Richard Morgan, whose latest novel, The Steel Remains, was just released in the UK, has written a terrific article about his novels as the, erm… debacherous content often found within.

The first thing he tackles is a subject I (along with John from Grasping for the Wind and Joe Abercrombie) am familiar with. Swearing.

Not long ago, I received a curious communication through the fan-mail portal of my website. It was from an American reader who’d picked up a copy of my last novel Black Man (or Thirteen as it’s rather more primly known in the US) was about a hundred pages in and had now, he informed me, closed the book and wouldn’t be continuing. Well, them’s the breaks, of course, can’t please everyone – but what fascinated me was this offended reader’s reason for quitting. He was unhappy, he said, with my repeated use of the word “f*ck”.

Now, if you’ve not read Black Man (or indeed any of my other work), this might not, as it stands, seem strange. After all, not everyone likes to hear high-powered expletives slung around in their fiction. But consider here a couple of background details. Black Man begins with the surgical dismembering of a drugged and helpless woman for food. That’s the prologue. By the end of chapter one, elsewhere, our central protagonist has been stabbed, has killed his assailant with his bare hands, and has then gone on to shoot dead another man and woman. The body count dips a bit after this, but there’s an undercurrent of desperation and violence in the book as a whole which means that anyone reaching the hundred page mark has waded through a handful of other murders and a welter of savage hand to hand combat to get there.

All of which was, apparently, just fine and dandy with my offended reader. He had, he insisted, actually been enjoying the book as, and I quote, “a well written and entertaining thriller”. Physical beatings, stabbings, shootings, the odd bit of enforced cannibalism – hell, nothing wrong with any of that, right? All part of the ride. But throw in a few four letter words, and suddenly this guy’s throwing down the book – a book he’s enjoying, mark you, a book he bought and paid for – and will not finish it.

I give up.

Next up: Homosexuality and the sexual habits thereof.

So what’s the stumbling block this time?

The protagonist is gay, and we get to see him in action.

No, really. That’s it.

Well, here I’m tempted to say read the book and decide for yourself. But before you go out and spend your hard-earned money to that purpose, here’s a quick glance over the salient features (and, I guess, a warning for those too tender to face the specifics of the text itself):

There are two explicit male-on-male sex scenes in The Steel Remains, and one male-on- male post-coital conversational scene that might, I suppose, answer to a charge of “risqué”. All three scenes involve front-line protagonists and all three have a significant impact on both the characters involved and the direction of the narrative. The two explicit scenes play off one another to demonstrate emotional growth and a shifting power dynamic within a relationship vital to the central strand of the narrative. The post-coital scene is also, I confess, something of an icebreaker, a slow pass at the protagonist’s sexuality in order to get us ready for what’s to come later. But in general and in all honesty, I’d have to say these are the least gratuitous sex scenes I’ve ever written. In fact, as a straight guy, I wrote this stuff with a depth of clinical detachment and attention to craft that I certainly never needed to deploy when I was writing straight sex scenes in other books. I like to think, of course, that none of the sex in any of my books is “gratuitous”, that it all serves some plot function or other, and that I don’t let my own erotic imagination run away with me. But this is the first time I can be absolutely sure of that fact; I didn’t write this stuff for jollies. In fact, when I was done, I had to run the scenes by a gay male acquaintance for approval, to make sure I was hitting the nail on the head, so to speak. (I was told, incidentally, that what I had written was actually quite arousing for anyone that way inclined; and I confess I feel a quiet, craftsman’s pride in that fact. But no arousal, as far as I can tell.)

Personally, I like sex. Excluding a couple of emotionally painful episodes here and there, pretty much all the sex I’ve ever had has been life affirming and delightful. And I see no reason not to put that sensation, explicitly, into the fiction I write. Properly done and with appropriate precautions, sex is one of the great joys of human existence. You’d no more want to miss out on it than you’d want to give up seeing in colour or feeling the sun and wind on your face, or any other of life’s myriad sensory pleasures. And when it comes to story-telling, I’m no more going to soft-pedal my descriptions of sex than I’m going to cheat my readers of that wind on their face, or cool water at the end of a day’s dusty travel, or the furnace glow of sunset across a bustling cityscape somewhere south.

Morgan rounds things out with violence:

Of course, life – and especially the life of desperate, violent men with swords – is also full of pain. And fiction that attempts to evoke life must deal in that pain. The Steel Remains does so, with an intensity that is brutal and unforgiving (and without reviewer disapproval, it seems). You will not lack for spilled blood or hate or suffering here. But if we don’t mingle the pain in our fiction with life’s pleasures as well, then we are guilty of a crucial misrepresentation of the facts and, worse still, of perpetuating a po-faced, sanitised denial of what life is really about and who we really are. If we do not allow ourselves detailed descriptions of sex in our fiction, then we deny the core significance those acts have in our lives. And if we do not permit those descriptions to extend to gay men, then we deny their right to those same core motivations as everyone else.

I don’t intend to be found guilty of any of those sins. I try to evoke life in my fiction, because it’s the only way I know how to write, and quite honestly I’m not interested in learning another way, no matter how wholesome and safe for sales it might turn out to be. If this makes The Steel Remains controversial or gratuitous, then it is only because it represents a controversy and a gratuitousness that I see in life everywhere I look.

Whether you love or hate his novels, Morgan is well known for pushing the boundaries with his Science Fiction and (now, with the release of The Steel Remains) his Fantasy. Certainly an interesting read.

You can find the whole article HERE.

Discussion
  • KS Augustin August 20, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    If I have to name one book that got me diving back into s-f again, I’d have to admit it was “Altered Carbon” by Morgan. But then he came out with “Market Forces” which, I thought, was a tad corporately apologetic. But, after this article, “The Steel Remains” is definitely on my To-Buy list. Thanks for the mention.

    My comments on swearing are too long to bore you with, so I think I’ll blog about it at my own place. That way, I’ll only bore the people who are adequately prepared through prior exposure to my ramblings! :)

  • SQT August 21, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Morgan is an excellent writer who really shouldn’t have to apologize for anything. I pick lots of fiction that I can’t stand because of lousy plot and writing. Violence, swearing, sex– in context, isn’t really a problem. Bad writing is.

  • George A. Trosper November 25, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I found the constant drumbeat of “fuck”, “shit”, and their derivatives not only annoying but a little unrealistic. One of my frat brothers declared that you could gauge the general intelligence of an Able Bodied Seaman (he’d been one) by the variety of taboo words and phrases he used. These guys are all more intelligent than Morgan is making them sound.

    But that’s certainly no reason to dump the novel.

    As for the gay sex in _Remains_, I was convinced Morgan was gay, as I am. I am amused and delighted to learn that he’s not, he’s just a good writer. (Like various rational actors who when asked how they can possibly play the opposite orientation point out that it’s *acting*!)

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