Like the hyped-up, heavily armored car his hero drives, Richard Morgan's third novel blows away all competition. Set in a not-too-distant future where...

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“Market Forces”

by Richard K. Morgan

Del Rey, 441 pp., $14.95

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Like the hyped-up, heavily armored car his hero drives, Richard Morgan’s third novel blows away all competition. Set in a not-too-distant future where corporate-sanctioned road rage rules otherwise abandoned highways, “Market Forces” follows the rising fortunes of Chris Faulkner, new executive in a multinational’s “Conflict Investment” department.

Chris’ job is marketing arms to Third World countries. With true capitalist amoralism, Conflict Investment sells to either side of a given conflict — and sometimes to both. Violent, crash-and-burn car races determine which corporations handle which accounts and which executives receive internal promotions.

Beginning with a nightmarish scene at a supermarket checkout (security guards responding to a credit-card misunderstanding with extreme prejudice), Morgan slowly reveals the truth of Chris’ background. He’s an escapee from the “zones”: the dirt-poor neighborhoods where no one can afford a car, where curable diseases kill hardworking innocents, and cops leave law enforcement to gangs and vigilantes. Chris’ superiors love his Horatio Algeresque personal legend, but they don’t know the whole story. And neither do we, until the exact right moment.

Morgan’s talent for tension-building is matched by the clarity with which he describes the sideswiping, rubber-burning, rear-end-ramming, full-contact racing scenes. And both these skills are quietly eclipsed by his word-for-word writing ability. Apt metaphors and similes abound. During a driving duel, Chris feels a strange calm, ” … the sky and windswept landscape pressing down on his consciousness like a thumb on an eyeball.” A social gathering takes off “like a deregulation share issue”; earlier, the rain is a “Soft hiss outside the open window like an untuned TV at very low volume.”

There’s an echo of the cyberpunk movement’s William Gibson in that last quote. (Gibson’s seminal novel, “Neuromancer,” begins: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”) Though Morgan has abandoned the noirish setting that tied him to these literary predecessors — along with the protagonist of his previous books, Takeshi Kovacs — he retains the political sensibilities that underlie cyberpunk’s outsider status. His incisive critique of those people Bob Dylan called the “Masters of War” loses none of its sting for being so vividly physicalized. Originally conceived as a film script, “Forces” is a highly cinematic novel.

Several recent science-fiction stories set within corporations seem to have initiated a sort of genre mini-trend as authors recognize how odd these entities truly are. Now, the urbane surrealities of Eileen Gunn’s “Stable Strategies for Middle Management”; the insightful, understated brilliance of Kelly Eskridge’s “Solitaire”; and the mind-stretching extrapolations of Charles Stross’ “Manfred Macx” tales are joined by the measured brutalities of “Market Forces.”

Morgan’s gritty perspective on free trade’s possible mutations is a strong addition to these conceptual takes on the economic system that dominates our world. Thoughtful yet fast-paced, it’s another sure winner from a writer who gets better with each book.