Richard K. Morgan burst on the literary scene six short years ago with the publication of the futuristic noir mystery Altered Carbon, a book that nabbed that year's Philip K. Dick Award and immediately sold to Hollywood. Since then, the prolific British author has written two sequels and two stand-alone novels featuring a blistering critique of capitalism and an America that has become Jesusland. We recently had a chance to interview Morgan, and below you can catch him sounding off about his advice for young writers, his view of the America he depicts in his novels, and squabbling within the scifi genre.Before writing your first novel, Altered Carbon, you spent a lot of time traveling the globe teaching English as a Second Language. How did that experience shape your fiction? I think it probably made me a better writer. I think by definition you need to have lived a little bit to write anything that's humanly true. I think certainly if I'd started getting published when I was in my early twenties, I was quite sheltered then and didn't know anything much about the world. I hadn't had any direct experience of how the world works. Certainly a decade in the half out in the real world, bashing my head against things probably made me into a more textured writer. It gives you something to write about. There are a lot of quite young novelists and increasingly people are getting published at the age of their early twenties and sometimes even younger. And increasingly also within certain genres there are editors out there looking for the next big thing, and vacuuming up whatever person they see who fits the profile. A little while ago they picked up some very young Indian-American woman, from India but born in the U.S., I think. They picked her up for this supposedly phenomenal novel and published it. Big push behind it. Then they discovered she'd more or less wholesale covered Salman Rushdie and a couple of other authors as well. It's a real shame. She clearly had some talent but it destroyed her as far as any chance of being an author is concerned. It was very much a case of a hungry and greedy publishing industry throwing things out without giving them much attention. There's a lot of young authors out there and people do seem to forget in order to write well you do need to have some experience. Now there are people who at the age of twenty who have already had many shocking experiences. I'm quite glad that I'm not one of them. I have no real desire to go through that. There's a list they make in the UK called the best of young British authors. Some of the people who make that list are barely under forty. They are 38, 39 years old. I think that's indicative. There' a sense that mid-to-late thirties is actually young for an author. Good authors mature over time: it does take awhile. Travel abroad and learn to live in other cultures. That's one of the things about teaching abroad. By definition you are going to know the people quite well because you're stepping inside their culture. It obviously gives you exotic locations and things to work on, but it just broadens your view. Once you've lived something else — somewhere that is culturally different from where you're from — I don't think you ever look at the rest of the world the same again. And you never look at your own background the same again. It peels away this sort of innocence. You start to see that there's good and bad about your own upbringing and background. You get something to compare it against, basically. You've told young writers, write that novel, don't worry about putting those ideas into a short story first. How does that compare with what you were thinking as you sat down to write Altered Carbon? I still stand by that. There's a sort of enduring meme from the golden era of science fiction and shortly thereafter, that you could, right up until the late '70s, although it got increasingly difficult, you could make some kind of living from writing short fiction, especially genre fiction. A lot of the guys who went on to become great science fiction writers essentially supported themselves for several years by selling short fiction to the pulps. That has endured within the genre as a vision of how to proceed. It just isn't valid anymore. It's very very hard to ship anything like the volume of short stories that would enable you to do that. I don't think anyone's doing that. There's one or two people who make a living from short stories plus bits of journalism and so forth. Fundamentally it's not the path to becoming a successful novelist.
And the other point, the vital point as far as I'm concerned, is that I'm convinced short story writing and novel writing are two very different disciplines. And being good at one does not in any way mean you're going to be good at the other. You do see this again within genre. You can see an awful lot of people who were clearly very good at the science fiction short stories, and when it comes to the longer form you're getting from them stuff that is either like a series of short stories sewn together on a general theme, or they end up with a story so attenuated that there's really just not that much to it. The other thing of course is that books used to be a lot shorter in those days. If I look back at some of the fiction that was getting published in the late '60s, early '70s, those books were sometime only 150 pages long. That would count as a novella these days. I think the market's shifted, and you need to be aware of that. And I think