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Re-Coil by J T Nicholas

Titan Books, 2020, 357 p. Published in Interzone 286, Mar-Apr 2020.

 Re-Coil cover

When an author prefaces a novel with an epigraph from Shakespeare he (Nicholas in this case) is setting himself up for a fall. This book’s apparently oddly punctuated title arises from that quote. Coils here take the place that in Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels was occupied by what Morgan dubbed sleeves. Once you have shuffled off one mortal coil your backed-up personality, your core, is decanted, along with your memories (except of course those gained since your last back-up,) into another coil grown solely for these purposes. Hence Re-Coil. In effect people in this scenario are immortal. Unless something goes wrong. There are safeguards to the process. Supposedly. To guarantee quality control one corporation has the franchise and is held to exacting standards.

The economics of this are a bit obscure. Some sort of insurance means you are guaranteed back-up but not necessarily in a similar body or even one of the same sex. There are four grades of coil from the top-notch to the frankly worthless, used only to bank up credit for a better one next time. Nicholas does make a foray into the demographic implications of all this in terms of population increase but soon skates away from them. At the same time everyone has a connection to an internal AI, called an agent, which acts as a sort of personal internet, connected to the outside world. And nanites in the narrator’s bloodstream effect quick tissue repairs to any injuries.

That narrator, Carter Langston, is part of a spaceship salvage crew. He is the one tasked with entering derelict ships to determine whether there is anything worth salvaging. In one such he comes across scores of dead bodies, faceplates open. While he is engaged in the grisly task of retrieving the cores of the dead, one of the corpses reanimates and comes for him. The derelict, his coil and his ship are destroyed.

On reawakening in his new coil, he discovers there has been a glitch, data corruption, he nearly died for real. And then he narrowly escapes an assassin. Another of the crew did not survive. Someone is out to get them. Along with the crew’s computer whizz Shay Chan, a woman now uncomfortably re-coiled into a male body, he sets out to discover whom, and what is the big secret which needs such drastic protection.

Their investigations lead them to a megacorps called Genetechnic. It has created nanobots designed to seek out and remove bad memories from a coil. They called it Bliss. The nanobots between them formed an AI which decided any memories at all could be bad and wipes them all out, leaving behind blank coils. Worse, the nanobots can act like a virus and infect others – and they escaped the derelict ship. The Genetechnic operative sent to silence Langston and Chan decides their ship boarding expertise will be an asset in chasing Bliss down.

Langston affects to be sickened by the slaughter, indeed gore of any sort. Nevertheless the body count rises and rises and there is a certain fetishising of the mechanics of gun use. Nicholas here is attempting to disown his cake yet is still serving it up for wider consumption.

As in many other stories of this type the prose tends towards the utilitarian and a lot of the information dumping is clearly intended for a twenty-first century audience rather than being required for story purposes. Nicholas has also made several unexamined assumptions. Langston (and others) prowl spaceship hulls utilising magnetic boots, implying these spaceships are made of iron, a material surely too dense for the purpose. Despite being exposed to vacuum, a solvent, rather than evaporating instantly, still manages to dissolve a glue. In a fairly important scene set inside another depressurised spaceship the text implies oxygen (which the text acknowledges is absent) is a fuel. It isn’t. We are then told other fuels are available, running as gases through pipes on the walls. (Really? And to what purpose?) These gases are utilised to burn our heroes’ pursuers. Not without oxygen they wouldn’t. Missteps like these are detrimental to a suspension of readers’ disbelief.

