Category Archives: Books

Cyperpunk Dystopian Matrix Books and Graphic Novels

Review: Woken Furies

220px-Woken_Furies_cover_(Amazon)

The Story

Woken Furies is the third novel in the loosely-interconnected Altered Carbon Series, or more accurately the Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy. This time we find Takeshi Kovacs on his home planet of Harlan’s World, a curious planet where orbitals left behind by the Martians will fire automated hellfire laser blasts on any ships that go too high in the atmosphere, except for certain small areas in the atmosphere. It’s been like that for as long as the residents can remember, and even though the Martians are long gone now, no one knows how the alien technology works or why it’s there at all.

Kovacs is on Harlan’s world because he is seeking to administer retribution to an extremist religious group known as the Knights of the New Revelation due to them killing a long-lost love of his and her daughter.

While trying to secure an escape after one of his attacks, he decides to help save a woman named Sylvie from a group of such religious zealots. It turns out she’s part of a mercenary group called deCom. Kovacs joins this group for a little bit, until Kovacs finds out he’s being hunted by a deadly killer. Sylvie then becomes captured and Kovacs hatches a plan to help her escape. The story also involves an AI entity that may or may not be Quellcrist Falconer, the long-dead revolutionary leader of the envoys.

Quellcrist Falconer

Not exactly straightforward

While this plot may seem pretty straightforward, I was only able to piece it together with the help of Wikipedia. Unlike Altered Carbon and Broken Angels, the novel doesn’t feel like one story, but rather two or three, possibly even four, separate stories loosely connected with the common thread of Sylvie and the assassin hunting Kovacs. This really hurts the story a lot, and I found this novel the most difficult book to read of the three of them by far. Unlike the first and second, which felt very much like page-turners at times, I found it hard to follow what was happening in Woken Furies because of how many different characters there were. This is because there are different stages of the book where Kovacs teams up with different groups. With each group he either has a mission, or hatches a plan to do something, that involves all members of the team, not unlike a mission Ethan Hunt might carry out in Mission Impossible. So not only are the steps of the missions complicated, the actors and targets keep on changing as well, as do the teams Kovacs is with. It also hurt the pacing of the story, and this is the most important detractor to this novel.

No overarching goal

Unlike Altered Carbon and Broken Angels, there is no clear end goal for Woken Furies. With Altered Carbon the book was set up from the beginning: Laurens Bancroft hired Kovacs to solve his own murder, and the readers go along for a ride with that overarching goal clearly set: we want to know what happened, why, and how.

With Broken Angels, again the goal is very clear: a mysterious Alien artifact has been uncovered, a portal that leads to who knows where, and Kovacs and his (one, non-changing) team work together to try to open the portal and find out what’s on the other side.

With Woken Furies, however, things just…happen. Kovacs saves Sylvie on a whim, because he doesn’t like the religious zealots and he wants to save an innocent woman. When he gets roped into her deCom group, he goes along with them because it’s convenient, but again, there’s no overarching goal or mission when he’s with them. As I read this, I thought this would be the group that Kovacs would stick with until the end of the book.

Envoys

Revolving door of groups to team up with

So it was confusing when something happened that caused him to leave that group, find another group in another location, and have the same thing happen. This time his second group is acquired because he is looking for a place to hide from the deadly assassin that is pursuing him. Again, he goes along with the group because it’s convenient. There is still no overarching goal at this point.

Despite all this, it’s still a good book

Richard Morgan is an excellent storyteller. He writes as if the world is real and it’s up to us to figure out what is going on, much like William Gibson did with Neuromancer (which was also very confusing for me to read). The action scenes are gripping, there is some mystery, but nothing like the Film Noir style we saw in Altered Carbon. There is also none of the space opera-esque nature that we saw in Broken Angels. Rather, it feels more like a series of heists, a bit like Ocean’s Eleven. If you go into this book knowing there are different groups with different stories that will all be tied up eventually in the end, that might help. But when I went into reading this book, I had no idea, and the difference between Morgan’s 1st and 2nd book is striking. Other than the main character being the same, this book bears very little relation or connection to the others, and doesn’t feel much like a sequel at all.