also you need to be aware that you may be a novelist and not a short story writer. And if you are, there's not much point in breaking your balls trying to do something you don't actually have the talent for when you'd be much better off in another area. I think a more general rule of thumb would be, have a try at everything, but fundamentally don't feel you have to limit yourself to the short form. And don't feel you have to limit yourself to prose, either, because some of the best short story telling I've seen in the last few years has actually come out of the comic book format. A typical twenty page short story would work quite well as a graphic novel. A single graphic novel of maybe 120 pages would condense down into a short story quite nicely. Don't lock yourself out of any possibilities; the comic book field is available and burgeoning at the moment as well. You've got obviously the film and TV industry; there's credible work that goes on in TV now. I think I date it back from The Sopranos, when it comes to genuinely good TV drama. Are you watching anything now that impresses you? Are you watching anything now that stands out at you in the genre, or outside of the genre? I don't watch awful lot of TV, but I do occasionally acquire DVD collections of things. Certainly The Wire has to be up there above everything else I have seen, probably ever. It really is a phenomenal piece of work. The Sopranos was very good initially, I think it became self-referential after a while. You come in with an idea that can't be sustained very long. The first two seasons were very strong. After that, it seemed like they were knawing on their own bones, as it were. That wasn't the case with The Wire. The Wire had the legs and made it to the end of season 5. What else is on TV? In genre I watch hardly anything. And to be honest, I'm consistently disappointed with the way science fiction makes it onto the screen, both small and big. Something seems to get lost in translation at some point. There's this terror among the producers that we must appeal to this sort of lobotomized 13 year old boy. And as result a lot of stuff that could potentially be very good just ends up as crippled. That applies to cinema as well. I think you actually got to see the process in action with The Chronicles of Riddick and Pitch Black. Pitch Black was a very credible attempt to make a character-driven science fiction movie. And given the budget and the conditions they had to work with, it was a really phenomenal achievement. It was picked up and it was turned into the most unbelievable pile of shit. You couldn't believe how bad it was. I stomached about 40 minutes. I really couldn't believe how badly they'd done. Given the starting point, I asked myself, "How bad can it be?" The answer to that question was beyond my wildest dreams. It comes down to the failure of the people making the movie, maybe not the creative directly but the people backing the movie, the studios. This inability to trust the audience, basically. That they're terrified of handing a science fiction audience anything that might make any demands upon them at all, anything that isn't filled end-to-end with huge explosive CGI, and there's a market for that stuff, you know. They correctly identified that, but it's a great shame given what else the genre has to offer, and what can be done with it, and what occasionally is done with it. For example, Kathryn Bigelow made a movie called Strange Days back in the 90s. That was a very credible attempt to imagine the near-future. It was a nice piece of work. It's obviously more of a conceptual idea. It was a great movie all around, and of course it did very, very poorly at the box office. It's difficult to know whether to be cynical about it and say actually these guys have got the measure of the market, and let's forget trying to do anything intelligent, or whether it's a case of the tools not being on hand to deliver the product people want. I really wouldn't like to say which of those it is. I read that Altered Carbon is coming up for its option renewal next month. Is that accurate? No. It would originally have been renewed—it's on option until what would be this coming month, but with the Hollywood Writer's strike, we're going to have to wait for February to see what they're doing. When you signed that deal, it seemed like you were signing it away, and you were happy to let them do what they want with it. Do you still feel that way? My sense of it is that film and novel are very different forms. It would be unreasonable to expect to take a 400 page novel and shoehorn it into a 2 hour movie. I don't really think you can do that. If you can, then it's not a very good 400 page novel, I suppose. You have to accept that what appears on the screen, if it does get made, is not necessarily going to resemble your book very much. If you're lucky they'll get the thematic elements right, and they'll deliver their version of the statement you're trying to make. If you want to see a good example of that, The Prestige is a good case in point. That's a very good book, and it's a very good film. They are radically different to each other. There's a lot of space between the two things. But you can't actually at point say the book is far better than the film, or indeed vice versa. They are different takes on the same thing. I'm quite happy with that. If there is a credible movie of Altered Carbon that doesn't have an awful lot of my novel about it, I won't have a problem with