If your tastes lie in the direction of shoot-em-ups rendered in the form of prose Re-Coil may very well satisfy your appetite. If you’re looking for anything even mildly approaching Shakespeare you should try elsewhere.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Pedant’s corner:- “The airlock opened into a short hallway, ending at another hatch at either end” (‘ending in another hatch’, or, ‘ending in another hatch at its end’. The hallway may have had hatches ‘at either end’ but cannot have had one and the same hatch ‘at either end’. ‘At either end’ means two hatches,) “almost before they got them out” (before he got them out,) “passages that lead to engineering” (text was in past tense, ‘passages that led to engineering’,) “to affect the retrieval” (to effect the..,) gasses (x2, gases,) “the laser-cutter doings its gruesome work” (doing,) acclimation “acclimatisation, ditto ‘acclimate’ for ‘accclimatise’, ) laying (lying,) “the edge of the sink caught my eye and lunged forward” (a neat trick, that; ‘and I lunged forward’,) “it might by me a few extra seconds” (buy,) “would have stuffed be back” (would have stuffed me back,) “to bled off” (x2, bleed off,) Deadalus’ (Daedalus’s,) “happened.,” (has an intrusive full stop,) “to be back on-board” (on board,) harness’ (harness’s,) “for whoever is behind this have found out” (for whoever is behind this to have found out,) “a trio … were pushing” (a trio … was,) “almost no one looked at raw footage, anymore” (almost no-one looked at raw footage anymore,) “the walk from the bridge, passed the airlock, and on” (past,) “still made from blindly” (either ‘still made blindly’ or ‘still made from blind’,) sprung (x2, sprang,) “from living room” (from the living room,) “for all intents and purposes” (to all intents and purposes,) “taking pressure of the wounds” (off the wounds,) “‘somewhere near Sol..’” (only one full stop needed,) “get ahold of” (a hold of,) Daedelus (Daedalus,) “Class One’s” (it was a plural, so ‘Class Ones’,) ditto Class Two’s (Twos. I note Class Threes and Class Fours were not apostrophised,) Ingles’ (Ingles’s,) “waiving the glass” (waving,) route (rout,) “that staid my hand” (stayed,) “where dropped down” (where he dropped down,) “instead I grit my teeth” (do USians really not say ‘gritted’?) nanines (nanites,) “sublimate every molecule” (sublime every molecule,) “the thrust from the shuttle’s engines were still giving us a simulated gravity” (the thrust … was still giving us …,) “like a pack downhill slalom skiers” (like a pack of downhill.) “He didn’t so much hit the coil as did overfly it” (no need for that ‘did’,) “‘confidant’” (x2, confident,) “to clear section of ship hull” (clear a section,) automatons (automata,) “she was taller than I” (than me,) O2 (x2, O2,) Bliss’ (Bliss’s,) cannister (x2, canister,) vitalness (vitality, I would think,) “the myriad computer systems than ran a ship” (that ran,) “now ran from tablet” (from her tablet,) “Shay’s asked” (\Shay asked,) “I waived one hand” (waved,) “demonstrated an amazing faculty in manipulating the archive system” (facility,) “repairs that needed to be affected needed to be affected right now” (effected, in both instances,) CO2 (CO2 – I also note the O2 and CO2 but the text eschewed N2 preferring ‘nitrogen’,) “Bilss-infected” (Bliss-infected,) “of inevitable press of” (of the inevitable press,) “around the hole that that” (omit a ‘that’,) “eggshell walls, one each bed, chair, window, bathroom, exit” (one each bed???) In the Acknowledgements; a parenthesis ending ‘?).’ (no full stop needed after the end bracket.)

The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2015, 560 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Dark Defiles cover

Firstly I must say I am not the intended target for this sort of stuff. I did enjoy and admire Morgan’s earlier novels but they were solidly SF, with no tinge of fantasy. While there are again hints in the text that the setting of The Dark Defiles may be rooted in the real world – albeit unimaginably long ago in the book’s timeline – and machines that seem to be AIs which would make this a fantasy/SF cross, my misgivings about the second in Morgan’s Land Fit for Heroes series (which I reviewed here) are reinforced in this last of the trilogy. Yes, the main characters are rounded and resourceful and the politicking believable but the narrative focuses almost unremittingly on violence. And our hero has magic powers. I also found that the Dark Lords – and the even darker lords in this one – appear too late to convince entirely that they are worthy opponents.

