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The Steel Remains
Richard Morgan
Gollancz, 352 pages

The Steel Remains
Richard Morgan
Richard Morgan was an English language teacher at Strathclyde University. Thanks to the advance for film rights to Altered Carbon, he is now a full-time author living in Glasgow.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Thirteen
SF Site Review: Thirteen
SF Site Review: Woken Furies
SF Site Interview: Richard Morgan
SF Site Review: Market Forces
SF Site Review: Broken Angels
SF Site Review: Altered Carbon
SF Site Review: Altered Carbon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John Berlyne

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Back in 2002 when I read and reviewed Richard Morgan's debut novel Altered Carbon over at SFrevu, it was clear to me that here was writing force to be reckoned with. For a first novel to be so brim full of swaggering confidence is a rare thing indeed. Since the appearance of that first novel, Morgan has created a brand for himself that has set him apart from his peers. His trademark is his aggressively uncompromising attitude to sex and violence in his novels, and this, coupled with his sharp and incisive grasp of how to drive a novel forward has turned him into one of the most authoritative voices in today's genre scene. After five science fiction novels (which have brought Morgan the Arthur C. Clarke, the Philip K Dick and John W. Campbell awards) and some work in the field of graphic novels, Morgan has now extended his repertoire further by offering up his first fantasy novelů and it is one that will raise a few eyebrows, if not a few hackles!

The loudest and most resonant factor in The Steel Remains is -- with typical Morganesque unapologetic bluntness -- that our main protagonist, Ringel is a hard-as-nails, foul-mouthed, gay guy with a big fuck-off sword. Now that, in and of itself, should not seem such a big deal -- fantasy is littered with warrior types and it's standard fare that if they're not wielding swords, they're threatening folks with axes or maces or spears or any number of blunt instruments, and reflecting the vernacular of our times, they may occasionally utter a curse or cutting remark in the execution of their monster slaying. The sexual peccadilloes of such characters are also, certainly in modern fantasy, often alluded to, though it is fair to say that an openly gay protagonist in this mould is rare, though not unprecedented (although, having typed that, I find I am hard put to give you an example). It is the genius (and, as I will argue, the flaw) of Morgan that he takes these tropes and ramps them up, amplifying them to speaker-blowing volume.

But first, the plotů the aforementioned Ringil is a war hero entering the middle years of his life. He lives, when we first meet him, in retirement, feeding himself from the proceeds of minor mercenary work and the telling of tall tales of his prowess. His fame stems largely (and deservedly) from the part he played in an infamous battle against the lizardmen who so nearly conquered his people, and perhaps without his actions, the war might have been lost. However, the gloss has faded somewhat on Ringil, and the cause of this is largely due to the flagrant display that is his attitude to his own sexuality, a proclivity shunned by the society in which he lives and in certain instances, criminalised and harshly punished. Whatever his current circumstances, Ringil comes from good stock, and his mother arrives unannounced to ask for his help in tracing a relative recently sold into slavery. This then is the journey upon which our hero embarks, but of course, the search leads him on a journey that is far from simple.

Alongside this central plot pillar, Morgan runs two further strands that concern characters who were colleagues of Ringil's in his warrior days. The first is Egar, a nomad chieftain no longer favoured by his tribe, largely due to his modern ways and then there is Archeth, a trusted advisor to the ruler of these lands -- a lazy man with an energetic mind. It becomes clear that Archeth is from some "other" place, the last of her kind, a race of great engineers.

Also from somewhere "other" are the antagonist element, the Dwenda, a legendary fighting folk, swifter, leaner and meaner than any enemy faced by these people within living memory. It transpires that the Dwenda are at the heart of Ringil's quest and are clearly involved with both Egar's troubles and the business that Archeth's royal boss sends her to investigate and of course all three plot strands are drawn together as the novel heads towards its climactic showdown with the bad guys.

Taken at face value, Morgan has, as one would expect of an author of such top-drawer calibre, created a fast-paced, tightly plotted work, that is right up there with his previous output. However, I question whether this is truly a fantasy novel, or rather a Richard Morgan SF novel with swords and tight leather pants. What is interesting here is that the setting created by Morgan remains insistently SF, as if he cannot fully divest himself of the trappings. The otherness of the Dwenda and of the race of people Archeth belongs to is resolutely off-world, a fact perhaps not explicitly expressed, but heavily hinted at, and any magic at work is strongly influenced by the laws left behind by the late Arthur C. Clarke -- specifically that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It seems inescapable to me that The Steel Remains is all about technology beyond the ken of most of the characters -- does that make it SF or fantasy? Even after reading it I can't decide!

For all its strengths and forthright edginess, for all its skilful world building and tight plotting, The Steel Remains may ultimately suffer from the reactions readers will have to its sexual content. Now I am as broad-minded as they come, but I felt the incessant bombardment of gratuitous, hardcore, gay pornography intrusive to my enjoyment of the novel. It's a thorny issue is this -- the knee jerk reaction (and I have heard this already voiced) is that if you don't like this aspect of the novel then you're clearly either a prude or a homophobe -- but I can confidently state that I am neither, yet these aspects marred my reading experience. Others may argue how significant it is for a fantasy novel to have an openly gay protagonist. That may well be true, but I'd argue that I can warmly welcome such a protagonist, without all the graphic detail depicting what he gets up to in the bedroom. I have good friends in real life who are gay, but it is not necessary that I watch them screw each other in order to have an appreciation of their lifestyle. In many ways, the notion of "forcing" us as readers to "confront" gay issues seems completely passé to me -- haven't we moved beyond all that? The main problem with all this is not that there's a gay character, or even that we must endure multiple scenes of him grunting and sweating and fucking, it is rather that the author appears to be promoting an agenda, one which is not really necessary per se, and certainly not in terms of moving the plot of this otherwise solid novel forwards.

It could be further argued that Morgan is a writer already notorious for his unflinching attitude to sex and violence in his work -- and that is true. To have a gay character and then not to handle the gay sex with the same lurid carnality could have had Morgan himself subject to the homophobe trap -- but I don't believe he has applied the same "sex description" rules in this instance. I think instead he has struck out, pushing even further at the boundaries precisely because of his lead gay character. Inescapably then there's an agenda at work in The Steel Remains (made all the more clever by its plausible deniability) that will doubtless have this novel endlessly debated in the blogosphere and argued about at convention panels for many months. That's clever, because by default it will sell copies. But to my mind it is also cynical -- controversy for the sheer sake of it and Morgan is a good enough writer and The Steel Remains a good enough book, that it would have done equally well without such theatrics.

Copyright © 2008 John Berlyne

John Berlyne is a book junkie with a serious habit. He is the long time UK editor of Sfrevu.com and is widely acknowledged to be the leading expert on the works of Tim Powers. John's extensive Powers Bibliography "Secret Histories" will be published in April 2009 by PS Publishing. When not consuming genre fiction, John owns and runs North Star Delicatessen, a gourmet food outlet in Chorlton, Manchester.


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