that. And if they produce a movie that's not credible, and is stuffed full of CGI, in the end, if you sell something to someone... Ricky Gervais, you know the guy who invented The Office? He was quizzed a little while ago about the fact that he'd sold The Office to NBC. I haven't seen it, but I hear it's not very good. I don't honestly know. He was apparently given a bit of grilling about what had been done to this vision and how it had been messed up by the Americans. He handled it very well. He said, "If you sell somebody your house, you can't come back in five years and knock on the door and come in and say, 'Ooh no, this is definitely the wrong décor.'" It's not yours anymore. That's axiomatic. If you take the very generous money that Hollywood offers, you can't then complain if they take it away and do what they want with it it and that's not what you want. And I know there have been some spectacular falling outs along these lines, the Ursula K. Le Guin thing with Sci Fi Channel. And I kind of sympathize with her: it's a plea for quality. She thought that everything good about the book had been eviscerated, and you were left with this thing that barely resembled the original and failed to address the things she wanted to address. And I sympathize, but at the same time, Ursula, you sold this to the Sci Fi Channel. What did you think they were going to do? If you're really precious about your work then you don't sell it. It won't have anything done to it. I don't have that problem. As far as I'm concerned, if someone sees something in it that they think they can turn into a movie or a video game or something, well great, let them have a shot at it. I wouldn't personally want to be involved in the process because I think you're standing far too close to it. Market Forces was a screenplay and you picked it apart for a novel. It's eerily prescient — what does it have to say about what's happened with the economy? I'm kinda torn because on the one hand it's always nice to be right. On the other hand, I own a house like everybody else. And I don't want to see its value drop by a third. I am constantly perplexed by the reaction to Market Forces, especially the reaction in America. I didn't really think I was saying anything startlingly off the wall. To me it seemed like I was extrapolating a fairly obvious line. Anyone who knows anyone who works in high-risk financial institutions. Anybody who has friends who are merchant bankers, or stockbrokers or commodity dealers or has anything to do with that world will tell you, and I had a number of e-mails of people saying this, this is how these people operate. It's a high-testosterone environment. These people thrive on risk and massive fast success. It's a self-reinforcing loop. The more successful you are, the more testosterone you build, and the bigger risks you're prepared to take. Inevitably you're heading for a crash with that, it's impossible to sustain.
The book was really written as a critique not so much of the systems but of the mindset of this kind of boorish American business model asshole machismo. I didn't really think I was saying anything spectacularly unusual. I thought anybody who looked at would say, "Oh. Yeah, that's right." I ran into an awful lot of people for whom market forces are a kind of religious faith. I hate to caricature, but I do think American culture has a faith problem in the sense that there's much more of a willingness on that side of the Atlantic to take things on faith, and just accept stuff and believe in something wholeheartedly. In Europe people just seem to be a lot more cynical about these things, whatever it may be, if it's religion or politics or whatever. And yet it would appear there are a lot of people for whom free markets are tantamount to a kind of religious faith. And by writing the book I'd stomped on that as if I had written a viciously anti-Christian satire. That may be it, I don't know. It may be that it was a book in which it's hard to sympathize with everybody because the characters are all fairly unpleasant. As for what's happened now, I can just say, "Yep, see." It's not a very emotional "Yep, see," because to me it doesn't take a whole lot of smarts to predict something like this. I'm curious how Thirteen was received in America, and how your American audience differs from your U.K. and global audience. That's hard to tell. The book has sold very well on both sides of the Atlantic. In that sense, it's different from Market Forces which hasn't done very well in the U.S. I'm still not collecting royalties on Market Forces in the U.S., it still hasn't turned around, while all the other books including Thirteen, which is the most recent, are starting to pay. In that sense, there isn't a correlation. Thirteen sold very well in America and in its original form, Black Man, it sold very well in the U.K. as well. I've had e-mails from people about it, and some have been quite upset. Another interesting thing if you want to talk about caricatures, is that I find a lot of Americans compared to Europeans are incredibly polite. It's a curious thing. You go to America and you hear sir, and ma'am an astonishing amount of the time. People really are very genteel by comparison to London or Manchester or Glasgow, certainly. Generally speaking people were upset, but they were also very polite.