Still, Morgan can undoubtedly write and his world is well-imagined, dense and detailed but this hand, that could have been a strength, is to my mind overplayed. Background is delivered so minutely that it often gets in the way of story, indeed at one point info dumping about some minor characters is actually expressed as a list. Apart from the externals – not only do we have gods to contend with but there are incidental lizard folk to be fought against and also here be dragons (well, one dragon) – like in so many fantasy tales the society against which this is portrayed is mediæval in form. Then again, without this, it is difficult to see how so many sword fights could be fitted in to 500 plus pages.

The book’s structure is both standard and unusual. We start with three viewpoint characters and follow them to the end (whatever that end is for each of them) but their tales bifurcate early as Ringil Eskiath is separated from Archeth Indamaninarmal and Egar Dragonbane; and never become one again. This is in contrast to most narratives and is a brave decision by Morgan. Yet, despite the cover saying “It ends here….” the ending does leave scope for more.

People do seem to relish this sort of thing; but I enjoyed Morgan’s SF better. I hope he returns to it for his next project.

Pedant’s corner:- didn’t use to be (used,) a missing full stop at the end of a line of dialogue, like a herdsmen (herdsman,) hingeing (the normal English spelling of this is hinging, but Morgan has spent part of his life in Scotland where the verb to “hing” means something entirely different hence hingeing would be my preference: hinging is used later though,) careful not apportion (not to apportion,) judgement of those beings (judgement of is for a case, for beings it would be judgement on,) to breath it (breathe,) sprung (sprang – which appears elsewhere,) bid it goodbye (bade it goodbye,) “are going make” (are going to make,) do the math (maths, if you please, x 2) “He’s going pull” (going to pull,) “the Talons of the Sun” (twice this phrase is given a singular verb, surely talons are plural?) gestures him join (to join.) This is a remarkably low strike count of literals for over 500 pages of densely printed text.

The Cold Commands by Richard Morgan

Golllancz, 2011, 406p.

 The Cold Commands cover

In Morgan’s last novel, The Steel Remains, the previous in his Land Fit for Heroes sequence, it was the differences between it and the usual fantasy opus that stood out. In The Cold Commands what struck me instead were the similarities.

For we have a mediæval type setting, an emperor, background wars, Dark Lords, sword wielding and sorcery, eldritch enemies from out of time; all soaked in blood and guts. The swearing also seemed a little overdone this time. There is, though, a hint at a science-fictional gloss to it, but only a hint. Yet unlike a fair swath of fantasy it is a convincing world Morgan has created here. But I wouldn’t want to live in it.

It is all revealed in the same gritty way as in The Steel Remains. We still have two gay agonists – though neither of them actually gets much sex here – and there is fine writing, if a touch too digressive at times. Morgan is at pains to describe his world, and it is a very detailed setting, every minor character has a credible past, and his or her own motivations, every muddy environment is suitably filthy.

Deep in the mix are musings on the impossibility of determining the difference between a demon and an angel except by their actions and on the inefficacy of torture.
The ending, when it came though, was rushed, the final confrontation over quickly. A pity, after nearly 400 pages.

It was only a minor scene in the narrative, but I found the gang rape problematic. It is not enough to have one character tell another, “Soldiers rape.” Perhaps they do. It is quite another matter to have your protagonist abet the act – encourage it even – whatever sins the victim may have committed against him or his family in the past; and for her to reveal that she has been raped before (as if that ameliorated anything) – and not just the once – whether she is being truthful to her past or only defiant. Yes, this reveals a degree of ambiguity in our identification with the protagonist, and at his moral complexity but!

Our heroes may have feet of clay and may have to do unspeakable things out of necessity, but when given a choice, don’t they still need to be better than the bad guys?

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2008, 345p.

The Steel Remains cover

This is the most unusual Fantasy I’ve read in years, perhaps ever. Not only does it have two gay main characters, there is also a high (but realistic) degree of swearing, both of which are normally conspicuous by their absence in the worlds of the Fantasy novel.

Ringil, a hero of the finally triumphant war against the lizard folk, grown tired of the political and social disappointments that peace time has brought, now lives quietly in a rural backwater, apart from dealing with the occasional corpsemites which inhabit and animate dead bodies in the local graveyard. A master swordsman, he dispatches the corpsemites with little difficulty. He is drawn back to the capital city when his mother asks for his help in rescuing a female cousin who has been sold into slavery as a result of the debts incurred by her deceased husband. Ringil does not suffer fools gladly and before embarking on his search manages to upset more than a few of the city’s bigwigs. He is also warned that a semi-mythical species known as dwenda may be behind the strange occurrences in the region where she has been taken.

