Book review: “Market Forces” by Richard Morgan

It sounds like the dullest Economics textbook ever, but it’s a novel, and this is part of my ongoing series about macho literature. As Market Forces came out in 2004, you’ll probably have to scour libraries, second-hand bookshops or Ebay for it, and given the age I’m not going to make any effort to avoid spoilers either.

I have to admit that Richard Morgan was a new name to me, but he does seem to be a fairly successful writer as these things go (i.e. he’s still publishing books and has a Wikipedia page). Most of what he’s written seems to be either traditional fantasy or sci-fi of a “cyberpunk” kind, and there’s definitely something of the latter about this novel. Although the futuristic tech isn’t all-pervasive, it’s certainly there, and Morgan likes to chuck in a bit of futuristic slang too (“gangsters” are “gangwits”, for instance, in what I like to imagine must have been an officially sanctioned effort to make them sound less scary).

The time is the mid-21st century and the place is London. The population is divided starkly between the majority, living in the zones, basically Outer London suburbs which seem to be progressing from “the worst British council estates/US housing projects as they are now” in the direction of “Beirut in the ’80s”, and the minority of “suits” or “zek-tivs”, apparently all working in financial services, who get to live in the nice parts. Not that their lot is entirely to be envied, because in this world, the way you progress in your career, and/or resolve workplace disputes is by, in effect, challenging your opponent to a duel in your (heavily armoured) high-end cars. Yes, yet more car porn, although thank God it doesn’t get nearly as literal as Crash on that score. The corporations effectively control the state, which sounds pretty much of the minimal, privatised, kind anyway, so this is all legal.

We follow Chris Faulkner, a zone boy made good who I cannot imagine being played by anyone other than Jason Statham, as he makes his career at Shorn Associates. The firm does “Conflict Investment”, which seems to boil down to supplying guns, money and, what the hell, probably lawyers, to either corrupt Third World governments or the rebels against them, depending on who looks more like winning and providing juicy pay-offs.The novel is the story of Chris’ corruption by his balls-out capitalist world, as he moves from nice guy at the beginning, although more about that later, to raving sociopath who’s killed nearly all of his colleagues, a string of “gangwits” and lower-class thugs and at least one South American dictator at the end. He does make partner, which in this universe is pretty much like becoming a made man in the Mafia, but his wife’s left him and he’s just killed the nearest thing to a friend he appears to have.

Chris beats the dictator to death with a baseball bat, by the way. He also breaks necks, kneecaps people and runs them off the road in their cars to crash and burn to death. Chris Faulkner is, by the end of this novel, the sort of fictional character who Patrick Bateman from American Psycho would admire.

It’s pretty obvious that the main plot of Market Forces is driven by a good, old-fashioned Faustian pact between Chris and his firm. I mean, there’s even a Mephistopheles figure, his colleague Mike Bryant, who takes Chris under his wing at Shorn and schools him in violence, and perhaps inevitably ends up dead under Chris’ wheels in the final duel.

But for a Faustian pact plot to work, you have to feel that something of value was lost through the corruption of the main character. Chris is presented, early in the book, as having some standards at least, but by the time he joins Shorn, he’s already killed people to progress his career. He’s voluntarily joining an organisation that he knows works like a cross between an investment bank, a private military organisation and the Mob, and his main motivation for this is money. Exactly how nice a guy is he, and was there really a lot of corrupting left to do? Faust was a man who’d spent his life on scholarship and just wanted to party a bit. You can chalk him up as a loss to humanity; who cares what happens to Chris Faulkner?

And that is the central problem with all of the characters in this book. None of them are very likeable, even the ones that are supposed to be, and they don’t always have clear motivations for anything they do beyond The Plot Wills It. Chris’ backstory is that his family was impoverished by his father’s business failing (thanks to one of the suits he ends up killing on his way to Shorn) and that he’s desperate to escape poverty, but if your family was screwed by one of the rich guys, why would you respond by seeking to become just like them? At one point, he gets the chance to escape Shorn, when things start to heat up, by getting a job with the UN, which in this novel has some sort of ill-defined role regulating the capitalist cowboys. He doesn’t take the job; why is never really explained beyond “money” and idiotic macho bravado. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.