The general thrust of what they said was along the lines of, "Oh man, you really put the boot in here, is this really how Europeans see us?" To which I kind of said, "Well, yeah." Again, I don't think I'm making an arcane or off-the-wall point here. This is an observation drawn from a vast number of political commentators, many of whom are Americans themselves. And since I wrote the book I've read more of the same, and all it's done was reinforce my original impression. I sort of very gently said, "The book is a tragedy. I'm not dancing on the grave of middle America, saying 'Ah ha ha!'" It's very much a lament for the loss of the good things about America. The potential. I think people have misunderstood, too. I cast one of the central characters, Sevgi Ertekin, as a first generation American, her parents were immigrants and she's grown up as an American, but she's only just an American. For me, that's what America's about, it's an immigrant society. It's built upon wave upon wave of immigration. There's a British historian Niall Ferguson who teaches in America who wrote a book called Empire and he went on about how the Americans have this work ethic that seems to have disappeared in Europe and the attitude towards raising kids and so forth. Clearly he sees it as more wholesome. I don't think it's as simple as that, but one thing you do get from a European visiting America is how hard everyone works. And how much work is a part of the cultural landscape. The whole issue of the immigrant experience in America — and a number of friends of mine who are Americans, first and second generation Americans, are all brought up on the mythologized story handed down from a couple of generation of their immigrant parents or grandparents who worked 18 hours a day and slaved away so their children could go on to have a better education and have a better chance at life in America. That's one of the strengths of America, which very clearly is derived from its immigrant past. Waves of immigrants all over the whole world wash up in America, and are told, here if you're prepared to work you can make it. As to how true that is you can have a lengthy discussion. In a very real sense you can say that the best of America is in its newest citizens. Sevgi Ertekin is representative of the potential of America, and there's a speech where she says, "I cannot believe we pissed this all away. We invented the modern world, we created it, we roadtested on a continental scale, and then we sold it to everybody else. Then we threw it away with both hands. We surrendered to the idiot dregs of our own society." For me, that's the mission statement of that element of the book. It's a lament. As gently as I could, that's what I sort of wrote back to these people. In general terms, the book was well received, and most Americans who aren't massively politically blinkered, were able to read it and they could take issue with how successful I'd been at soaking up the culture and whether it was believable in the context I created and so forth. But fundamentally, they're saying, yeah, we all understand what this is a picture of. And that was the general reaction and those who didn't react to it well were polite and bit hurt. And mostly I was able to send them away a bit happier. Having run through that with them they thought well, "Hmm, yeah, okay." It's the whole thing where you can slag your own family, but if somebody from outside starts in, you need all hands to defend the deck. There's a national element to that as well, especially in America. In America patriotism is still a valid concept, whereas in most places in Europe it's so discredited that if someone were to say in a European context, "I'm a patriot," people would look at him askance, and what would underlie that is a suspicion that you're talking to a fascist here. As an observer, what have you made of the American election? I saw a newspaper headline today that said, "It's all over," more or less saying that McCain doesn't have a hope... What's your impression of Obama? I think you have to be very careful with Obama in the same way that people had to be careful with Bill Clinton and that people had to be careful with JFK. Obama is, I think, the right choice at the moment. I think he was the right choice over Hillary Clinton as well, simply because I think Hillary Clinton is a creature of power and in a way she's very much part of the machine. Anything about Hillary Clinton that once was once clean has been so tarnished by her time in politics. I don't think you would have seen anything remarkable. I think Obama is still young and untried enough that he might come in clean, as it were. That said, he's a politician. And like any politician he's going to disappoint. He's not a saint. He's going to have his flaws and he's going to make mistakes, and he's bound to get caught out once. If we're going to be grown up about it, you have to accept that that is going to happen. So I'm cautiously optimistic about him.
