FT: Future corporations, business agents/assassins and a definite Altered Carbon/ Market Forces vibe: I think I can see why Syndicate might have appealed to you…
RM: Well, as you say, it seemed like a natural match – this is ground I know well from my own work; but beyond that there’s the fact that I’ve been an avid gamer since 2002, so when a major games company showed up asking me if I’d like to work on a title in my area of practice, it took about 10 seconds to work out the answer! I was called in initially to create an overarching narrative, which was more or less like writing a long short story set in the game world. Then there was a lot of tweaking back and forth at Starbreeze as we worked to align the detail of the narrative with the gameplay dynamics. And finally I collaborated with Starbreeze’s writers to create the actual moment-by-moment scripting. It was pretty much a perfect introduction to the practice of game writing.
FT: What can you tell us about Miles Kilo? Is he similar to Carl Marsalis, from your novel Black Man?
RM: Not really, no. The original Syndicate is a far more brutalist vision of the future than the one I had in Black Man. Marsalis, for all the genome tweaking and training, is still fundamentally a functional human being, with all that implies. He has personal agendas, a sense of self, a life. The agents in Syndicate are something far bleaker than that. They’re essentially plug-and-play tools for the corporations who create them – robots made from human flesh. And that was part of the challenge, really. We wanted to stay true to the vision of the original, and that meant a truly dehumanised protagonist. When you first step into Miles Kilo’s shoes, you really are a cold-blooded monster. Now, in the course of the game narrative, some of that starts to change, of course, but not as much as you might think – the shift is quite subtle, and it’s left open to some serious moral questions. And at the end of the game, you’re left facing those same questions: to what extent are you still simply a plug-in, psychopathic, blunt instrument? To what extent have you really changed?
FT: How different is it writing for a visual medium?
RM: It’s not in itself something new for me. I’ve done both comic-book work and screen-writing at one time or another, and game scripting is a close enough relative to those that it wasn’t wholly unfamiliar territory. But you have to re-jig when you cross over from novel writing, sure. It’s a whole different set of assumptions, and those come with both pros and cons. And then, within that shift, there’s the fact that writing for a game is in some ways very different from other visual media as well. So it’s a pretty steep learning curve all round. Which is a blessing for a writer – it keeps you sharp.
FT: Where do your ideas stem from? Do you read widely on current speculations in science as a matter of course? Or gather together your ideas from more esoteric sources?
RM: It’s a bit of everything, I suppose. I’m a big fan of popular science literature. I consume a lot of it as a matter of course in my general reading, so sometimes my ideas emerge from there. That was the case with a lot of the genetic science in Black Man, some of the underlying economics in Market Forces, and the pheromone sub-plot in my Black Widow comic. But, as often as not, ideas will pop up out of some completely random piece of personal observation or exper-ience – you sit on a cabin veranda in the Caribbean and watch geckos run about upside down on the ceiling, and suddenly it strikes you: what if there was a technology derived from that for climbers? Or you sign the agreement on a car rental and find yourself wondering what it’d be like to have a similar contract for your body. If you’re paying attention, almost anything in life can be potential inspiration for a story.
FT: Let’s talk about your own novels a little. You first became known for the Takeshi Kovacs SF series, starting with Altered Carbon. They’re pacy, punchy reads with, along the way, a lot to say about the consequences of war, ethics and the value of life. Why did you want to write them, and who were you inspired by?
RM: SF was always my first love in terms of reading, and so I think it was inevitable that when I started trying to write, that was where I’d come out. And if there is one writer who signposted the way for me, it has to be William Gibson, whose Sprawl stories were the first thing that really leapt off the page at me and made me realise: I want to write stuff like this. Of course, what I’d detected, unknowingly, in Gibson’s work was a laconic noir worldliness that he’d borrowed from the American hardboiled tradition, and that suited my increasingly jaundiced view of human affairs. By the time I sat down to write Altered Carbon, I’d been back to check out that noir heritage first hand – I was reading everything from early practitioners like Hammett and Chandler, right up to the latest exponents like James Ellroy and Lawrence Block. And at the same time, by then, I’d also had a bellyful of Thatcher and Reagan’s world, but was equally exasperated with the way the Left was twisting itself ideologically out of any possible relevance to the lives of the ordinary working people it was supposed to represent. That gave me a political dimension to place alongside the hardboiled one, and noir turned out to be the ideal tool for dovetailing the two. There was a sense of moral bankruptcy in the air, a sense of failed ideals, and Kovacs walked right out of those ruins.
FT: Winning the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008 for Black Man (Thirteen in the US) must have been a notable event for you, too. How important are such awards to the genre, in your opinion?
RM: Well, it’s the highest accolade in British SF – but I think awards like the Clarke are vital, because what they do in a consumer economy is to create a valuable counterpoint to the dynamic of validat-ion through sheer volume of sales, which ultimately is too susceptible to a lowest-common-denom-inator race to the bottom. Of course, juries are made up of human beings, and so are eminently fallible. But I prefer to trust the opinion of a group of informed enthusiasts in a field rather than the aggregated purchasing reflex of a million marketing-driven consumers. There is a lot to be said for informed opinion.
FT: Have we heard the last of Takeshi Kovacs and his universe?
RM: I haven’t at any point drawn a definitive line under the Kovacs series – not least because I’d love to go back there myself! But I’m smart enough to know that if you strip-mine your inspiration without mercy, sooner or later you’re going to run up against the law of diminishing returns. Every series character I’ve ever known and loved hit that wall sooner or later, and I wanted to get out before it happened to me. Woken Furies just seemed like a good place to jump ship: third book, some sense of closure in the character arc, and also a sense that I’d pushed the body-swapping conceit about as far as I usefully could. That said, if I ever have a fresh enough idea for either Kovacs or the Protectorate universe, I’ll jump back in quite happily.
FT: Most recently, the ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ series caused quite a stir. Personally, I loved The Steel Remains. It reminded me very much of Michael Moorcock’s Elric books: intelligent fantasy with an appropriately modern-seeming dystopian background.
RM: I always loved old-school sword-and-sorcery. Moorcock’s work is among my favourites, and I think I always had a hankering to write some of my own. I wanted to see how the noirish vision of the Kovacs books might translate into a fantasy landscape. A tale told after the Great War against a Great Evil, a tale about post-traumatic stress and disillusion in the wake of victory – a tale, in fact, to cover all the aspects of war that fantasy so habitually avoids. And then, about six years ago, I showed the character vignettes to my UK editor – and I was signed up for three books, just like that!
FT: And where next?