Final Verdict: 6.5/10

Good action, dialogue, and intrigue, but the discombobulation of the different stories makes the plot confusing enough to lose most readers, like, myself. As a result I felt it easy to put the book down because I didn’t know where it was going, and therefore lost interest relatively easily. There were some very interesting new concepts to think about in the book which I appreciated, however, such as double-sleeving or the nature of AI consciousness. Still worth reading, just not as good as the other two, and know what you’re getting yourself into.

Killtopia: A Fresh Neon-Splattered Cyberpunk Comic

Have you sold your ballsack to attend Wreck-Fest X yet? Not to worry, reading Killtopia is the next best thing.

 

Killtopiais the new upcoming graphic novel by Dave Cook and Craig Paton, published in Glasgow by BHP Comics and under Cook’s own brand of Card Shark Comics. It’s currently still in the crowdfunding stages, but their kickstarter has at least allowed them to publish their first chapter.

Killtopia has all the fun tropes that one might expect or hope for in a cyberpunk comic. Robots, bounty hunters, future tech, Japanese culture, and vivid dystopian futures. It checks all the boxes you want. The authors’ inspirations include Blade RunnerBattle RoyalePacific RimHorizon: Zero DawnBorderlands, andMetal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

If any of the above made your mouth water, then you’ll probably love this graphic novel. My first impression of the cover and first few pages of Killtopia was that it felt very reminiscent to Josan Gonzalez, the cyberpunk illustrator and publisher from Spain whose artbooks and prints are similar in their high levels of detail.

It was also fun to see little easter egg items, like the glasses from Transmetropolitan prominently featured on one punk’s face in the beginning pages. This is no coincidence, as the titular cyberpunk comic was what apparently got Cook interested in comics in the first place. They went the extra mile to ask the author Darick Robertson if he would be willing to get involved, and much to their surprise, he agreed to provide art prints to backers of their fledgling comic!

As part of their stretch goals that they would later “wreck”, Cook and Paton ended up giving out to fans who helped back their project a variety of different artwork including a Judge Dredd/Tom Foster art print, retro game cover art postcards, and a Killtopia Original Soundtrack. This was the first time I had ever heard a comic selling a soundtrack along with the comic itself.

Since there’s a lot of discussion and controversy over what constitutes official “Cyberpunk Music” I was excited to hear what type of music they chose to produce. The music itself is atmospheric, relatively simple, and a little reminiscent of Vangelis’ work on the original Blade Runner, if it were all done on an electric keyboard. While not being the best Cyberpunk music I’ve heard, the YouTube video conveniently features a lot of the artwork from the comic itself, so it serves a dual purpose.

Synopsis

Chapter 1 takes place in a futuristic dystopian Japanese metropolis called Killtopia and its surrounding areas. The city is being overrun and terraformed by violent robots that are called “mechs”. As a result, corporations, the military and gangsters hire bounty hunters called “Wreckers” to go into the city, kill the rogue mechs, and then bring back their precious tech in exchange for money and fame. The main character, Shinji, is a poor wrecker who risks his life to obtain and sell tech in order to pay his sister’s medical bills without her knowledge. She has a common disease without a cure called The Rot, which is a mech-caused Nano-Virus that breaks down human cells from the inside out. The other main characters are Crash, a sentient robot who teams up with Shinji, and Stiletto, the #1 wrecker of the city.  Shinji believes Crash can help his sister and countless others be cured from The Rot, whereas Stiletto is just looking for more fame, but her character may develop within the comic.

Analysis

I took my time reading this comic because of all the details there were to enjoy in each panel. It felt a bit like a comic version of Ready Player One, in that there were so many references on each page. I mentioned above the nod to Transmetropolitan with Spider’s glasses, but I also noticed eye implants similar to Batou from Ghost in the Shell, and the out-of-panel introductions to each secondary character felt like the introductions a player sees when playing Borderlands and meets a big boss or assisting NPC. The fashion sense of the people in the comic also deserves its own consideration, as it runs the gamut of punk style in very fun, different cyberpunk ways. Capitalistic marketing of Killtopia’s own-world products are front and center, which was very reminiscent of Blade Runner. For instance, we see marketing for “Kaiju Cola” all over the city on billboards and walls, but also slapped on the characters themselves.