And one of those things from an outsider's perspective is America will finally be able to send someone out to Third World countries where the Third World countries are not going to be able to slag this guy off as a rich white guy. And whatever the rights and wrongs of that attitude and perception of Obama, the problem has always been that whenever the president of the United States goes to the Middle East or Africa or South America, is that the perception has fundamentally been, "He's a rich white guy...These are the colonial bastards who have made such a mess of the globe in the first place." They're not going to be able to do that with Obama. They will not be able to condescend in the same way. In an international context. I think he has a much better chance of building bridges and creating some kind of dialogue, certainly moreso than McCain. I think, and you'll have to correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that he's the first man in the American political landscape ever to say, "We've got a problem with race in this country." I guess he was forced to it by that asshole Wright, but having been forced to it, he makes a speech and says, "You're dead right I don't agree with what this man said, but there's a point to it." And you know what, it's not a one-sided thing. There's a whole other side of this coin as well. He was prepared to pick up and deal with it, which no other major American political figure that I can think of was prepared to do. Also, from the black side of things, very often you do have these powerful or messianic black political figures. So much of their power is based in this sort of resentment and the fact that they're coming up from a position of disadvantage and the pressure and so forth. To have someone who's undeniably black but at the same time a man who doesn't buy into that, that's immensely valuable. This is a gift America should give itself. To some extent, and I hate to say this, but Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have already taken steps on that road. It's increasingly hard to say there's no chance for a black person in America when they are two of the most powerful people in the world, and they're both black. It's not that Obama is the very first in that sense, but the the idea that American can elect itself a black President says something very valuable about what America can be. The potential of America, if you like. You've got a very different problem from the one we have in Britain. The problem we have in Britain is that we're living in a past. It's a past that did exist. We're not fooling about ourselves about what that past was like, but we're fooling ourselves about how much we can continue to trade on that. Britain is very much a backwards-looking nation. We fail to grasp opportunities and we fail to move forwards because far too much of our cultural psyche is buried in looking back to when Britain was an empire. It's not so long ago. A couple of generations back and we were the most powerful nation on Earth, bar none. We still haven't managed to shrug that off, and I don't think we're going to for some time. I think in America I think there's a different problem. And I think the problem comes back to this issue of faith I was talking about before. A failure to look long and hard at things that need to be looked long and hard at. I remember arguing with my friends about American responses to global a warming saying — and this was back in the early part of this decade — and I remember saying at the time, "Yeah, it's a problem. But the truth of the matter is that once this has finally been delivered, once America has become convinced of the reality of this, then you will see a massive change." Once America gets into its head what needs to be done, then it happens. There's very much a can-do mentality. And that's something that can be immensely valuable. At the same time, if it's misdirected, it can be catastrophic. The whole point of having a person who's able to point to things like the race issue, and say, "Look guys, we need to address this. We're not going to pretend it's not there." At the minimum it indicates a willingness to engage, and I think that's immensely valuable. Partly because of that and partly because of the fact of who Obama is – in terms of where he's from both racially and culturally and so forth — it gives America a chance that McCain does not. I don't know what your own politics are, but the whole of right wing politics in America has become so hegemonic. I don't think the Republican Party is interested in anything anymore except hegemony and maintaining their hegemony, whatever happens. It's all about power and the maintenance of power. I think they're absolutely out of ideas. Unfortunately, Republican victory is going to lead to the same old lies, the same old refusal to face up to the truth of what's actually going on. That alone would be enough to elect Obama, but the fact that he's a man who is black but at the time not interested in bashing White America over the head with his blackness. And the fact that he's prepared to say, yeah, we have a problem with race in this country. We have to address it, there's no use pretending it's not there. Those are valuable things. Given that it's a two horse race, you really don't need much more than that. And he's going to be helped along by yet another demonstration of massive Republican malfeasance. It's frustrating that it's taken this long. Disastrous war in Iraq. Massively damaged economy. All this stuff about the infrastructure of America failing, bridges in need of repair. Katrina, obviously. It's like someone painted the Bush administration with some kind of incredibly tough outdoor paint, it's just rolled off their backs. It finally seems, this is the one that won't roll off. In eight years, this is the first time I've ever seen Bush look scared. He was on the podium last week, and it's the only time in eight years, I've actually seen him look genuinely shaken. It makes you wonder, because the man's out the door in a couple of minutes. What more could go wrong? Is he scared his dad's oil buddies are going to come and lynch him? I