Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Altered Carbon

by Richard Morgan


Fortunately for us, digitising a human brain and swapping it from one body to another is fantasy, and not science fiction. Much as AI may come to resemble life, it isn't, not least because you can't separate the influence of the body and its chemistry from the effect it has on someone's personality. We all have moments when we know it's just our hormones making the decisions, and not some logical higher brain function that's completely detached from physical reality. Not only that, but making a copy of someone won't stop the original from dying.

The premise of Altered Carbon is that individuals can achieve a sort of immortality, as lives are digitised and housed in different bodies, known as sleeves. So the main premise is silly, and could never happen. That gripe won't stop this story from being worthwhile or enjoyable, but it does mean that Altered Carbon is the kind of novel that isn't constrained by a need for scientific accuracy.

This is a hard-boiled cyberpunk novel that starts bloody and doesn't let up the pace until the end. Takeshi Kovacs is a mercenary, a criminal and an ex-soldier of the Envoy Corps. In subjective terms he's about 40, but he has spent much of his lifetime incarcerated in "storage", so he's more like 150 years old and used to changing bodies. After an operation goes badly wrong he finds himself in a new body and on Earth, a long way from his home planet of Harlan's World.

Kovacs has been taken out of storage to work for Laurens Bancroft, a rich and powerful man who is over 300 years old. Bancroft wants him to investigate his own apparent suicide, which he believes was really an attempted murder. The local police have closed the case, but Bancroft isn't satisfied with their verdict.

Kovacs goes about solving the case in a characteristically unsubtle manner. He's more at home cracking skulls and brandishing weapons than examining the evidence carefully. This is just as well for Kovacs, because he is attacked almost as soon as he starts his investigation.

Kovacs' search for the truth takes him through the whorehouses and slums of Bay City. The ability to extend life almost infinitely seems to have made it less precious rather than more, so whilst the rich enjoy the sensual pleasures of wearing a variety of ever-youthful custom-built bodies, the technology of sleeving also has a number of more sinister applications. Death can be experienced repeatedly, and torture, virtual or otherwise, can go on without end.

Altered Carbon focuses on the way the ruling classes exploit others and cover it up. It also takes aim at the way a technology can be twisted to create evil, even a technology that was originally designed with the best of intentions. The plot is complex, making for an intriguing detective story. Richard Morgan has a very masculine style of writing, full of action but sparse on emotional analysis. For this reason it's hard to sympathise with Kovacs, who can come across as a ruthless thug at times. The sex scenes also tend to lack the sparkle of emotional involvement, simply being a matter of mechanical urges without having the kind of well-developed relationships that would satisfy more romantically inclined readers.

Altered Carbon may be based on a daft premise, but Richard Morgan takes the idea of sleeving and uses it to make good points. This is a novel rich in ideas and bursting with action, and these aspects come together satisfyingly. But Takeshi Kovacs isn't the most likeable of characters, so the whole experience may be too brutal and impersonal for some tastes.

Book Details

Year: 2001

Categories: Books

  Science fiction
    Male Protagonist  

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3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

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