It goes without saying that everyone else at Shorn is, by our standards, an unspeakable dick with metaphorical and often literal blood all over their immaculate suits. Chris’ wife, Carla, and her father, are supposed to be “the opposition” within the novel, calling him out on his bullshit, but they’re so self-righteous it’s hard to sympathise with them even when you agree with them. Incidentally, did I mention that the father is Norwegian, but lives in the London zones?  In a world where, much like today, Scandinavia has not followed the Anglo-American economic model? Admittedly, he is some kind of wannabe international revolutionary, but even that seems inadequate motivation for living in a hell-hole slum with a population that seems totally uninterested in revolution when he could be subverting the world from the comfort of Tromso.

And there’s no real reason his daughter, who holds similar views, would have wanted to marry someone like Chris. Why isn’t she the one working for the UN? Because The Plot Doesn’t Will It, I suppose. Oh, and because whilst Richard Morgan, to be fair to him, tries to create both convincing female characters and female characters with an effect on the plot, he never manages to combine the two. The best-drawn women characters, including Carla, don’t really affect the plot at all, and the one woman who does, the (incredibly obvious) main antagonist, is a cardboard cut-out bitch.

As for the setting, although dystopian future London is vividly imagined, as a dystopia there are several improbable aspects to this. As I mentioned, the novel was published in 2004, near the height of the last economic boom, and it has that period feel about it. Bankers at the time genuinely did consider themselves Masters of the Universe, and got considered that way by media, governments and perhaps even the public. They look a lot less masterful the other side of near-bankruptcy, government bail-outs and years of sweating for profits in a world with negative interest rates. In this novel, the bankers are powerful enough to tell the world how to run itself. Whilst capitalism is still capitalism, and financiers are still powerful, the idea that the sort of radical social change that has happened here would come about just because bankers wanted it to happen looks a lot less plausible than twelve years ago.

More importantly, why would any bankers want their own country to consist of a tiny minority of extremely rich people with everything and a vast majority of very poor people with nothing? Basically, what the elite has achieved in the novel is what Karl Marx thought capitalism would achieve  in the 19th century – everyone ends up in an increasingly impoverished proletariat, except a handful of ever-wealthier bourgeois (in Marx’s day, factory owners; here, owners and employees of finance houses). This notably failed to happen in the 19th century, partly at least because the people with power realised that letting this happen would, much as Marx predicted, lead to revolution. Morgan’s world relies on his elite being too dumb to realise the same thing, which isn’t impossible, but does go against the entire previous history of capitalism.

The bankers are also implausibly enthusiastic for developments that would undermine their own profits. OK, you can no doubt make a lot of money from manipulating the politics of Third World countries (and, of course, this already happens, in a less flamboyant way than the fictional version), but is it really so much that you could afford to throw away the money that depends on most of your population not living in absolute poverty? You’d destroy the consumer base for a lot of the companies you invest in, wreck the residential and commercial property markets that you also have a lot of money invested it, your UK government bonds would turn into junk bonds. Why would any of the people in a position to encourage this actually want it to happen?

Morgan frequently references something called “the domino recessions” in the novel, more or less as a hand wave for “how most people ended up as impoverished as they are.” He doesn’t explain what that involved, although I have a feeling we’ve probably been living through it since 2008, and I’m still not living in a slum run by gangsters. The setting of a novel never has to be as convincing as its characters for it to work, which is why I put the problems with the characters of Market Forces first, but they both really have the same problem. They’ve been made to fit the plot, rather than vice versa.

Interestingly, in the Acknowledgments, Morgan mentions that the novel evolved from a movie script, which at least explains why I can’t help seeing Chris Faulkner as Jason Statham, and perhaps explains some of the weaknesses of Market Forces. Over a couple of hours, with the action moving fast enough and enough explosions happening, you don’t have time to notice the implausible bits and, if you’re lucky, the actors will fill in missing characterisation. Over nearly 500 pages, you can’t miss either.



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