Kaiju of course is a nod to Godzillaand the more recent Pacific Rim. There are also Japanese Kanji characters all over the comic, which I wish I could read, but according to the authors they’ve checked the Japanese and Japanese culture elements already by family members and friends living in Japan.

I could also see some budding philosophical issues being raised. In the middle of the first chapter Shinji decides to protect Crash from another wrecker, which raised the age-old question of whether AI life should be spared if it’s not human.

Although this comic is very graphic in some of the deaths of non-important characters, which makes the comic that much more memorable, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. There were several scenes in the first chapter where something is happening in the background as characters are talking (such as an overpowered robot misbehaving with an interrogation victim, unbeknownst to its owner) which I found very comical and well done. Sure it’s a common humor device, but it’s ubiquitous because it works, and works well.

The cyberpunk visuals are detailed, intricate, and neon-soaked beauties. It’s filled to the brim with cyberpunk themes and references, which makes reading the comic fun if you can catch them all. It’s also clear that the producers of this comic have experience drawing comics—the way the narrator and speech bubbles are drawn, the flow from one box to the next, and the interlinking panels is all done in a very professional way. This of course is for a reason, with Cook and Paton both having experience creating other comics before this one. Cook is actually the founder of Card Shark Comics (under which Killtopia is produced), and backers actually get his previous work (a post-apocalyptic series called Bustand a dark fantasy series called Vessels) along with Killtopia if they support the Kickstarter. It’s too early to tell how well the story will be, but by the end of Chapter one I was drawn in, left on a modest cliffhanger and wanting to read what comes next. The only fault I could give to this comic is the soundtrack that comes with it, being somewhat underwhelming and unoriginal, feeling like a creative reimagining of things we’ve heard before. To learn more about the Kickstarter, check out their extensive page here.

Killtopia #1 – 9/10

(Note: This is a re-post of a piece I wrote for Cyberpunk website Neon Dystopia, where I am a regular contributor.)

Richard K Morgan: Cyberpunk influencer of our time

Today’s post centers around my new personal inspiration for Cyberpunk, Richard K Morgan. Most of you may know him as the guy who wrote the source material for the Netflix hit TV series Altered Carbon. Some may know him as the write of the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, of which Altered Carbon is the first book (and you should definitely read the other two, since Season 2 will be based on the other 2 books!).

But Richard is a very interesting guy, and I think it’s worth delving into this talented writer’s past to get to know him better, and also to help us understand what we might be able to expect from him in the future, as well as gauge what kind of influence he might have on the Cyberpunk genre.

Early Years

So let’s start at the beginning. Richard was born in London and was brought up in the village of Hethersett, near Norwich. He went to good schools, buried himself in reading and music, was rather solitary with few friends, and had no interest in drinking or girls.

He then started his first year at Queens college in Cambridge, and all that changed. He discovered alcohol and drugs, but most importantly, he experienced a heart-breaking first love relationship that wrecked his first year at the university.

So as a result, he shifted his studies to history, scraped by as he struggled with putting actual effort in his studies, and finally finished college disillusioned with no purpose or direction.

Being a writer isn’t easy.

He always knew he wanted to be a writer, but in a comfortable middle-class upbringing, he was sure that it would eventually just happen. “I just assumed I’d wander out into the world and be discovered as a brilliant novelist.”

So with that in mind, he moved to London, planning to become a writer immediately get published with the snap of his fingers, and then travel the world with his royalty checks.

But that didn’t happen. London made sure of that. Everyone wanted to be a writer there, and no one encouraged you to write since it was so common.  Morgan had wanted to do two things, to travel and to become a writer, and the latter clearly wasn’t happening.

Fortunately, becoming an ESL teacher is quite easy in comparison.

So he signed up for a 4 week intensive CELTA course in Istanbul to become an ESL teacher, and then easily got a job teaching and being paid at a local salary that was higher than a hospital doctor.

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And he ended up staying in the English Language Teaching (ELT) field for 14 years, the field that he fell into to make a living while traveling. He started as a novice, read the literature, joined professional associations, signed up for further training, and before he knew it he became a director of studies, a seasoned ELT pro, and finally a teacher trainer.