think quite apart from my own politics, which obviously are left-liberal anyway, to be honest, the record of Republicans over the last eight years has been so catastrophic... Anybody else would be better. I think Obama looks like the chance for a fresh start. The chance to change some things, to do some things differently. I think that will be all right as long as we don't make the mistake that a lot of people on my side made with Clinton. We were in shock from the Reagan years, and Bush Sr. wasn't much better. We were in shock, and then suddenly we looked at this cultured guy, he can read, he plays the saxophone. There was this sort of love-in with Clinton. We failed to see the very substantial downside as well, that's he's just a man. It behooves us all to keep that in mind about Obama as well. In the end he is just a man. Let's see if he can do a good job. Let's not expect him to walk on water. You had written a piece on your website earlier this year about the backbiting in the SF/F world, and I'm curious what the reaction was. I never really thought of this as being a particularly radical thing to say. I'd sort of watched in disbelief over the last few years the way this backbiting has gone and the levels of fury that can arise from it. It just seemed a shame. Everywhere I go, in movies, in games, in comic books, you see the furniture of science fiction being used. Increasingly it's become almost impossible to write a contemporary novel without having some elements that seem almost science fictional. CSI, I hate that program by the way, I'm not plugging it – is more like a science fiction series like The X-Files than it is like Hill Street Blues because it's full of all this obscure arcane data processing and forensic technique. Increasingly, we live in science fictional times. I just think that's it's a great shame that as a genre we're not grasping that with both hands, saying, "Absolutely. Let's take this by storm," instead of bitching about whether we should have faster-than-light starships in our books or not. Who gives a shit? As some in the genre very often do, it also completely misses the point of what fiction is about. If fiction is well written it doesn't matter by definition it doesn't matter whether you put faster than light drive into your science fiction or not. if it's a well written novel than the reader will suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride you take them on. The thing that the Mundanistas have come in, saying that's it's irresponsible to be telling stores with light drives. That it makes us think we don't have to recycle our rubbish because we think we can go to another planet. That's a stretch, to be honest. That's pretty much what the platform has been. Geoff Ryman — in the mildest possible terms, he's not a tubthumper — in essence that's what he said. And it's certainly what those who have come in behind them have said, that Mundane SF is an antidote to the idea that it doesn't matter what happens on Earth because we can go and colonize other worlds. I really don't think that anyone is not taking out their rubbish because they think we're going to be on Mars in the next decade. I'm constantly amazed by how much venom and energy is vented on stuff that doesn't bloody matter. Let's get on and write whatever we want to write for whatever market that's out there. Let's just not worry about what somebody else is writing. To me it all reeks of squabbling over market share. 'I'm writing this immensely complicated science fiction that isn't like anyone else and you should all paying attention to me and read my work instead of going out and buying a hundred thousand copies of Peter Hamilton because it's a bunch of space opera crap.' People read him because he provides a product that they like. He tells these big wide screen space opera stories. I know Peter vaguely and I like him. And one of the things you have to say about him is that he's awfully sincere in his fiction, in that he writes what he wants to read. The fiction that I write is the fiction I want to read. This idea in some ways that this kind of writing is more valid, this is the kind of writing we should be paying attention to... It seems like that's a fight that could be taken place on more important territory. You could dedicate all that fire and conviction to trying to stop the Japanese killing whales, or stopping people driving SUVs. There's a series of very important social battles that need to be fought. What I'm tolerably sure of is that whether or not people write space opera is not high on my list of priorities. You mentioned that you want to write what you want to read. What made you write a fantasy novel in The Steel Remains this time out? I'd always had in my mind a faint idea about writing a fantasy novel, because I'd grown up reading guys like Michael Moorcock, Karl Wagner, Poul Anderson as well. I liked that stuff, I really enjoyed it. The first thing I tried to write — I never actually finished it — was a sword and sorcery epic. I was essentially imitating the stuff I'd read and liked. It was always in the back of my mind to do this. I don't like the sort of bucolic prince and princess living in harmony vision of fantasy. It seemed to me that if I wanted to do this, I wanted to write something very hard-boiled. I'd also for years been talking about the theoretical underpinnings of noir as a form. 