Review of Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
by Richard K. Morgan
This is exactly what I needed: a fast-paced mystery novel wrapped in the goodness of cyberpunk science fiction. Altered Carbon is an enthralling read.
The main character, Takeshi Kovacs, is an ex-United Nations Envoy, a sort of borderline psychopathic personality who went into messy situations and cleaned them up using any means necessary. As an ex-Envoy, Kovacs has had a hard time adjusting to civilian life, so the book starts with him as a fugitive. Then he dies. Immediately, Richard Morgan demonstrated he's playing a high stakes game.
In Altered Carbon, digitising the human mind has become commonplace to the point that the body is just a "sleeve" and everyone gets fitted with a cortical "stack." So as long as the stack is intact, physical death isn't much of a barrier, assuming you've got money. Kovacs' mind gets broadcast from his home planet to Earth, where he's forced by a powerful businessman to solve the businessman's murder. On the risk of relying on generalities--because I don't want to get too bogged down in the plot specifics--I'll say that Morgan skilfully balances his setting and his plot, playing the latter off the former. Every new twist in the plot happens to reveal more about this realistic dystopia. As a result, the world of Altered Carbon feels rich without trying to force itself down my throat through unnecessary detail. Although the concept of mind uploading is far from new, Morgan is never heavy-handed with it. He has fun with "double sleeving" Kovacs and introduces a spunky hotel AI. But the body-hopping in Altered Carbon is less about identity and more about the prolonged psychological effects of separating consciousness from attachment to a physical form.
Kovacs is far from a sympathetic character. Morgan constantly portrays Kovacs as a product of his environment--that is, Kovacs is fucked up because he grew that way. This becomes a running theme, particularly for the novel's antagonists, and fits with the nihilistic dangers inherent in the novel's principal technology. As an antagonist cynically puts it, human life is cheap compared to machines. Why care about a protagonist who seems to place little value on human life and isn't a nice guy in general? Well, the fact that he's a totally fun badass aside, he at least tries to be a good guy. He demonstrates this in his attempts to help the unfortunate Elliott family, as well as the level of concern he shows for the cop who reluctantly helps him out because he's sleeved in her boyfriend's body.
The mystery aspect of the novel is fully satisfactory. If someone claims to have worked out the entire plot before the climax, he or she is lying. Yes, I did figure out most of it by the end of the first hundred pages. The specifics are too vague to discern until much later though. And that's partly Morgan's fault, since the novel does err on the side of too much complexity. There were aspects of the plot that seemed superfluous, characters who served little purpose except as shock or entertainment value. The plot could have stood some simplification without losing any punch or thematic significance, in my opinion, which would have made for a tighter story.
Still, I thoroughly enjoyed Altered Carbon and will be going on to read more of Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs series. It's an ideal blend of science fiction and mystery.
This edition of Altered Carbon seemed to have an above average number of typos. I don't count that against Morgan (it's not his fault), but just thought I'd note that. It wasn't enough to distract me, but prospective readers may want to acquire another edition if they can.