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Altered Carbon author Richard Morgan: 'There’s no limit to my capacity for violence'

Richard Morgan: ‘I would butcher every revolutionary guard in Tehran if I could wear enough body armour to survive.’
Richard Morgan: ‘I would butcher every revolutionary guard in Tehran if I could wear enough body armour to survive.’ Photograph: Tony Buckingham for the Guardian

On my way to meet Richard Morgan, I pass a poster for Altered Carbon, the new Netflix series based on his hardboiled cyberpunk novel about a future Earth where humans can transfer into different bodies. The writer, seated in a London cafe, grins with delight when I mention it: he lives in a village just outside Norwich and that poster, of a body preserved in plastic, is the first one he’s seen.

Altered Carbon tells the story of ultra-tough antihero Takeshi Kovacs, who wakes up on Earth “180 light years from home, wearing another man’s body on a six-week rental agreement”. Kovacs, a former member of a military elite, is tasked with investigating the apparent suicide of one of Earth’s richest men – or, as he puts it: “freighted in to do a job that the local police wouldn’t touch with a riot prod.”

The story is set in the 25th century, by which time humans are able to digitally store their consciousnesses and transfer them into “sleeves”, as new bodies are called. This slice of dystopian noir made an instant name for Morgan when it was published in 2001. “Outstanding,” said the Times, “an astonishing first novel.” Hollywood came calling in the form of Joel Silver, who produced the Matrix. Warner Brothers wrote Morgan a seven-figure cheque, which enabled him to give up his job teaching English as a foreign language. And then he waited for the film to be made – and waited and waited and waited.

“That huge cheque just came crashing through the roof,” he says. “Then, for seven years, every 18 months, they just – bang! – paid me more. But they never did anything. I spent years thinking, ‘Next year it’s coming. It’s coming, it’s coming.’” Eventually, it fell out of option – and Laeta Kalogridis, a screenwriter and producer who had missed out on the rights back in 2002, pounced. When a film adaptation fell through, Netflix took it on as a series.

Earth in the 25th century … Altered Carbon stars Joel Kinnaman as former military man Takeshi Kovacs.
Earth in the 25th century … Altered Carbon stars Joel Kinnaman as former military man Takeshi Kovacs.

Morgan traces the genesis of Altered Carbon to an argument he had with a Buddhist at a party. “We got talking about karma and the idea that if you’re suffering in this life it’s because in a previous life you did something shitty. I’ve got a lot of time for Buddhism. Among the predominant faiths, it’s the one that’s the least full of bullshit. But I pressed him: ‘So I’m suffering and I can’t remember what I did to earn this suffering? That’s not right, is it, because I’m not that person?’ And he said: ‘It’s the same soul.’ I said: ‘It doesn’t fucking matter. What matters is whether you, as an experiential being, remember it. Otherwise I’m being punished and I don’t know why. That’s the height of injustice.’”

The idea stuck in his head. “If I’d been a literary novelist,” he says, “I’d probably have gone with some kind of ghost story or reincarnation. But I wasn’t, I was steeped in sci-fi.” He cites Blade Runner as a strong influence, as well as the works of William Gibson, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett .

There are scenes of eye-watering violence in the novel and its sequels, Broken Angels and Woken Furies. “I’m not a fan of violence,” says Morgan, “but I love it in my entertainment. Everything I write is interrogating that paradox. A lot of my writing comes from rage. It’s all been vomited out on to the page. I’m incensed by how badly humans behave. I guess what it’s about is wasted potential. We could be so much better. We always trip up, always manage to fuck it up. We seem to have a will to do that.”

Critics have been largely positive about the Netflixseries, but a lot of attention has been focused on a sequence that – in the book – sees Kovacs sleeved in the body of a young woman, who is brutally tortured. “The point is, he’s lost all the hardwiring of a combat body. Most of the detail was drawn from Amnesty International reports I’d been reading about the torture of female dissidents in Iran and Colombia. I was filled with this fury.”

Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs waking up in a new body, or sleeve.
Kovacs waking up in a new body, or sleeve.

On screen, though, no gender switch is made. It is the actor Joel Kinnaman, playing Kovacs, whom we see tortured. Kalogridis made the change, says Morgan, feeling that torturing a woman would “come across as exploitative, a sick thrill for misogynists”. He’s fine about the change – “it’s still pretty horrible” – and acknowledges that the scene in the book has “been called out as being super-sexist and exploitative”. It never seemed that way to him, though. “To me, it was a kind of allegiance – that Kovacs is going to suffer what women in this situation suffer. And then, of course, he comes back later and slaughters everybody in sight.”

I tell him that this rage appears at odds with his genial demeanour. “You say I look like a nice guy,” he says. “I think I mostly am. It’s tamped down.” He then points to a scene in the adaptation in which a woman puts a convicted rapist – or rather, his consciousness – into a snake’s body. It sends the man insane.

“Netflix put out an ad asking if you would do this to your worst enemy. I’m like: ‘Yeah, probably.’ There’s no limit to my capacity for vindictive violence, I think, if some of these switches are tripped. I look at what goes on in places like Iran, especially against women. Violence against women always makes me angry – and when I say angry, I mean red-mist angry.

“I would cheerfully butcher every revolutionary guard in Tehran if I could wear enough body armour to get through it and survive. So that’s where the fury came from. And you get it out on the page. But you have to temper it with the fact that, if you just write fantasies of violence, it won’t work. It’s got to feel realistic. There has to be a cost.”

Martha Higareda and Kinnaman in the series.
Martha Higareda and Kinnaman in the series.

Morgan is a consultant on the show which, if all goes well, will run for five seasons. He has said in the past that he is done with Kovacs, but the adaptation has “kind of woken it all up again”, so he might reconsider. For now, though, he is finishing a new sci-fi novel set on Mars. “It’s a response to this ludicrous, wide-eyed enthusiasm for colonising Mars that is kicking around, especially in America.” It stars “a disenchanted protagonist who is violent at the drop of a hat and doesn’t really like anybody or anything. So it’s not dissimilar in tone”.

Morgan is 52 now, with a wife and young son. He was in his mid-30s when Altered Carbon was published. By the time he landed his three-book deal, he’d been “pawing away, waiting for 14 years, getting constantly knocked back”. His stories were “violent, dark, bleak, hero-driven”. They still are, but back then there just wasn’t any interest.

One novel was called Ethics on the Precipice. “Really wanky title, isn’t it?” he asks. “No one wanted to touch it.” So he got the huff. “I’d had this really nice, cosseted, middle-class upbringing. I just assumed I’d wander out into the world and be discovered as a brilliant novelist. I went to Cambridge, which is not a place to be disabused of your privilege, and I was drifting around London in my 20s, thinking, ‘It’ll just happen.’”

He went travelling “in a bit of a sulk”, dragging a typewriter with him (“Fucking idiot”). Then came a moment of clarity in a youth hostel in Mexico. “I had this crisis: ‘OK, what are you doing? Are you going to bum around or are you going to write?” He went home, “got a crummy job in London teaching, and just tried to get on with it”.

When people ask Morgan for tips about how to write, he has one he is fond of sharing: “Have your protagonist do something unacceptable early on. You need to step away from him, so he’s not an insert or a wank fantasy. You can take the hero ride, but you’ve got to distance yourself. This is not me, this is not you, this is a man you might enjoy being in some ways, but there’s always a price to be paid. He’s morally compromised, I guess.”

There is of course one more tip he could offer: never give up. This screen success has, after all, been a long time coming. “It’s just unbelievable,” he says. “They’re delivering lines to camera I wrote down in 1997 – more or less word for word.”

• Altered Carbon is published by Gollancz. The TV series is on Netflix now.


This article titled "Altered Carbon author Richard Morgan: 'There’s no limit to my capacity for violence'" was written by Alison Flood, for The Guardian on Tuesday 13 February 2018 06.00am

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