'What is noir?' because it seems eminently stretchable, like you can do anything with it. I was thinking, 'What is the essence of noir?' I talked on messageboards with people about it and the conclusions we arrived about it, is that noir tends to be small scale. Noir tends to not involve a cast of thousands. They tend to be a small group of people in a relatively limited arena struggling to survive. The standard issue ending for a noir novel is that the hero escapes just. If he's lucky he comes out a few dollars ahead and gets laid along the way, but that really is about it. Noir novels do not finish with gunmen falling and life changing for the multitudes. Because by definition noir is the examination of the underbelly of the human condition. It's like this because we are like this. Noir doesn't have any clear easily removed evils, it's an understanding of the problems of human nature. When I sat down to write this, I said, okay, we're not going to have any huge-pitched battles here. This is going to be small scale knifings in back alleys, skirmishes at most. The sense that everything is corrupt, because that's something else you also don't see in fantasy. Generally in fantasy the evil or corruption is usually externalized. Either in actual figures or invading forces. This is not all fantasy, obviously, I'm making a sweeping generalization, but there's a sense that the evil is external and the fighting is external as well. And it's childlike, it's like The Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. To me, that's no kind of human fiction. The quintessential understanding of human nature is to understand that all these things are in all of us. That we're all capable of committing great evil, it's just a question of circumstance and how much you let yourself go. I wanted to put all that into the book. I also wanted a sense of how incredibly lucky we are to be living in a postindustrial society. Because again, I have no patience at all with the Tolkien-esque idea of this bucolic preindustrial paradise. I wanted to set the record straight. What Sergio Leone must have thought when he was making spaghetti westerns was a crushing desire to roll back this sickly sweet 1950s vision of the American West. The good guy's the sheriff and the bad guy's got the black and white hat. It's somewhat hard to remember, but if you watch the John Wayne westerns from the '50s and then you sit down and watch A Fistful of Dollars or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly you get some sense of what an impact those films must have had when they came out. It's this completely brutal landscape. It's a really murky world. And Leone nailed something there. And he came from outside America to do it. One of the great things about American culture is that it's a great borrower. America sees something it likes and says, "Oh yeah, we'll have that. How much money do you want to reproduce that for us?" Leone came in with what is a very Catholic vision of the American West. And was able to sell that template. In that sense the Western never looked back. And you see a similar second wave of revisionism with Unforgiven in 1992, and the same thing. What's been taken apart is Leone's mythology of these lightning fast guys with guns that can produce a Colt and shoot the pits off of an apple. And of course Unforgiven comes along and says no, no. There's something very cleansing about that, about taking something that's been mythologized and saying, "Let's give this a wipedown and see what's really underneath." Part of the brief I gave myself was, let's see if we can't do a Sergio Leone on the Tolkien landscape. Now, I'm not the first to get there. But it was clear to me that's the only kind of fantasy novel I'd be interested in producing. Those were the sentiments when I sat down and sort of banged it out. It sort of wrote itself. Are you finished with The Cold Commands, and what's in store for us in the future? I'm still working on it. It's actually taking me a lot longer than I'd expected. What happened originally was that I was going to alternate SF and fantasy. So I'd finish The Steel Remains, then go away and write a science fiction novel, and then write a novel set in the same world of The Steel Remains. When the book came in, my editor in London said, "Oh no, I want to see Book 2 and 3 of this. You've hit a stride here and I think we should continue with it." I said, "Fair enough, I don't have a problem with that." But the real issue is I had the science fiction off the ramp as it were and was willing to start putting it together, and with the fantasy I don't really have anything yet. My problem is that again there's been kneejerk critical response that everyone is reading this as the first installment in a trilogy. That's true as far as it goes, in the sense that there will be the same characters as in the other two books. I didn't envisage as the first novel as part of a trilogy at all. I envisaged it as a stand alone novel, it comes to a conclusion. As far as I'm concerned you could walk away from that book and not really read anything else, and it would be a wrap there.