As he taught English, he continued writing, as much as he could. Short stories, articles, a screenplay that no one took seriously, a bad first novel, letters to editorial staff, and so on.

Until the day came when he got Altered Carbon published.

And then, in 8 months, Hollywood bought it and he gave up his day job.

Just like that.

The Hollywood figure who came to him? Joel Silver, who produced the Matrix.

Warner Brothers wrote him a seven-figure check to buy film rights for the book.

And then Richard Morgan waited and waited, for seven years every 18 months they paid him more. It eventually fell out of option, and then Laeta Kalogridis snatched it up. After another film option fell through, Netflix stepped up and took it on as a series.

The rest is history.

Between publishing his first book Altered Carbon in 2001 and the series being released on Netflix in 2018, however, Richard kept busy. He finished the 2nd and 3rd book in the series, and then continued writing full time.

Then he wrote two 6-issue miniseries for Marvel about Black Widow.

rkm black widow.jpg

His screenplay became a novel (Market Forces), and was optioned as a film and won the John Campbell memorial award.

Another novel of his, Black man, won the Arthur C Clark award.

And then he wrote a fantasy trilogy between 2008 and 2014.

Finally, alongside all this work, he had the great opportunity of being brought on board as main writer for both the 2008 cyberpunk video game Syndicate, and for Crytek’s 2011 video game Crysis 2.

What an incredible career, right? And it’s not even close to being finished!

Morgan is now 52 years old, with a wife and a young son. He moved back to the town that he grew up in. He was in his mid-30s when Altered Carbon got published.

When he was asked what was one writing tip he would recommend, he said the following:

“Have your protagonist do something unacceptable early on. You need to step away from him, so he’s not an insert or a wank fantasy. You can take the hero ride, but you’ve got to distance yourself. This is not me, this is not you, this is a man you might enjoy being in some ways, but there’s always a price to be paid. He’s morally compromised, I guess.”

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Sources:

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/interview-richard-morgan-on-rebooting-syndicate-7581320.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_K._Morgan

About the Author

 

Neuromancer (1984): A Review

If ever a book could be considered the father of Cyberpunk, Neuromancer would be it. Written in 1984 by William Gibson, Neuromancer tells the story of a punk hacker called Case who is down on his luck until a mysterious client gives him one last shot at redemption to complete a heist with a rag-tag team against an unknown wealthy entity.

This book has a couple different settings with a couple different main characters. The two main characters are Henry Dorsett Case and Molly Millions, an augmented mercenary. Case is a ‘console cowboy’ who used to be good at hacking the virtual reality dataspace called “the Matrix” until he was infected with a toxin that left him unable to access the Matrix ever again. That is, until a persuasive benefactor offers to cure him in return for one last job, which of course he is unable to turn down. The benefactor, someone name Armitage, hires him along with Molly and a couple others to complete a series of hacking and heist jobs.

Molly and Case

This story takes place in a couple of different settings. The first is in Chiba City, Japan, in the underbelly of this dystopian world. The second is in Istanbul, Turkey. The third is in a cylindrical wealthy space habitat called Freeside.

If this all sounds pretty confusing, that’s because it is. The plot and the settings are highly confusing, as are all the character’s backstory. And Gibson makes sure to throw the reader into all of this without explaining any of it.

One of the things I loved about this book was in Gibson’s ability to describe these fantastical places, as well as his penchant for incredible gritty punk dialogue. He shines most in the Chiba City settings, so much so that it actually added to my already dying wish to visit Japan by adding Chiba City to the list. His description of the luxurious city of Freeside was also incredible, especially considering when the book was written.

The problem with Gibson’s writing, though, is that he really needed to take some more time to explain what in the blazes is going on.

It was so bad at times that I had to consult Wikipedia and different sources online to figure out what was happening in the story, where they were, what they were doing, and why it was important. In order for a book to be truly great, it should be able to stand on its own, and not confuse its reader such that they need external sources to explain what is happening.

I think I may be in the minority here in being underwhelmed by the book, even though by the end I did thoroughly enjoy it. It simply wasn’t what I was expecting. I wish the plot were a little less complicated, or explained a bit more, and I would have also liked to see a more driving plotline. Although there is a sense of urgency as Case is on a pressing timeline for finishing the job in time, the sense of urgency is diminished a bit by the confusion of the whole story.

