Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

Dashiell Hammett + William Gibson in a noir cyberpunk thriller which is better than most.

Altered Carbon

Del Rey, 2002, 526 pages

In the 25th century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Now, assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person's consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or "sleeve") making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen.

Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched 180 light-years from home, re-sleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats "existence" as something that can be bought and sold. For Kovacs, the shell that blew a hole in his chest was only the beginning.

Oh dear. Not for the first time, I greatly enjoyed a book that got cored and gutted on Requires Only That You Hate. acrackedmoon called it neckbeard wish fulfillment. (In fairness, a lot of acrackedmoon's vitriol was because the author, Richard K. Morgan, was kind of a dick to her on Twitter.)

Well, that's a fair cop. Takeshi Kovacs is a bad-ass super-soldier who carves a bloody swath of vengeance across the criminal underworld in between bouts of pleasurin' the laaaydeez, so yeah.

There's a tradition in sci-fi of obligatory, and obligatorily bad, sex scenes, born of the era when many sci-fi authors wrote erotica to actually pay the bills and just transported those literary skills wholesale into their science fiction once they could get away with it.

Richard Morgan, dude, that era is over. The book doesn't need porn in it to keep us from getting bored between firefights — really.

Altered Carbon takes place in a future where humans have colonies on other worlds and people can be instantaneously "needlecast" between planets thanks to the technology of "sleeving." The basic premise is one that's been explored already in science fiction: digitized humanity. People can be stored, uploaded, backed up, plugged into virtual realities, and even copied, and of course, "resleeved" in any available body. This means a form of immortality for the rich, but just a new way to be oppressed for everyone else. Crimes are punished with being put "on stack" — your mind in digital storage, while anyone with the money can lease your body to walk around in like a new suit of clothes — while the worst crimes are punished with Erasure, i.e. Real Death.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former member of the U.N.'s "Envoy Corp," which is made up of specially-trained young men and women given all kinds of psycho-social, neuro-chemical, cybernetic, and physical enhancements to turn them into killing machines. They get needlecast around the galaxy, resleeved into synthetic superhuman bodies to go fight the U.N.'s wars, and when they die, they just get retrieved from storage to do it again. Then like every stupid government ever, the U.N. turns all these highly-trained killers loose on society as pariahs with no legitimate job prospects once they no longer have a use for them.

(The idea of the U.N. in the future being not only a global Earth government, but governing all of Earth's colonies as well, is barely touched on.)

Kovacs, having become disillusioned with the U.N. and the Envoy Corp, has struck out on his own, but as the book starts, he struck out in a major way, getting himself and his lover killed and Stacked. When he returns to consciousness, he is on an alien world — Earth. A "Meth" (Methuselah) named Laurens Bancroft has arranged to have Kovacs freed from storage to do a job for him: namely, solving his own murder.

Kovacs proceeds to run around "Bay City" (a decaying, far future San Francisco) looking for clues and shooting people or getting shot. He stays at a hotel run by an Artificial Intelligence with the personality of Jimi Hendrix, blows up a black market resleeving clinic, bangs Laurens Bancroft's super-sexy immortal wife (of course), bangs the hot policewoman nominally in charge of the Bancroft case and keeping an eye on Kovacs (of course), and tries to rescue a whore, who still dies (of course). Yup, it's pure noir, with backstabbin' dangerous women and whores, whores, whores. The cyberpunk elements, besides the sleeving technology, arise when Kovacs finds out the real plot involves a yakuza gang boss and political machinations that go way above the tawdry activities he was initially investigating.

This is the sort of book you either like or hate, and if you are not into cyberpunk or noir thrillers, there's probably no level of writing ability that will redeem it for you.

So, I liked it. I liked it a lot more than I liked William Gibson, but not as much as Neal Stephenson. (In Snow Crash, Stephenson actually has his protagonist hang a lampshade on the silliness of indulging in exactly the sort of "I-will-fucking-kill-every-motherfucker-in-sight" testosteronic fantasy that Morgan dives headlong into.)

Snicker-worthy sex aside (you can read an excerpt at the linked ROTYH review above for a sample), I did enjoy Altered Carbon. But I like noir fiction and cyberpunk and bad-ass macho dudes blowing shit up if written with a modicum of intelligence, and I'll just have to disagree with acrackedmoon on Morgan's writing ability — he's not brilliant (William Gibson writes much better prose, and Neal Stephenson's worldbuilding is far more original), but the book is entertaining in a splash-bang way and while the cyberpunk aspects of it are no longer novel, there are some some clever twists. The complicated plotting and multiple levels of backstabbing and scheming by everyone involved is standard noir, and Morgan brings it off fairly well.

Is it a work of genius or a genre classic? No. But it delivers what it promises, and as noir cyberpunk goes, it is head and shoulders above this.

Poll #1909879 Altered Carbon

Have you read Altered Carbon?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, but now I want to.
No, and I don't want to.

Verdict: For lovers of cyberpunk, Altered Carbon is a good read. Yes, it's testosteronic macho fantasy with a hard-boiled burned-out super-soldier ultimately solving the case by killing everyone in sight, but there are some intelligent bits of worldbuilding (Takeshi Kovacs frequently quotes from a revolutionary from his homeworld in a way that makes her sound entirely believable), and the cyberpunk technology introduced enough moral dilemmas and thought experiments to make this not a completely mindless action thriller. It is what it is, but I found it quite a lot better than most cyberpunk I've read lately.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction

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