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ALTERED CARBON
2002

Book cover design by David Stevenson (left).
Review © 2005 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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First thought upon reading Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon: "Boy, this guy sure has read a lot of Gibson and Sterling and Raymond Chandler." Second thought: "Man, I bet this guy has watched Blade Runner so many times he's burned a hole in the DVD."

You get the idea. Altered Carbon is derivative. Richly conceived, and crafted with great care and a passionate eye for detail. But it wears its influences so brazenly on the sleeve of its long black leather coat that it never quite rises above them. This is fine, as far as it goes. Like some other recent novels that knowingly use their obeisance to geek-culture as an asset rather than a liability — Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden series comes most readily to mind — Altered Carbon reads like a strong second-generation entry in a genre that was once edgy but now, with all the groundwork having been laid, has settled comfortably into its niche. The shine may be off the mirrorshades a tad, but that doesn't mean they don't wear well.

Set roughly five hundred or so years in the future, Altered Carbon imagines a world in which death has been overcome by the technology of "sleeving." A person's consciousness is stored in a doodad called the cortical stack, located at the base of the skull. Upon your body's physical death, your stack goes into storage, where your survivors (or someone) can have it either reloaded into a virtual environment or even another body. And not necessarily the body you last had. But this technology has given birth to new class distinctions. Only the richest folks can afford the best resleeving, and the top tier of those, derisively called "Meths" (after Methuselah), can afford to have their own bodies cloned repeatedly and kept on ice in swanky private clinics, effectively becoming immortal. The hoi polloi, on the other hand, have to make do as best they can, their families often barely able to afford the storage fees. And they're often subject to the indignity of having their own bodies used as sleeves by others while their own stacks languish in storage (a common penalty for almost any crime).

Speaking of crime, sleeving has redefined it as well. What was once murder is now called "organic damage," and the victim can be pulled out of storage to testify, unless, for religious reasons, they have a conscientious objection placed against their revival. You can still actually kill someone for good, by destroying their stack. While most crimes will land a person a century or two in storage, some, like "real death," can get you erased. Morgan definitely drives it home that commodifying life like this makes life cheap, a view that certainly butts heads with the emerging transhumanist/extropian view that life extension by any means necessary is humanity's most desirable goal. And Altered Carbon is an often brutal noir-ish thriller set in a world where life can't seem to come any cheaper.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former Envoy for the Protectorate, a conservative U.N. body that arose in response to the culture shock both interstellar colonization and the post-sleeving world. Trained in all sorts of badass combat skills meant to enforce Protectorate law against colonial rebels, Kovacs finds himself back on Earth in Bay City (the former San Francisco), resleeved over a century after he and a partner were killed. He learns he is in the employ of one Laurens Bancroft, a wealthy Meth who wants Kovacs to get to the bottom of his — Bancroft's — murder. The police and even Bancroft's femme fatale wife swear Bancroft can only have killed himself; the evidence allows for nothing else. But while Kovacs pursues his investigations, he gradually finds himself embroiled in an expansive conspiracy that involves, as in the plots of all socially conscious fiction down the ages, the desire of the powerful and priviliged to protect themselves at all costs, mostly at costs suffered by the little people.

Morgan conveys his future vividly enough, though this leads to a few too many images of misty sheets of rain falling upon a neon-lit future urban skyline. We got yer Ridley Scott right here, folks. And now and then, there are technologies that seem only to exist in order to help the story move along. I liked the entirely-AI-run hotel Kovacs stays in at Bancroft's expense (complete with gun turrets to protect its guests' privacy), but why would its AI need to be so omniscient that it can aid Kovacs in almost every aspect of his investigation?

Also, Kovacs is, to put it politely, hard to warm up to. I know noir antiheroes are supposed to be, you know, antiheroes. Tough, gruff, take-no-shit types with a hard edge. But for much of the book's first half the guy just comes across completely psycho. And there are times when Morgan seems simply to be going for pure limbic system manipulation, if only to justify Kovacs' bursts of Ichi the Killer-level extreme violence. In one scene, after Kovacs has just bought a small arsenal of weapons, Morgan has him foolishly leave them in his hotel room, thus allowing bad guys to kidnap and torture him mercilessly. (And when you can kill a person and resleeve him immediately, "mercilessly" takes on a whole new meaning.) Later, Kovacs takes revenge — using the weapons that, had he had them on him in the first place, would have prevented his torture — in a scene that may well qualify as the most savage bloodbath in an SF novel in the last ten years. It's all just a bit over the top, as if Morgan is trying to enhance the book's street cred by showing off how unrestrained he can be when the guns come out.

But if Altered Carbon's first half feels as if Morgan is trying too hard to prove himself, things improve markedly in the second half, when we finally get to see the central mystery resolve itself and can marvel at Morgan's craft in weaving such tangled webs. Conspiracy plots are hard to pull off, with way too many opportunities for glaring logic holes, but Morgan's is deftly handled. Kovacs earns a bit more sympathy too, as do a cast of supporting players who avoid cliche to a reasonable degree. The story gets a much needed shot of emotional depth through Kristin Ortega, a Bay City cop who has to deal with the fact that Kovacs has been resleeved by Bancroft into the body of her ex-lover! There is also a poignant moment when Kovacs, in the course of his investigations, gets a convicted cybercriminal resleeved and reunited with her family — but in a different body. While the reunion comes off just fine, her own simple declaration of confusion — "I don't know how to feel!" — does in one line all that the book needs to do to illustrate the cruelty of a future in which technology meant to help humankind is all too easily manipulated by the powerful and unaccountable to hurt them.

So while Altered Carbon is an uneven book on its own terms, as a launching pad for Richard K. Morgan's career, it lights up the landscape like a Saturn V. I have complete confidence that, as he warms to his concepts and themes in future volumes, and produces more tonally consistent work, we'll see some spectacular stories from Morgan's pen.

Followed by Broken Angels.