Just as Netflix’s Altered Carbon live-action TV series has rocked the streaming giant with its future shock sophomore season starring Anthony Mackie, Richard K. Morgan is actively engaged in numerous other projects of note, including another graphic novel set in the addictive world of Takeshi Kovacs.
“You’re going to see Kovacs in a number of different sleeves,” he says, “and this time around, things are a bit more fraught and there’s a prison context to some of the narrative. I understand there’s a lot more body shock tied to this installment than the last one, which stuck to noirish crime and stories of corruption.”
Inverse recently chatted with Morgan from his home in England to hear his impressions of Altered Carbon’s resleeved season, debate the merits of Kinnaman vs. Mackie, learn his early gateway into sci-fi, the origins of those avian aliens known as The Elders, if there’ll be a fourth Kovacs novel, and how he’s progressing on Dynamite’s new Altered Carbon graphic novel.
What does it feel like seeing Altered Carbon make the leap from page to screen?
It feels pretty good. When they were shooting the show three years ago, I went out to Vancouver to watch them film. It was just mind-blowing. On one occasion I was sitting watching them shoot this scene with the characters of Kovacs and Miriam Bancroft. A lot of the dialogue was lifted directly from the book. They’d taken lines that I’d written down sometime in the mid-nineties and they were pretty much exactly as they are in the book. And I’m thinking, “I wrote that line!”
But in a way it was about time. The book got optioned by Joel Silver for a movie back in 2002 when it was published. I was very naive back then. I assumed if someone paid you that much money for the option on your property that they’d get on and do something with it. They renewed the option for seven years in all. I sat there thinking, “It’s going to happen next week. It’s got to be.” I think I reached a point around 2008 or 2009 when I started to think it was never going to happen. Even when Laeta Kalogridis took the option on in 2010, and she was shooting for a movie, it got bogged down and there were logistical problems. I was going to be like William Gibson. I’d be seventy-something years old and everyone will talk about the movie that could have been. So when Laeta said to me that Netflix picked this up and they’re really going to run with it, you just don’t believe it. I’ve been living on full-spectrum delight ever since!
How do you view the adaptation and its transition to a new medium?
The show really honored the book and it’s fantastic. There’s almost nothing in the novel that doesn’t come through in the show in some shape or form. But obviously it’s also its own creature and was written by different people with different obsessions and ideas, so it has to mold itself to accommodate the medium. It’s inevitable to have these kinds of changes in order for it to work.
One of the things I found fascinating was with the Quellists being this revolutionary movement. I come from a middle-class British background. Laeta comes from a hardscrabble American background. So when you say to us to write down our associations with the world revolution or revolutionary, they’re going to be two very different things for us. I think about the streets of Budapest in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 rebelling against the Soviet machine there. It’s a very urban contest.
Whereas for Laeta and most Americans, the words have an instant connection to Washington and the Battle for Independence, which is a rural concept. It’s seen in terms of hills and mountains and battles in forests. So when you see Kovacs and Reileen taken in by the Quellists, it’s in a very leafy, green, outdoorsy kind of context. The prism changes.
What’s been your greatest reward seeing the series evolve into its second season with Anthony Mackie taking over as Kovacs for Joel Kinnaman?
It’s funny. There’s been a whole love-hate thing going on in social media. You’ve got people thinking Mackie is fantastic and he’s really upped the game. Then you have the alternative with them saying he’s rubbish, he’s useless, he’s nowhere near as good as Kinnaman. But come on, you’ve got two very accomplished frontline actors. Mackie is Juilliard trained! They’re way past pro in both cases. It’s ludicrous to pretend that one is so much more than the other one.
My empathy lies more with Kinnaman, mainly because the first season departed somewhat from the book. By the time you get to Season Two, you go way off the beat from what the second novel is about. Kovacs in the show is moving consistently away from Kovacs in the books.
Kinnaman’s Kovacs was closer to the character I wrote in the novels. They delivered what was required. The whole point in the first season is that Kovacs is completely burnt out and dialed back to nothing and is essentially a killing machine on loan. Whereas the second season is dealing with him stripping back the emotions to this primal relationship that saved him with Quell, but also in the sense of rescuing him from this self-loathing he had as a CTAC operative. I saw Mackie in the film Detroit and he was absolutely electrifying. And I watched him in an episode of Black Mirror and Mackie aced it there too. I knew he’d be fantastic.
It’s the nature of genre that we tend to find ourselves in these adolescent catfights about stuff, instead of being able to take a measured stance. It’s a lack of maturity, I guess. [Laughs]
You expanded Altered Carbon’s mythology in the 2018 graphic novel, Download Blues. Tell us about Dynamite’s upcoming Altered Carbon graphic novel and what can you tease about the project?
So it’s another graphic novel and we’re doing the same thing as last time around. It’s like 120-odd pages, single binding. It’s a different storyline and there’s a different writer on it this time. Dynamite picks the writer and they come up with a suggested narrative. My job is very backseat because I’m really mobbed. I’m sort of like a showrunner in the sense that it’s my job to ride herd on it and make sure it fits the continuity of the IP. So I’ll say we can’t do that because the technology doesn’t work that way, or Kovacs wouldn’t say that because that’s not something he knows about at this stage of the proceedings. Little things like that. First time around I was quite involved in the writing and this time I’m stepping back a little bit more from it.
