Mark's Reviews > Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
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's review
Dec 30, 10

bookshelves: sciencefiction
Recommended for: Fans of detective fiction and fans of science fiction.
Read in March, 2008

"Altered Carbon" is the first novel in Richard Morgan's "Takeshi Kovacs" series. It's a great book if you're a fan of the detective genre and science fiction. It hearkens back to the old hard-boiled Phillip Marlowe books by Raymond Chandler with a cyberpunk twist. It's very well done, intriguing, and a great read! 4 1/2 stars!

The Plot

In the world of Richard Morgan's future, a person can change bodies by downloading all of their memories from their old body and then uploading them to a new body. This is done via a piece of biological machinery that every human possesses in their brainstems called a "stack". The bodies are called "sleeves" and range from cheap artificial robot-like bodies to biologically enhanced superhuman bodies.

Most people can afford to live only two lifetimes. After that, they spend eternity in a virtual storage device and are usually only downloaded into cheap artificial bodies for significant family events such as weddings, funerals, and births. Of course, rich people can afford to live many lifetimes and can change bodies as often as they wish; often traveling by transferring themselves to remote bodies set up in other places rather than via mass transportation. These rich people are called "Methuselahs" or "Meths" for short.

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-envoy. An envoy is a kind of elite soldier who spends his term of service being downloaded into different bodies for the purpose of performing the same kind of operations a special forces commando performs in the present day.

Kovacs gets in trouble with the law on his home world of Harlan's World. As a result he is sentenced to being stored for a long, long time. However, before his sentence is up, Takeshi's information is transmitted to Earth and "sleeved" in a body. It turns out a "meth" named Laurens Bancroft killed himself and he, after his backup information is downloaded to a new sleeve, doesn't believe it was suicide. Therefore, he hires Kovacs to determine who murdered him, since the police seem to have concluded the investigation as a suicide and not a murder.

It all seems straightforward, but why is the police lieutenant in charge of the investigation, Kristin Ortega, giving him funny looks all the time? Why is he being followed and Who is following him? Does it have to do with him or the previous occupant of his "sleeve"?

After that, the story starts going full blast and we get all the nice twists and turns of any noir detective fiction: plenty of action, double crosses, and even a femme fatale or two.

The Good

There's plenty of goodness here. The first good thing it the character of Takeshi Kovacs. He embodies the perfect existential and pragmatic hero. This is in keeping with the tradition of private eye novels, so there's nothing really NEW here. However, it's all done very well. He does whatever it takes to get the job done. He also has a very distinct personal sense of justice, which is also in keeping with the traditional private eye.

Even though the protagonist is narrating the book, he doesn't lapse into vernacular to the point where you'd need some kind of glossary to follow what he's saying. Even though this novel takes place "on the street" in the future, there's just enough of a local patois to the language to give it character, but not so much that you don't understand what Kovacs or the people he encounters are saying.

The ancillary characters are well done when they appear often enough in the narrative to become characterized. Kristin Ortega, while being the "damsel in distress" for the book, is not characterized as helpless and insipid as most damsels in distress are. Most of the time, I wonder why someone would want to put their life on the line for an obviously helpless and stupid character, but I don't have to wonder that with Kovacs and Ortega. Most of the time, if he helps her out it's only because he's returning the favor for some help she gave him earlier in the novel. Laurens Bancroft and his wife are both intriguing characters, only because they are "meths". One wonders what the mindset of such a person would be, and Morgan fulfills this "need to know" very well. The fact that previous occupants of the physical bodies (or "sleeves") are themselves ancillary characters is absolutely brilliant to me.

If you're a fan of detective fiction, you'll know that the most important aspect of a detective novel is the plot. Without a plausible and well-executed plot progression, a detective novel becomes either bogged-down in minutiae or develops a plot that is so twisty and byzantine that it becomes impossible to follow without a chart. If anything, "Altered Carbon" errs on the side of over-complexity. However, it's not so overly complex that you can't follow what's going on; although you will probably find yourself saying "who is this person?" two or three times throughout your reading.

The Not-So-Good

The reason I subtracted half a star is that I went in expecting a cyberpunk novel and got more of a detective novel. I know it's probably unfair to penalize a novel because of my expectations but I firmly believe that expectations count when enjoying a novel. If a novel exceeds my expectations, I'll certainly award it a higher rating (and I've done so in the past).

I could be wrong, but what I like in a cyberpunk novel are the cool descriptions of what the future internet is like as well as cool descriptions of hacking into computers and Artificial Intelligences like a knight slaying a dragon. I didn't get that with this book.

Also, I was very interested in the philosophical and moral implications of being able to change bodies or even download ones mind into multiple bodies at once. I didn't get ENOUGH of that in this book. Just to be clear: Morgan DOES address this in his novel. I just felt the subject deserved more discussion.

As I said before, most of the ancillary characters are well done. However, there are some that, I felt, were either unnecessary or could have been merged into another character. If a novel has a ton of characters in it, then you start needing a "dramitis personae" page at the front or back of the novel, which just seems like lazy writing to me. I think, if you're going to include a character in a novel, you should write it so that it is distinctive enough to recognize in the narrative. Again, I could be wrong about this. It's just my opinion.


4 1/2 stars out of 5 is still a really high score. If you're a fan of detective fiction then you may like it even more than I did. There's certainly a lot here to like and I see no reason for any fans of science fiction or detective fiction to not read this novel. It's a good read!
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Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Shockvalue Great review. Particularly mirrored my opinion on the "not-so-good" section.

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