With eighty authors in attendance at Cymera, Scotland’s festival of science fiction, fantasy and horror writing, labyrinth of the Pleasance was like a trip to another world over the second weekend of June, with the Friday night session in the Cabaret Bar a long overdue visit to Scotland for writer Richard Morgan, a former faculty member of the University of Strathclyde who has since returned to his native England.
His most recent novel Thin Air a followup to 2007’s Black Man, published internationally as Th1rte3n, it sprang from a line he had included in Black Man which he had fully intended to return to. “I had the idea for that character. Cryogenic sleep is no joke. Waking up from it is really hard. I had the idea and I didn’t want anyone to steal it so I put it in there.”
Morgan’s return to science fiction after the hard fantasy trilogy A Land Fit for Heroes which concluded with The Dark Defiles in 2014, he had been contracted to write three science fiction novels and three fantasy novels, the intention being to alternate between the genres and series, but with the first fantasy novel The Steel Remains giving him his first time on the bestseller list – “albeit an independent bestseller list, at the bottom” – his editor had asked him to focus on that instead.
Having anticipated longer to prepare before the second volume was due, Morgan said The Cold Commands took longer to write as he hadn’t planned the outline for it in advance, “as some of you who read it can probably guess.” Further delays occurred when he was approached by EA to write in the games industry, offering remuneration significantly more than he was accustomed to.
“I had this fantastic period of about three and a half years where I was this roving gun for hire attached to EA,” he said, recalling early morning limousines arriving outside his home to courier him to the airport to travel the world at a moment’s notice, quite a departure from the provisions of the publishing industry. “That George Clooney movie, Up in the Air, that was me.”
When that calmed down and Morgan had intended to move his focus back to the overdue novels when the birth of his first child again derailed his plans – “no getting on with that or anything else” – which is why his intended research for Thin Air which would have included reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s acclaimed Mars trilogy.
Regarded by many as the definitive work on terraforming and colonisation, never came to fruition: “I literally never got the time to do it so instead of research I invented the lamina to get around it, keeping the air in over Valles Marineris to create a habitable biosphere, albeit hard scrabble.”
Talking about the possibilities of space travel and colonisation, presumed in the middle of the twentieth century to be a given, science and technology have instead moved in other directions never predicted. “Our AI capacity has far exceeded our space travel capacity – range, radiation, micrometeorites, these are all still problems.”
Commenting on the cult that has grown around figures such as Elon Musk, while their achievements are undeniable Morgan was still apprehensive of what they represented. “An umbrella organisation like NASA has accountability built in; no one person should have that power. We’re in a Marvel Iron Man fantasy, putting cars into space.”
The lead character of Thin Air, Hakan Veil, an “overrider” genetically engineered for strength and endurance who awakes from his hibernation “running hot,” a period during which he is particularly volatile and dangerous, he is more concerned with getting the job done than being likeable.
“I’ve noticed the protagonists of my novels are becoming less heroic over time. The police chief copes better than Hakan Veil. I think post-human is going to creep up on us. The extent we are tweaking other plants and animals, we will arrive without realising we’ve got there, but the people who wake up as post-humans won’t think they are, they’ll think they’re normal.”
Asked about Netflix’s adaptation of his debut novel, Altered Carbon, Morgan displayed an enthusiasm which would have been alien to either Veil or Takeshi Kovacs as he spoke of the resources and talent involved: “Way past happy. I cannot convey the feeling to you.” Describing his reaction to the first viewing of the trailer, he said “my entire career as a writer had been leading up to that.” He also told the audience that he did appear very briefly as a face on a First Colony bank note – “blink and you’ll miss it.”
Having sat in on a couple of sessions in the writers’ room for the second season based on the second Kovacs novel Broken Angels, it will be a looser adaptation: “We’re diverging from the novel, but there is nothing in the show that did not spring from the book. They really honoured the source material, but season two is going to be a different beast.”
Considering the possibility of his other works being adapted, specifically A Land Fit for Heroes, Morgan had no illusions. “Two aggressively gay protagonists in a nihilistic world? It’s not Tolkien. You get calls – “I hear you have a fantasy trilogy that hasn’t been optioned?” You never hear back. I suspect it will be the last of my works to be optioned.”