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The Steel Remains: An Interview with Richard K. Morgan

Special to Omnivoracious, by Will Hindmarch. Look for Will's interview with Wil Wheaton later this year.

"We're none of us what we once were," says the rakish war hero, Ringil, in Richard K. Morgan's new sword-and-sorcery novel, The Steel Remains. In Morgan's brutal new fantasy world, almost no standard trope is left as it once was, either, from the hungry dead to the timeless otherworld of faeries. What is intact is Morgan's noir style, combining angry, damaged killers with messy, dystopian settings where politics almost always gives way to violence. he novel alternates between the storylines of three separated comrades in arms, all of them veterans of the same war, all of them outcasts in their own ways: Ringil, the heroic swordsman, is reviled for his sexuality. Archeth, the half-breed advisor to a decadent emperor, is an outsider by blood. Egar, the loutish dragonslayer, is a chieftain doubted by his kin. They each found glory battling an inhuman army, but this isn't a world where war is glorious.

The land of The Steel Remains isn't a fantasy realm as much as it's an alien world, right down to its ringed planet. Characters talk about dragons and sorcery, but Morgan revokes the comfortable wonder that fantasy readers might associate with such things. What's left is an uneasy mysteriousness.

Omnivoracious readers may remember Richard K. Morgan's stint as a guest blogger here in July of 2008. He came back to answer some questions via email about the writing and release of The Steel Remains.

                   Morgan-steel Where did this book begin? Did you set out on a mission to tackle sword-and-sorcery, were you inspired by a bolt out of the blue, or another book, or something else?

Richard K. Morgan: The Steel Remains really grew out of an enthusiasm I’ve always had for old school Sword and Sorcery. I grew up reading guys like Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner and Poul Anderson, and I’d always thought it would be fun to have a crack at something in that line. Then, more recently, as a published author, I’d had this growing conviction that it would be interesting to see if you could import a genuinely noirish sensibility into the fantasy genre. And by that I don’t just mean the old “gritty” dynamic everyone is so keen on these days, I mean the full flush noir array of protagonist self-loathing, corrupt social systems and hidden agendas, enemies more internal than external, guilt, betrayal and lack of clean resolution. The world of The Steel Remains isn't so much a fantasy realm as it is a foreign world. Familiar names are few and far between, and the invented names for people and places don't bear much obvious resemblance to typical fantasy source-cultures. How do you go about giving names to all the people and places in a new world? Is there a map of the world somewhere?

Richard K. Morgan: Not sure exactly what you mean by the “typical source cultures” here--probably because I’m not hugely well read in fantasy, and certainly not in fantasy that was written less than thirty years ago. But for the record, the name Ringil is taken from Dun Ringill, the Iron Age fort on the Scottish island of Skye (and the Jethro Tull song of the same name), and a lot of the names in the League were then derived from similar sounding sets of phonemes. I have a very vague sense of what Naomic (the language of the northern clans) sounds like and that served as a rough guideline. For the steppe nomad culture, I drew quite heavily on my knowledge of Turkish names and places, so as to give them a similar continuity. And for the Empire, I went and looked at maps of Mongolia and northeastern Asia generally, again trying for a consistent phoneme set.

There is a very vague map in my head for all this, but I never bothered to put it down on paper because to be honest that would have been crippling for the story development. But now the book is done, we’ve actually launched a competition in the UK to get readers to draw a map based on the novel, and the one closest to that vague image in my head will win, with an edited version appearing in the paperback edition of the book later this year. Plus the winner gets to visit sunny Glasgow all expenses paid, and--the ultimate honour!!--have lunch with me. How much time did you spend building the world and the history of The Steel Remains before writing, and how much developed organically in reaction to the needs of the story as you were writing? What seeped into the book that you didn't expect?

Richard K. Morgan: The world building was done on the fly, thrown together to provide appropriate backdrop for the characters as they move through the novel--a bit like the way a follow-spot light picks out bits of backdrop scenery as it follows an actor across the stage. That’s the way I always do it, and shifting from SF into fantasy didn’t seem to necessitate any change in that SOP. So I started with little more than a handful of character vignettes, an aggressive noir agenda and the idea that it might be more worthwhile to look at the messy aftermath of a Great War as opposed to its glorious conduct. Everything else followed from there, and to tell the truth there weren’t that many big surprises along the way. The final incarnation of the Helmsmen came out of left field, I suppose, though I think it was clear from the first Archeth chapter that there would always have had to be something like them in the Kiriath world. And some of the stuff I invented for the Grey Places did make me blink a couple of times--but I’d already promised myself I was going to completely unleash my imagination for those sequences, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been so taken aback by what I managed to dredge up! The Steel Remains could be the start of something, but the words "epic fantasy trilogy" come with a lot of baggage for some readers. Got any preconceptions you want to break apart for potential readers?