Two of Ringil’s former wartime comrades, Egar, a plains-dwelling nomad chief, and Archeth, last of the Kiriath, are also given narrative strands. All three are fully rounded, Ringil and Archeth in particular seeming like real people with all their flaws.

If I have criticisms then they are that the dwenda, when they appear, despite their ability to flit in and out of the grey spaces, seem to be too like humans – indeed it might be possible to read The Steel Remains as Science Fiction rather than Fantasy – too many of the asides outstayed their welcome, it is a pity there is still a default mediaevality to the setting and the resolution is much as you might expect from a standard fantasy. But it’s all good rollicking stuff.

Morgan deserves huge credit for taking on the Fantasy genre and thoroughly shaking it up. If all Fantasy were like this I might read more of it.

Black Man by Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2007
This novel is published in the US as Fearless.

The first thing is to ponder on the reason for the alternative title. Black Man obviously does not carry the same freight in Britain and Europe as it would have in the US. I do not know for sure but suspect that Morgan’s US publisher took fright at the thought of a restricted readership had the title been the same in the US as in Europe. Perhaps now, with the change of President, that reasoning may no longer hold so true, but only time will tell.

In the book, the US has fragmented into several parts including the Angeline Freeport, the Rim States (most of the seaboard) and the Confederated Republic (or Jesusland, effectively a fundamentalist version of the old Confederacy) and a rump Union.
Carl Marsalis is a variant thirteen, part of the Osprey programme, a human genetically modified to be in essence effective fighting machines, a throwback to an earlier form of human supposedly bred out when agricultural settlement took place. In this world other genetic modifications exist, such as hibernoids (who sleep for four months but are active the other eight) bonobos (sexually compliant females) but because of their nature (unnature?) all such “twists” are looked down on by “normal” humans but it is variant thirteens who are feared by the general populace. As a result they are either exiled on Mars or quarantined in areas called tracts. That Osprey and its American equivalent Lawman failed in their attempts to gengineer effective soldiery was because thirteens do not like obeying orders.
Marsalis also happens to be black, and British, though the action is set almost wholly in the Americas. He is employed by UNGLA to track down other thirteens who have escaped the reservation and to kill them if they do not surrender. Returning from one such mission he is arrested in Florida – part of Jesusland – held for months and released only when agents of the Western Nations Colony Initiative (COLIN, who seem to run the tracts and Mars colonies) need him to help find a renegade thirteen from Mars, with an interesting sideline in cannibalism, who has been brought back to Earth as an assassin.
The book is intricately plotted; indeed a less complex novel than this would have finished about 7/10ths of the way through when Marsalis finally catches up with the quarry. It is a measure of Morgan’s confidence that the book does not stop there. The viewpoint characters are various and varied with believable (mostly) motivations.
Given the scenario it is not surprising that there is violence here similar to Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels. (I must say however that I preferred the, to me, more grounded and slightly less visceral Market Forces.)
Having said that, in Black Man Morgan is more assured than in any of his previous outings. This world seems deeper, richer, more textured. One of his (non gene-enhanced) characters states that there is no more war because humans have learned the cost is too high. This is notwithstanding the assertion by another thirteen that they, not the milque-toast cudlips (the pejorative name variants use for normals) are the true humans. The high body count in the book also runs counter to the argument.

However, there seems no good reason why Marsalis is black. Other thirteens do not seem to be – or at least are not described as such. Is it solely as a metaphorical representation of the menace inherent in thirteen status? If true, that decision is surely worthy of examination. But I will trust Morgan’s intentions as stated in his dedication that he hates bigotry, cruelty and injustice with an unrelenting rage. His sympathy for the variants does shine through.
This was a world I was immersed in and did not want to surface from. As an example of the SF thriller Black Man is seriously good stuff.

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