The Steel Remains (2008)

Richard Morgan’s latest is a fantasy novel – a dreadful thought for those actually in love with his blend of future noir, cyberpunk and thriller from practically all previous novels. Good news is – it’s all good here. The Steel Remains is very very brilliant, very very off-beat, and very very non-typical. In fact, it is one of those that at first seem fantasy to the core (dragons, magic, spells, blah blah blah), but, if read carefully, move more and more towards the sf end of the fantastic spectrum. (This generic identification is further complicated by a number of very explicit, if not outwardly pornographic, passages.) There are very few fantastic elements that cannot be rationally explained and contextualized. Like in any Gene Wolfe novel (but especially The Book of the Long Sun cycle), as the narrative proceeds, tiny, almost subconscious hints (Morgan, of course, being THE master of interstitial context creation) are being dropped, which constantly nibble at the edges of our understanding of what is REALLY happening here and WHAT KIND of the text it is that we’re reading.

The Steel Remains is essentially a story of three major characters, whose disparate streams of narration slowly converge towards the end and the climactic confrontation. Ringil Eskiath is a nihilistic gay war hero (now, read that combination again), whose sexual intensity is matched by his fathomless spite for any and all institutions and causes other than fighting to death. kir-Archeth Indamaninarmal (when you read it first you think Morgan is taking a cheap piss at those fantasy naming conventions) is a half-breed Kiriath, the last remaining member of the race of engineers which has departed from the novel’s physical plane (you hear the distant twinkling of the Elves’ sailing away in LOTR but the circumstances of the Kiriath’s arrival, stay and leave are radically different from Tolkien’s epic) long before the commencement of the story. And she’s lesbian but do not expect descriptions here, which combined with Ringil’s exposures (pun intended) is a very clear indication of Morgan’s undermining of fantasy’s sexual politics. Finally, there’s Egar the Dragonbane – a Majak steppe nomad, one of the handful people alive who ever killed a dragon, and a wielder of a double-ended staff lance, which is the last weapon anyone would ever like to see on their opponent, with the predilection for big-breasted young women. All three had met and fought together before, became separated by life and circumstances, and reunite at the close of the narrative.

Even from this little it is apparent that Morgan plays with fantasy conventions fast and loose – very much in the tradition of Stephen Donaldson’s Covenant novels but – I would argue – in the ways which cut much deeper. Where Donaldson often went for the negative mirror image of fantasy accouterments, Morgan complicates, scandalizes and strips away the genre’s moral certainties. But then again this might not be the genre at all. The medieval garb is here alright, but apart from that most elements of the plot can be rationalized. The dwenda can be a race of interdimensional travelers in hyperspace (which interpretation is further strengthened in a single – but very telling – mention of the attire/suit that Seethlaw wears as he kidnaps Ringil). The Scale Folk and the Kiriath would be alien races – the former reptilian, the latter humanoid (or an offshot of the human tree). The several Majak visitations by what the tribe consider demons and gods could be easily construed as instances of highly-advanced teleportation. We even get the world’s equivalent of AIs in the form of Helmsmen, one of which/whom the departing Kiriath left for Archeth’s use in her home, and the other still fitted in the old model of the Kiriath warship. All these interpretations are not immediately obvious and it is possible to read The Steel Remains as pure fantasy but the same cognitive mechanism that is at work in The Book of the Long Sun is apparent here. Also, not all lines of such thinking can be brought home yet – the novel can easily be the first installment of something longer, a possibility mentioned at one point on Morgan’s site although not marketed at this point.

Morgan also very cunningly evades the clear identification of the physical space as a secondary world. Only a handful of place names are invoked and no customary map (which is typically an important element in structuring the imagining of fantasy worlds in the same way in which the early maps of America worked upon the European mind) is provided. For all the strange sounding names this could well be the third planet from the sun. The same indistinctness applies to time frames. In fact, several mentions of the times when swords will be only museum pieces or soaring bridges will rise from where now there are marshes seem to vaguely suggest that perhaps this is some kind of Earth’s past (alternative or not). Equally, this could be our distant future – one of yet another cycle of the pendular swing between barbarity and high civilization. Technologically-advanced Kiriath with their submarines and AIs and the dwenda who have overcome the constraints of time and space could then be the visitors from the future-extrapolated world as we know it, which for the characters from The Steel Remains is a past so distant it has overgrown with oblivion and can only be glimpsed through the thickest of all veil of superstition and belief in magic.

Regardless of whether fantasy is the name of the game or a disguise for a more rational narrative, the author’s preoccupations and totems are strongly present. Some of those are evident echoes of passages from previous novels. In Altered Carbon Kovacs threatens his kidnappers with this: You’ve abducted and tortured an Envoy. You got any idea what the Corps will do to you for that. They’ll hunt you down and feed your stacks to the EMP. All of you. Then your families, then your business associates, then their families and then anyone else who gets in the way. By the time they’ve finished you won’t even be a memory. You don’t fuck with the Corps and live to write songs about it. They’ll eradicate you. In Black Man, Marsalis renders it more succinctly: “‘I told him I’d go back to Mars and find him if he didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. Told him COLIN would fund the ticket, there and back. Told him I’d kill him and everyone he cares about.‘”  Here, Ringil says to a slave trader: “You make sure they get the message. Because if I do have to come back to Etterkal and ask again, I promise you it’ll make what happened tonight look like minor toothache. I’ll kill you and your whole fucking family, and I’ll burn this place to the ground around the corpses. Then I’ll move on to Findrich and Snarl, and anyone else who gets in my way. I’ll torch the whole fucking neighbourhood if I have to” (192). The cadences are obviously very similar but with Morgan this is not a sign of self-cannibalization but rather of long-running preoccupations.

Ringil is clearly another version of Takeshi Kovacs and Carl Marsalis – a version sufficiently different from his two predecessors to cut a truly fascinating character but also sufficiently compatible with the two in his views for us to see that this is Morgan speaking his – not only narrative, I dare presume – mind. This is especially obvious in the unyielding and caustic criticism of political authority and institutionalized religion. The change of the story paraphernalia notwithstanding, the novel breathes the same violent rhetoric of anti-establishmentism. Like his predecessors, Ringil has a very ambiguous relationship with violence: he is seething with outrage at injustice, pain and death inflicted upon any Other (in this novel mostly religious, ethnic and sexual), and for all his military distinction hates war (see his long rant on 310-311), but he also exudes extreme violence (both physical and verbal) with prejudice in most of his contacts with other characters.

Other trademarks are also present. Racial Blackness features prominently (not only were the Kiriath ebony-skinned but all their machines were also made in that color) as an emblem of both outsider status and certain sublime non-/super-humanity. Technically, Archeth is not as universally hated as Marsalis in Black Man, but her mixed blood and lesbianism make her status triply ambiguous and her exclusion is only tampered by the fact that she remains one of the close advisers of the ruling emperor. Also, the Throne Eternal imperial guard seems to be avatars of the Envoy Corps from the trilogy, even if its members are far more susceptible to religious fanaticism than otherwordlily cynical Kovacs or Todor Murakami.

Having written all the above, The Steel Remains is also a great, fast-paced story with loose ends one could clone at least novellas from and great mastery of language. Then again, Richard Morgan has never been delivering anything else. 

PS. In a bout of wild wishful-thinking I imagined Morgan’s all narratives as part of the same spacetime, in which Market Forces is followed by Black Man and, three centuries of narrative time later, by the Kovacs trilogy, all of those capped on either end by The Steel Remains.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *