Voice Of The Whirlwind

Voice Of The Whirlwind feels like it should be subtitled “the book that Richard K Morgan was trying to write”. It’s a mystery to me why Altered Carbon has got so much love of late (including a Netflix adaptation) and there’s been no mention of this book by Walter Jon Williams. The similarities keep on coming, throughout the book:

  • Steward, the protagonist of Voice Of The Whirlwind, is a clone, the beta version of a Zen-trained space soldier with massive, brutal emotional intelligence
  • He wakes up, far from his last memory, his consciousness returned to a body years after his last memory…
  • And if you’re rich, it’s possible to have a whole series of clones ready for your consciousness
  • There are a bunch of inscrutable aliens with incomprehensible artefacts…
  • … but the story is really a hard boiled noir, filled with red herrings that accumulate at an ever-increasing frequency before the finale
  • Steward and Kovacs are both being played throughout, both have heat-concealing stealth suits they use to crawl around near the climax, either in a space station or a pleasure dome floating in the skies
  • And the anti-hero has some good, redeeming qualities, as well as a last minute clone switcheroo…
  • I first read Voice Of The Whirlwind in paperback, at least a quarter of a century ago. I remembered a few things: there was a security guard, listening to music played directly into his brain (so he never heard it). There was a street on a space station called Molybdenum Way. There was a lot of Zen stuff about one life, one arrov. Strange how some things stick and others appear anew, sometimes familiar and sometimes not.

    There was also a fair amount of sex, in the early third of the book. I guess at a tender age that just went straight over my head, or else I was skipping to descriptions of monofilament wire decapitations. The sex scenes are written better than any of the stuff that Morgan put into Altered Carbon (which honestly, seems like it was there to win a Bad Sex award). There are other differences, too: whereas in Altered Carbon you can resleeve your consciousness in any body you like (or can afford) in Williams’ universe, the mind can’t cope with being placed in a different body, so you have to have a clone to be reincarnated into. This sense of physical cognitive dissonance is a nice idea, although when you start to think about it it is less clear why it’s any easier to go from an old mind in an old brain to a fresh body, than to a different body entirely. It contradicts the ending of Hardwired, but maybe the idea is that you go mad more often than not if you’re returned to the wrong body.

    Voice Of The Whirlwind is also more epic in scope – it took Morgan two books to get away from Earth and across the galaxy, whereas Williams does it all in one novel. I suppose if you count Hardwired, which Voice Of The Whirlwind is the sequel to, then that’s two books apiece, but there’s a huge gap between the books (no common characters at all, so the setting is hardly the same). It’s also a more compact book, so you read it faster.

    I suppose the greater economy of the text is at odds with the greater scope – Netflix didn’t have to worry about hormone-spraying alien centaurs or space stations when making Altered Carbon into a TV series, although it isn’t as if they were lacking money for special effects. But perhaps Altered Carbon was a book written at the right time, and Voice Of The Whirlwind wasn’t, or Walter Jon Williams didn’t want to option it for a film or TV, or didn’t care, or…

    It doesn’t really matter. I don’t know if Morgan has acknowledged the debt that Altered Carbon owes, or if it is a debt or just a similarity – both borrow noir concepts and splice them with cyberpunk tropes. But it’s odd to see little overlap between them. Or did I miss a controversy 15 years ago?

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