Alan's Reviews > Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
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Apr 13, 11

Recommended to Alan by: Headlong action
Recommended for: Anyone who can tell a Heckler & Koch from a Smith & Wesson
Read in April, 2011, read count: 2

I remember reading somewhere online, not too long ago, about scientists who were working on a light-absorbing surface that would be blacker than any previous paint, dye or other treatment, using some form of—yes—altered carbon. That was in 2008. I don't know whether some precursor to or premonition of that research was on Richard K. Morgan's mind when he gave his 2002 debut novel its title, but the fact is that it fits. Protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (and you'd better pronounce it correctly) is to your garden-variety hard-boiled detective just what that high-tech black surface would be to a construction-paper silhouette—harder, sleeker, and much, much darker.

This was my first Richard K. Morgan—and his, too—but it didn't take long for either of us to become hooked on the product. Altered Carbon is a wild and amazing ride, taking every scary thing about our present and amping it up to eleven, then adding totally new fears into the mix. Human life is much cheaper than it used to be—the body count in this book, both Kovacs' own and that of others, is stunning. But there's a reason for that, you see. It all hangs together. Morgan has invented a complex and consistent dystopian future, fully-realized, with lots of little hooks leading into big things later... and, as you might expect, its inhabitants don't necessarily see it as a dystopia at all. They don't spend a lot of time marveling over the future they're in, and that matter-of-fact tone does as much as the wealth of details to make Morgan's setting convincing.


The central conceit of this book—the one big science-fictional "what if?" that you have to swallow, beyond standard furniture like interstellar travel and holographic TVs, in order to make this story work—is the "cortical stack," an almost indestructible digital device that backs up your personality, your mind—your self—as you're using it, in real time. Everyone has a stack. Shortly after birth, your stack is implanted at the base of your skull, where it's safe from almost anything. And when you die, or even before you're quite dead, your stack can be removed from your spine—put into another body, for example, or its contents transmitted elsewhere for embodiment. Inserted into a virtual environment and run at faster than realtime, for pleasure or for interrogation that leaves no visible marks. Or just put on a shelf, if you're indigent or if you've been convicted of a capital crime, or if you don't happen to believe that your stack has a soul so you've refused to be reborn as a matter of conscience.

This is Cartesian mind/body dualism taken to its logical extreme... human bodies, whether born or cloned or built from cheap synthetic material, are just "sleeves"—nothing but replaceable meat. That little metal cylinder is the real person. Resleeving is a fairly expensive process, to be sure, a little more elaborate perhaps than buying a new car is these days, but it's a similarly common event. Pretty much everyone on Earth (and in the colonies) can save up and afford a new sleeve, even if it's just a cheap synthetic job, when the original one starts wearing out. Maybe they could even afford more than one for themselves, the ultimate in teamwork—if doubling up weren't the kind of crime that nets you the Real Death, where they wipe your stack for good...


This makes an ideal setup for a really good, really grim SF mystery. Everything follows logically. Sleeves can be killed with impunity, the violence done to them almost irrelevant as long as the stack survives. They can smoke, have unprotected sex (some of the sex in Altered Carbon is really graphic), explore dangerous environments... as long as they have a backup sleeve waiting, anyway. People aren't really people anymore, you see—they're files, and files can be downloaded, shared, maybe even edited... and certainly deleted.

Kovacs himself is in a new sleeve when we meet him, or new to him, anyway, one that shows no sign of his multiethnic offworld origins. Last thing he knew, he was on the losing side of a police raid on Harlan's World, one of Earth's older interstellar colonies, terraformed by Eastern Europeans on behalf of a Japanese consortium (hence Takeshi Kovacs' combo-platter name)... and then he wakes up on little old Earth, a planet he's never seen and has had very little desire to visit.

The contents of Kovacs' cortical stack have been "hypercast" at faster-than-light speeds... which isn't free, of course. Laurens Bancroft, the obscenely rich, centuries-old plutocrat who had Kovacs resleeved, wants Takeshi to track down his killer. Bancroft's killer, that is. A previous instantiation of Bancroft blew his own head off, and his cortical stack with it—or, at least, that's the official story. Fortunately, Bancroft had an offsite backup, even if it was a couple of days old, and pre-grown clones waiting to take in a new copy of himself. Not everyone has that kind of luxury, but Bancroft's the one who owns PsychaSec, the firm that does stack backups and cloning. Now Bancroft's back, and he would like to know just what happened to his predecessor.

Kovacs is a psychopath, by his own admission—designed to be that way by the Envoys, that almost-mystical special operations arm of the interstellar United Nations military, back when Kovacs was an Envoy himself. He doesn't actually have a problem with taking Bancroft's money and looking for a killer that everyone—from Miriam, Bancroft's wife of 250 years, to hardened Bay City police lieutenant Kristin Ortega, who's a tenth that age—tells him was Bancroft himself. It's a puzzle, and it turns out that Takeshi Kovacs likes puzzles—or, at least, he can't leave this one alone.


Along the way, Kovacs retires a lot of other people's sleeves, and even deals out the Real Death to some of the more deserving ones, in true noir detective style. He takes his own lumps, too, of course—that borrowed sleeve is starting to look a bit battered after the first few chapters. And he gets a dame, or two, the kind of dame you can't turn your back on for a second.

And he cracks the Bancroft case, of course, as you knew he would all along—although he does it on his own terms. Loose ends get wrapped tight, and Kovacs survives, bent but not broken. But then you knew that too.


Altered Carbon has been optioned for the movies for just about as long as it's been published—it's that good a high concept. But I don't know how you'd ever cast it, since the characters could look like anyone, and often do. I think it might just be possible to put it across using motion-capture to make several different actors move like each other, without any other overt clues... but it'd still be difficult. Maybe that's why it still has not hit the silver screen.

I wouldn't want to live in Kovacs' world, and I have my own qualms about the notion that what makes us human could be digitized and transferred around like some hyperextended Bittorrent file. As fiction, though, this book hit all the right notes for me, and I enjoyed it just about as much the second time through.

Altered Carbon has sequels, too, starting with Broken Angels. Guess what I'm (re)reading next?
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