The script is pretty much done and we’re at the point of going panel-by-panel and line-by-line now and making sure everything’s smooth but the story is tamped down and in place. We’re about one-quarter done with the pencils and colors are just starting to come in now but only in the first few sequences. Writing is being done by Scott Bryan Wilson and primary art, the pencils and inks, are being done by a guy called Max Fuchs. So it’s a new crew entirely on this project. The working title right now is called One Life, One Death.
I can say you’re going to see Kovacs in a number of different sleeves, and this time around things are a bit more fraught and there’s a prison context to some of the narrative. I understand there’s a lot more body shock tied to this installment than the last one, which stuck to noirish crime and stories of corruption. This one is a bit more raw and there’s an emphasis on the nasty potential that the sleeving technology allows to go on. There’s plenty of kicking ass and breaking faces and time for Kovacs to do some brooding on how fucked up the universe is.
What were your influences and gateway into science fiction growing up?
I can remember being a kid of nine, ten, eleven years old and I had a stack of Doctor Who novelizations on my shelves. And plus some slightly more grown-up stuff as well like novelizations of Space: 1999. And reading a lot of Michael Moorcock like the Eternal Champion sequence and spilling out into other things he was writing. From there I went into Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword and a bunch of fantasy-related stuff like that.
I think I did Asimov and many of the Golden Age guys. The crystal moment for me was reading William Gibson short stories in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. That’s when I thought, yeah, this is the kind of stuff I want to write. Gibson was welding together his noir influences with a standard science fiction setup and that’s the thing that really worked for me. This short, snappy, Chandleresque dialogue. For me that was the starting pistol. And that’s stamped all over my Altered Carbon books.
What was your model for the mysterious extinct alien species, The Elders, and did you like their manifestation at the end of Altered Carbon Season 2?
Something I learned very early on in my trade, is that with aliens, the closer you get to them, the more difficult it is to make them stick. You end up in a place where they're basically just humans with bits of plastic stuck in their eyebrows or different face molds. What I’ve done is sort of cheated by saying there are aliens but they’re all gone and we don’t know much about them or understand what they’ve left behind, and we’re scrambling around for clues.
The show has taken a slightly different line on that with one of the aliens still around and the idea that humans did collide with them when they settled Harlan’s World. In the books, they’ve been gone for tens of thousands of years, and possibly millions. The enigmatic thing is the way to go because it enables you to hint at them and make them seem scary and creepy without having to pin it down.
In the show, there’s mention of them being an intensely militaristic species, but in the books, depending on who you are as a person, you project onto them what you want them to be. I dodged a bullet there a bit. It’s always easier to paint something mysterious than explain it. We do know they were fighting either amongst themselves or fighting someone else.
In Broken Angels it’s left open, but the specialists seem pretty clear. They find this alien ship that belonged to the Martians, then they find another ship, and all we know is that this wasn’t built by the same people. The show took out the Mars aspect but they got it right in that I always imagined them to be pterodactyl-like. Maybe something between a pterodactyl and a fruit bat. They’ve got the big bat wings and they’re sort of avian. In Broken Angels they find these mummified corpses of them in the ship and they look like the souls of eagles tortured to death. It’s very pretty but it doesn’t tell you very much. [Laughs]
The show did more or less what I would have done, and there may have been budgetary constraints. You can see the spread of wings and that they are enormous. It looks almost like a moth in some ways, and that it may have had more than two eyes. They captured an overwhelming sense of power and menace. I was looking for that same sense of awe.
Did you have an endgame in mind for Takeshi Kovacs when you began the saga and are there plans for a fourth novel?
Not really. The book was written without much thought for further installments. One of the things I have done since it took me so long to get published, is that there was a huge amount of worldbuilding going on in the background in the same way as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where there’s an enormous amount of thought gone into the world it takes place in, much of which is not directly related to the story. I’ve got the same kind of backdrop like that for Altered Carbon.
I stopped with Woken Furies not out of a sense that the story of Kovacs was done, so much as I got to the point that if I keep doing this it’s going to feel tired. I wanted to walk away with it still fresh. I leave him where he’s resolved some of his issues, but he’s got work to do in the ongoing fight against the Protectorate. As to where that goes, I’m not sure.
”Game of Thrones lost me after one or two seasons.”
I’m deeply ambivalent about revolutionary politics and I think that shows in the book. But it’s not a story about the revolution, it’s a story about this guy stuck in the middle of all this and it’s where he’s going. Most of my narratives are intensely personal and the broader political stuff is only a backdrop. I confess that I struggle with books with long dramatis personae pages. I don’t want to jump from character to character. Game of Thrones lost me after one or two seasons. I want one, maybe two or three strong protagonists that will drag me through the narrative. Even if I were to do a fourth Kovacs book, I’m not convinced I’d do the story of the war against the Protectorate. There are other places you could go that would be more interesting
What new projects are you excited about for 2020?
Apart from showrunning for the new graphic novel, I’m working on Gone Machine, a sequel to my last novel, Thin Air. It’s noir-inflected future stories, in this case set on Mars in about 200 years time. There’s a thriving colony on Mars with a nasty underbelly to the whole thing. Anyone who liked the Kovacs books will like these because there’s a similar vibe to them. There’s no sleeving technology because we’re not that advanced, and instead, there’s a focus on materials technology and locking down real estate on Mars. And biotech as well, in the way that humans have to be modified biologically in order to live on Mars. This sequel will pick up some of the characters in the first novel. So that’s what I’m putting together at the moment.