Most of my books don't finish with any kind of definitive note. There's always the sense of the end of the book, but life goes on. I don't like this idea that there's a big change, and the book finishes on a big change. Generally speaking, I don't think there are big changes. I like to feel that the book finishes and you're left with a sense that, you're leaving these people now. It does wrap up as far as I'm concerned very successfully. With the second one, The Cold Commands, I'm now having to try to pick up the thread. I left them here, what have they been doing in the meantime? How are we going to weave them back into the story and what is the story going to be? That's been challenging? I wasn't ready to do it, because as I said I hadn't expected to be writing a fantasy so it was taking longer because I had to sit down and give it some thought. And also because I don't want to write a book that just reaches a cliffhanger point. There are a group of bad guys for lack of a better word who are dealt with in some fashion. I don't want this to be a series of books in which the bad guys become an increasing threat in each of the three books. And then at the end you have a cataclysmic all-destroying battle. That was not the way I envisioned any of these books. The second book is not, now we're turning the volume up. It's just another book involving the same characters. It's not your classic fantasy trilogy. In genre — and this seems to be the case more in science fiction — we cursed with a template-based form of appreciation. They always read in the context of what they're already read. A book will be assessed on how much it seems to be like something else in the same...which seems to be a really old way to read to me. I don't think it happens in mainstream fiction. The only case I saw that happen with mainstream fiction was Monica Ali. Have you read Brick Lane? She wrote Brick Lane and the next book she wrote was something completely, completely different. It was Alentejo Blue is a small character novel set on the Portuguese coast. It's about a group of British expats living in Portugal and local Portuguese people as well. It doesn't deal with her Bangladeshi roots. There was a sort of assumption that she would then go on and write something else also based on her Bangladeshi heritage. But she just flat-out refused. She said, sod it, I'm going to write this book about people living in Portugal. I don't know if the book's any good because I haven't read it. The mainstream world was kind of baffled by this. You don't often see it in mainstream fiction, and that was the only time I really noticed it. In genre fiction you see it all the time. The assumption that the product is repetitive and by definition things are seen as another version of the next product whether that be the next Vampire Hunter story or the equivalent written by somebody else. Suddenly there are a bunch of other people doing the same thing. There is a tendency that every time you pick up a book that has a resemblance to an Anita Blake novel it would be reviewed with a view to the rest of the landscape. That's definitely true of fantasy because an awful lot of reviews of The Steel Remains were measuring it against a fantasy novel by George R.R. Martin, a fantasy novel by Steven Erickson. I find that really strange. I am not George R.R. Martin and I am not Steven Erickson, and who's to say that the book I've written is anything like those? There's a constant blind impulse to find similarity and contrast. Everything in the book was taken and it was said, 'This is like so and so, but it's slightly different because he's done this instead of this.' I just think it's a very odd way to approach a book, to read it as if it were another book. I kind of feel that in genre we're a little bit too 'know what we like and like what we know.' I think that's a bit of shame, because very often things can get missed as a result. I don't know if that's necessarily the case with my book. I have seen other novels come out where people have reviewed them with a complaint that this isn't the book they thought it was when they bought it. That's not really the fault of the author. I'm fond of saying, "A really good novel is a book that takes you somewhere you really didn't expect to go, and didn't really want to go." But it takes you there and shows you a lot of interesting things and brings you back changed. You come back thinking, I didn't really want to go there, but I'm glad I did now. A novel which takes you somewhere that you've been a dozen times that you know inside and out and shows you exactly the things you've been shown again and brings you back totally unchanged. To me that's a very second-rate sort of book. You mentioned a return to sci fi...when will you come back? I've agreed to write two more of these fantasy novels. When I've done that I will be going back to writing science fiction. I've already contracted with Gollancz and with Del Rey in the U.S. to write science fiction novels as well. So I'll be going back, probably to the universe I created in Thirteen. I'm not sure where we're going to go with that. To be honest with you, though, it's hard to say. Two more fantasy novels — that's two more years. In the next two years I could come up with an awful lot of stuff I might want to explore more. It's actually very hard to predict. I wouldn't want to say what the next novel will be like or about. In one sense that's good, I like that. I would hate like hell to say, "And then I'll do that, and then I'll write another Takeshi Kovacs novel." It's pretty much like stacking burgers. The books are there to be written, but I would hate like hell to know what the were going to be. That would be a kind of living death, like knowing you'll be in the same house at the same time. Nothing will have changed. Morgan's latest novel The Steel Remains will reach U.S. bookshelves in February, and is his first effort at fantasy. The author's website [RichardKMorgan.com]