Market Forces by Richard Morgan

I'm a latecomer to the Richard Morgan party, not having read his first two novels, Altered Carbon and Broken Angels, before jumping into his latest to reach the U.S., Market Forces. People warned me not to judge him by it, because it's not as good as the others, and at least one person said not to bother, but I've never been very good at taking anybody's advice. So I read it. And am happy to report that it's not entirely awful.

There is much to dislike in Market Forces. The characters are cartoons, the central concept of Road Warrior-meets-The Apprentice is ridiculous, the book could stand to lose at least a third of its pages, and much of the dialogue is little more than an excuse for awkward exposition or tedious speechifying. Cheryl Morgan did a good job of laying out many of the problems with the book, both logical and ideological.

However, Market Forces isn't a complete and utter waste of paper (Adam Roberts even seems to think it's a work of genius). I found it to be a fun read, actually, because I never took it very seriously. It's a dumb thriller jazzed up with some clever satire. Satire doesn't need to be logical or fair, it just needs attitude, and Market Forces has plenty of attitude, offering a world where every character seems to be freebasing testosterone. In some ways, the novel is a classic sort of science fiction, the kind that isolates one element of a present society and speculates about "if this goes on..." Thus, for Morgan, the reductio ad absurdum of neoliberal business practices is an environment of feral brutality masked with the thinnest veneer or corporate civilization. This single, simple speculation leads him to portray a world where all power equals violence.

To understand why the book wasn't, at least for me, entirely a waste of time, I have to compare it to a recent novel that I only read about fifty pages of: The Fountain at the Center of the World by Robert Newman. Newman's book is similar to Morgan's in many ways, particularly in its politics, and better written and more carefully conceived -- but in the portion of the book that I managed to get through, I felt so manipulated by the author that I simply couldn't continue. This is a book that has gotten good reviews, and that was obviously written to advance a political viewpoint toward which I am somewhat sympathetic. And yet I had a visceral negative reaction to it, and soon stopped reading it, saying to myself, "If I want to read Chomsky, I don't need a novel to serve as an intermediary."

I am not entirely opposed to the idea of fiction as propaganda. Storytelling is one way that human beings relate to the world, and fiction can be a tremendously intimate form of art, one that lets us empathize with people we might not otherwise have the chance to know or understand. To create such empathy, though, fiction requires some sleight-of-hand, some diversionary tactics, because details speak loudly in the reader's mind and the author's manipulations in favor of some sort of agenda can become screamers, as Robert Newman's were for me.

Myth and imagination can heighten fiction's ability to bear a message -- we like our fables to have morals, after all, and allegory becomes a muddle without referents. At the end of Market Forces, Richard Morgan has a page of "Books Consulted", and the first two are by Noam Chomsky (Profit Over People and Rogue States), but I only rarely thought while reading the novel that I'd rather be reading nonfiction. The reasons are many, and complex, but a somewhat-too-simple explanation is that, unlike Newman's, Morgan's book offered an imaginative and satirical distance from the real world that allowed me then to make my own connections. Newman's slightly less satirical realism made me feel that he was organizing his novel as a series of incidents to support a thesis, and that's not the sort of novel I have much interest in reading.

I'm writing subjectively because I'm sure there are many readers who would respond in exactly the opposite way -- readers who would find Newman's approach far more appealing, and would be frustrated be the entirely implausible set-up of Morgan's novel. The implausibility of Morgan's story, though, is what saved me, because it created a necessary distance that softened the proselytizing at the heart of the book, and because it suggested that the book is not "the way things are", but rather a thought-experiment, an entertaining extrapolation. If I want to know about "the way things are", I'll read a newspaper or magazine, because that's more efficient than reading a made-up story. If I want to think about what the imaginary, farthest-reaching implications of the idea of competition might look like, then I'll read a work of imagination like Market Forces.

Because Richard Morgan has a particular talent for writing action sequences, and because his book is entertaining and accessible, I expect it will sell well and will find readers who might not be inclined to agree with the author's politics. A few of those readers might begin to think about competition, violence, and class warfare in different ways than they did before -- which may not be exactly as Morgan thinks of those subjects, because the story he tells is ambiguous and imaginative enough to allow for a variety of interpretations. This is not a book that will merely preach to the converted, because the story itself is not entirely from one church, and that story is engrossing and suspenseful enough that even people who vehemently disagree with Morgan's politics at the outset may find themselves caught up in the events and situations, turning the pages late into the night. For a book with a clear political purpose, this is an accomplishment, and one I can respect, despite the book's many, and nearly fatal, flaws.