Market Forces is a brilliant novel, and a fantastic, horrific character study of a person having to live in the Thatcherite paradise; very ideologically driven, but very well written, and very dark.  I really can't recommend it highly enough.
The Star Fraction is another MacLeod-authored political science fiction novel.  Unlike my previous experience with MacLeod, however, The Star Fraction really fired me up; politically speaking, but also as a work of speculative fiction.  The comparison which springs immediately to mind is Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love - indeed, The Star Fraction feels almost like a what-came-next for that novel, a response to it, but more powerful and better (with some really cool humour).

The world of The Star Fraction appears to be set in the non-too-distant future, although MacLeod is careful never to really give a date on it; first published in 1995, that seems to be a good thing, since whilst some references have become a little dated (although others seem more prescient - Iraq has become a verb for aerial submission, Afghanistan is a tribal mess after increasing American intervention), the majority of the book is relatively timeless.  What MacLeod has changed, however, is quite significant (and appears to stretch into the past - there's an odd reference to A. W. Benn's History of Western Philosophy).  The UK has been a socialist Republic and then had the monarchy forcibly restored, before tiny free states and leftist splitter-groups have sprung up all over the place, and technology has been advanced significantly beyond where it stands today; The Star Fraction paints this world excellently, although occasionally one does wish it took the time to be a little more clear about what happened to take us from now to then.

The main characters of The Star Fraction are absolutely fantastic.  Moh Kohn, our primary protagonist, is a Trotskyist (and very ideologically driven) who believes in the revolution, but not in the allies many of the other leftist factions have made.  He's an intelligent, well-written character, who has a dark past and all sorts of strange events relating to it happening throughout the novel; indeed, he becomes programmed as the carrier for an AI for much of the novel.  However, he's well-portrayed as a leftist with big ideas and a big heart; a very strong character.  Janis Taine, a biologist working on a project that is verboten by the authorities, is drawn into his circle, and is an equally strong character; much less ideological, she's a well-thought-out figure and written with a sympathetic, sensitive eye for detail.  She's a strong woman who comes into her own as the novel goes on, gaining revolutionary convictions and ideas, as well as becoming more of a humanist than is obvious early on.  Finally, Jordan Brown, a capitalist atheist brought up in a Christianist free-state part of London, is a stock-market jockey; he gains an awareness of the outside world, of humanity, and of the politics of the world as the novel goes on.  He also appears to become more sympathetic to faith, as his libertarianism asserts itself with greater strength; it's an excellent piece of characterisation, as he would be easy to make a strawman but MacLeod treats him sympathetically and well.  Indeed, even the antagonists are human, acting from the best of motives as they see them, and this make The Star Fraction a thoughtful and intelligent novel in a way few are; MacLeod can see through the political opposition to their basic humanity, and this makes his writing much more thoughtful.

The plot of The Star Fraction is also strong.  Drawing together multiple plot-lines down into one unit, MacLeod explores the build up to and beginning of a revolution to unite the DisUnited Kingdom; we see it from multiple perspectives, including that of those who don't believe it is possible.  MacLeod paints a portrait of the left as factionalised, disunited, at war with itself (often literally), and threatened; this plays into the plot strongly as various factions within the left come to the fore or receded, and equally as various factions of the anti-revolutionary movements (little more united than the left) interchange.  The role of technology and AI in the revolution is central, and MacLeod portrays it excellently, with a very human sensibility; and equally, the role of people and their basic motives is important.  It's a plot that barrels along and, whilst not always simple or clear, comes strong in the end, taking no prisoners as it goes, with a particularly tragic ending.

In sum, The Star Fraction is a fantastic, deeply political novel; MacLeod's ability to paint a picture of the factionalised left in this future Britain plays into some excellent characterisation and some powerful writing.  Brilliant, and revolutionary, work; I'd highly recommend it, especially to the lefties out there.
Now, I'm no politically correct, left-wing, Marxism-espousing feminist... ok, I am. More to the point, however, I want my genres to be the best they can be; and whilst fantasy has an uneven male/female ratio, it's nothing compared to the male-dominated field of SF. Cheryl Morgan produced some figures recently for my own home country on this matter, and they're distressing indeed; and, you'll notice that my last three reviews have been of books by women - I can't claim gender parity in my reading matter, but I'd like to address the huge male-dominance (especially in the UK).

How? Why, with your help, of course! Whilst on my TBR pile are authors like Tricia Sullivan, Justina Robson and Karen Traviss, who would you (good and faithful reader, if indeed you exist) recommend I read? Bear in mind that this isn't a general recommendation request, but specifically British female SF novelists - preferably with a specific novel and a couple of reasons why. Backing up my political stance with concrete action, after all, cannot be a bad thing!


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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