Richard K. Morgan: Well, first and foremost, I don’t want anyone to get the impression that all and any loose threads left hanging at the end of The Steel Remains are necessarily going to be resolved in the sequels. I don’t do that. Each story is its own telling, each novel has its own parameters and I wrote The Steel Remains to what felt to me like a satisfactory conclusion. There is ambiguity in the ending, and questions begged, but that’s characteristic of the endings to most of my books, and this one is no different. I got the characters to where I wanted them to be, there is closure of sorts, but, as in life, questions remain and people go on living. And that’s doubly the case when you mix in such intrinsically unknowable quantities as gods, demons and magic. The sequel to The Steel Remains will pick up the same characters and carry them forward again, so necessarily some of those hanging questions will get addressed--but at the same time, a whole lot of fresh ones will probably get posed as well. What I hope is that by the time I’ve finished with this nominal “trilogy,” you’ll have three (more or less) standalone novels that can be read in any order--though following the sequence will probably still provide the most complete reading experience--and which are all three shrouded in a similar sense of incomplete human knowledge before unknown and unknowable dark forces. I mean, that’s what Sword and Sorcery is all about, right? That shivery-dark frisson of the uncanny and the unknown? Certainly, that’s why I got into the game--for exactly that dark lack of mapped understanding. Seems to me, if everything in a fantasy novel (or trilogy) becomes eminently knowable, becomes comprehensible, cut-and-dried, nailed down and mapped out – well, then, all you’ve done is kill the magic inherent in the form. And then you might as well be writing social realist fiction or hard SF. This book came out some months ago in the UK. How have your perceptions of the book, or the fantasy genre, changed now that the novel has come into contact with the public?

Richard K. Morgan: In general, I’ve been delighted with the response, and so increasingly confident that the book is in fact a good one. Most people seemed to have picked up on the themes and intentions of The Steel Remains right away; they’ve warmed to the characters and engaged with the scenarios, and sat back and enjoyed the story for what it has to offer. Can’t ask for more than that, can you?

That said, I have also been a bit taken aback by an (albeit limited) element of very defensive template conservatism within the genre, as evidenced by all those people who, instead of enjoying The Steel Remains for what it was, chose to berate it for all the things it wasn’t. The book came under fire, for example, for not giving exhaustive chapter and verse exposition on the details of the world and those inhabiting it (something I never do). For not getting straight into a rollicking quest narrative, for wandering about too much in the early stages and for not having protagonist with clear and dynamic motivation (something that for me is exactly the essence of realistic human characters). For trying to shock. For being too short. For being too long. In other words, for not being a carbon copy of some other fantasy novel by some other fantasy author. And I’m not kidding there. I’ve been accused, for example, of failing to live up to the work of George R. R. Martin or Steven Erikson or Joe Abercrombie. Which is, I feel, missing a key point; I’m not GRRM, or Steve, or Joe, and I don’t, and never did, have any intention of writing books like theirs--not least because until recently I hadn’t read anything by them and so didn’t know what it was they were writing. Besides which, those gentlemen are all filling out their particular niches with rich aplomb themselves, so why would I even try? The Steel Remains is not (and never was) an attempt to write a GRRM copy, or an Erikson copy, or an Abercrombie copy. And frankly, if that’s what a reader wants from me, they’re going to be disappointed.

But to be fair, I was warned about this in advance. Another fantasy writer, much respected and very generous in their attitude to my work, told me quite bluntly that while they themselves had enjoyed The Steel Remains, they feared that large parts of the core fantasy readership would “wince away” from the book because of the elements within it that didn’t conform to genre type. So I was kind of braced for that, coming in. But as I said, the general response so far has been warm and enthusiastic and engaged; so while I’ve had confirmed for me just how deeply conservative some elements of the fantasy readership are (certainly when compared to SF), I’ve also had it demonstrated that this conservatism is nowhere near as all encompassing as I previously worried it might be. And that’s nice to know. What's next?

Richard K. Morgan: The sequel to The Steel Remains, working title The Cold Commands, is on the blocks even as we speak. It’s taken me a while to get it rolling--as I said, The Steel Remains was written to a fairly solid conclusion and picking up the narrative threads has been more complicated than you’d think--but we are now, finally, on course for another grubby, morally ambiguous trawl through the brutal world of Ringil Eskiath and his associated comrades-in-arms. Watch this space!


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Richard Morgan did a good job with this book. I was addicted to reading The Steel Remains for a whole week. I look forward to the sequel, it will be another week of sleepless nights for me.

Since this interview was conducted, Richard Morgan has revealed on his website that the sequel is changing its name to "The Dark Commands." So keep your eyes open for that title.

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