Review: Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

altered-carbon-richard-morgan

Gollancz. ISBN 978-0-575-08112-3

(Review first published on the ASIM website, December 2007)

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Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan’s first novel, is one of the eight books that Gollancz has chosen to re-issue under their new ‘Future Classics’ tag. It’s fast-paced, convoluted, violent and thoughtful. Takeshi Kovacs is a UN Envoy-trained mercenary and petty criminal, operating on the planetary backwater of Harlan’s World. He has a wealth of elite military experience and neurological enhancements. At the start of the book, however, he has a problem: he’s just got himself killed.

Laurens Bancroft is an Earth-based Methuselah, a tercentarian multibillionaire able to afford essentially indefinite life extension (in a continually youthful body), and pretty much all of life’s other luxuries including, inevitably, the trophy wife. At the start of the book, however, he has a problem: he too has got himself killed.

That these deaths are merely inconvenient, rather than being more individually limiting, is due to the consciousness-transferral technology known as ‘resleeving’, effectively a near-instantaneous personality and memory download into a freshly grown, or harvested, human body. In Bancroft’s case, the body is a clone of the ‘sleeve’ he was wearing at the time of his murder: no big, in effect, but he is curious to know who killed him. In Kovacs’ case, the resleeving is a bit more problematic: fatally shot in Harlan’s World, he’s revived in the body of an arrested criminal, 180 light years from his homeworld, in Bay City (formerly San Francisco) on Earth. Bancroft, it seems, has a whim to use Kovacs to investigate his murder. But if Kovacs has a problem with this cavalier treatment of his psyche, it soon transpires that his Earth-based sleeve has issues, and a history, of its own …

The crime that frames Morgan’s book is a well-constructed problem, but ultimately its solution is secondary to the exploration of twenty-sixth century society that’s posited here. Altered Carbon packs a wealth of gritty detail, incorporating ideas which, in many cases, are staples of SF; but it’s at least a fresh mix, drawn with verve, wit, and insight, and some of Morgan’s extrapolations are genuinely new. The whole is self-consistent and convincing.

Two cinematic points of reference occurred to me on my reading of Altered Carbon. One was ‘Blade Runner’, primarily for the often-dystopian detail of the depiction here (though the underlying questions on the nature of humanity, and the value of human life, are also threads common to the book and that film). The other (though not for its stylistic values) was ‘Attack of the Clones’, because there’s a sequence in this book which I found very reminiscent of Anakin’s massacre of the Tusken raider village. Said sequence in Altered Carbon is probably the most vicious of many violent events unfolding as Kovacs explores the crime he’s been hired to solve. I felt that Kovacs’ ‘Anakin moment’ was a bit gratuitous as an inclusion in the plot, an over-the-top episode designed principally to demonstrate the protagonist’s capacity for darkness, although to be fair Morgan does lay the groundwork for this episode in a reasonably convincing manner. Overall the book’s several knife-fights, gunplay, and unarmed mortal combat sequences are, so far as I can judge, realistically nasty (though I can’t claim any expert credentials here), but I should emphasise that there’s a great deal of thoughtfulness here as well.

The characters in Altered Carbon are well-drawn and credible, even if it does seem at times as though the book they occupy is a kind of graphic novel without pictures. There’s a larger-than-life quality to Kovacs, the Bancrofts, and several other significant characters such as the police lieutenant Kristin Ortega, the assassin Kadmin, and the mercenary Trepp. However, they’re provided with such depth and subtly-evoked personal history that they remain, despite their excesses, generally quite believable. This strength of characterisation extends even to the hotel in which Kovacs stays during the weeks of his investigation: the Hendrix, a run-down and somewhat overly assertive establishment, emerges as a solid if minor character in its own right.

Overall, Altered Carbon is a hip, smart, and thoroughly nasty package. It’s an engrossing read, and Kovacs’ adventures apparently continue in several of Morgan’s subsequent books.

(Review by Simon Petrie, 2007)

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