Nonetheless, it was a great read, and the contributions the book made to the cyberpunk community can’t be stressed enough. I think if you take the book Neuromancer and combine it with the 1982 movie blade runner, you would have the seeds of all the main cyberpunk genre. While Phillip K Dick did have a lot of ideas and contributed to the genre, it didn’t exist before these two, and then when Snowcrash came along it was considered post-cyberpunk I believe. Gibson created the idea of the Matrix 15 years before the seminal 1999 movie came out, and I suspect it had a big influence on that movie. I am grateful to all that came after Neuromancer, but upon taking the book by itself at face value, there is a lot that could be improved.

Overall, I would give the book 7.5 out of 10.

P.S. The first line of the book is considered by some to be a work of art, so I figured I’d include it below so you get a small taste of Gibson’s incredible writing style.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Snowcrash (1992): A review

Well, it only took me about three months, but I finally finished Snowcrash (to be fair it’s long and I read slowly). Here’s my review of the novel.

Published in 1992 by Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash is considered by many to be among the perennial novels in the cyberpunk genre. It is a relatively modern favorite, written in the 90’s instead of many of its older predecessors written in the 60s and 80s, and thus has a more modern flair. The story revolves around two main characters. The first is called Hiro Protagonist (no, I’m not kidding), a hacker extraordinaire that is also a skilled katana sword-wielder. He was also one of the original coders of big parts of the online virtual world called the Metaverse. The second main character is called Y.T., and is a courier in the real world, a line of work that involves Y.T. delivering packages using an advanced form of skateboard that she “poons’ cars with (attaches a suction cup connected to a strong retractable cable) in order to weave around the traffic on the highways. The story takes place in the future, where all governments have collapsed and corporations have become the de facto countries of the world, leading their own organizations with their own areas, security, and borders with passport control.

The title “Snowcrash” refers to a new type of drug that can be transmitted via the blood, but also virtually, by looking at a specific screen online. This new scary drug is the main plot driver in the book, and the story revolves around learning more about Snowcrash, who is using it and why, how it came to be, and what it is meant to do in the future as a dangerous weapon.

In terms of Cyberpunk stories, I liked this one a little more than Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which were the first two cyberpunk novels I read before this one. The dialogue shines through in the story, with casual witty banter among the characters. The novel feels like a 20-something wrote it, or perhaps it was written for that age group, and with the deferential main character’s name the novel definitely feels a bit like a parody of other cyberpunk novels.

Still, though, the fact that a dangerous drug is on the streets was not compelling enough of a plot point for the story to keep me reading. In addition to the fact that the novel is quite long, I found myself putting down the book many times and picking it back up. AS you read you see that things happen, but the pace feels somewhat slow, especially with nothing really to build up to until the very end. Even then, I felt that things were just happening in the story, and I was following along.

Nonetheless, there were a lot of cool ideas that I picked up in this novel. The first is the idea of corporations ruling the world, instead of governments, as I feel the current reality is a mix of corporations and governments truly ruling. I also quite like the concept of loglo which was introduced in the book. Loglo is the lighting of logos on highways and the world in general.

Another favorite was perhaps one of the most overpowered pseudo-villain of all time, Raven. In addition to being highly skilled with spears and knives, his enemies are afraid of killing him for reasons that I can’t explain without spoiling the book.

One thing I didn’t like, however, is how much Stephenson likes to explain things to the reader. Early on Hiro explains aspects of his reality to the reader, as if he knows that you are reading. This was a stark contrast from reading Neuromancer, which read as if all the lingo was already common knowledge for the reader, which can be quite confusing. This wasn’t too bad, until I got to the artificial virtual character called the Librarian. This read like a teacher’s dream student scenario, with Hiro asking all the right questions and the Librarian happily supplying them, with me drearily reading the back and forth while never having wanted to know the questions or  answers. A good chapter and a half is dedicated to the Librarian explaining archaic mythology and ideas from old civilizations, something that I suspect Stephenson loves knowing about but that didn’t quite fit with a cyberpunk novel.

Despite its drawbacks, it’s a good read, just be prepared for a long novel and if you’re a fast reader it’ll be a quick read. I’d give it 8/10.