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REVIEW: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

REVIEW SUMMARY: It’s like a Tivo for your brain.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a future where memories can be digitally recorded, one man must solve a murder mystery.

PROS: Imaginatively-envisioned future; quick pace; terse writing style.
CONS: Weaker middle; mostly unmemorable characters.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent story in a well-imagined future.

Ah, life. Something to be treasured. Live for every moment and make all moments count. You don’t get a second chance.

Wait. Scratch that. That’s ancient history.

In the fascinatingly well-imagined future of Altered Carbon, a person’s memories and personalities are able to be recorded, transmitted to any of the three dozen human-inhabited worlds across the universe and downloaded into new bodies (called “sleeves”). In short, life is cheap. Just copy the memories from your cortical stack to digital storage and load it into a new stack. It’s nice to know that if you are killed, you can just be re-sleeved and get on with things.

In Richard K. Morgan’s debut novel, Takeshi Kovacs, an Envoy operative, is killed but his stored memories are re-sleeved into a new body courtesy of Laurens Bancroft, a rich man who is accused of committing suicide. But Bancroft, having been subsequently re-sleeved himself, wants Kovacs to prove that he was murdered. What follows this opening premise is a whirlwind made up of equal parts post-modern cyberpunk and mystery.

During the first part of the book, I was held captive by the cool idea of DHS (Digital Human Storage) and the mechanics and issues surrounding it. For instance, there is the automatic backing up of one’s memories. In case something goes wrong with your current body like, say, it is violently torched or otherwise blown to Kingdom Come, just download your last saved copy into a new body. Also, “double” and “multi-sleeving”, downloading memories into two or more bodies simultaneously, is illegal in this dark future.

The middle part of the book concentrated on the mystery surrounding Bancroft’s death. Kovacs uncovers a web of increasingly shady and seedy activities. Although the story thankfully made the science integral to the mystery, this part of the book was weaker than the rest. In it, Kovacs was mostly in the dark and being tossed around. Now might be a good time to mention the graphic violence peppered throughout the story. There are some pretty descriptive action/torture scenes. And, as if in some sort of twisted shock contest, the sex scenes were pretty graphic as well. Actually, they would easily qualify as pornography. (I had to read one particularly lengthy sex scene six or seven times just to make sure my last statement is valid. It is. :))

The last part of the story was when Kovacs kicked it into high gear. For me, that’s when the book really shined and became more of a page-turner.

The terse narrative is quickly paced and the first-person perspective lends much to the novel’s noir feel. The story weaves together a handful of interesting themes like Cyberpunk, Religion (Catholics don’t like DHS), cloning and immortality (Bancroft is a “Meth”, named after Methuselah because he is hundreds of years old).

The characters, in general, were well-written. Kovacs had an attitude that just wouldn’t quit making him likable even when he was being a schmuck. Other characters were not really as memorable except for maybe Ortega as the reluctant cop and Miriam Bancroft as the stoic wife.

Overall, Altered Carbon is an excellent novel and is both a Locus Award winner for first novel and a finalist for the 2004 Philip K. Dick Award. And, according to the book’s description of the author, it has already been optioned by Hollywood. But wait, there’s more! Turns out this is the first in a series. (Is any sf a stand-alone novel these days?) The sequel, Broken Angels, will be avialable in a few weeks. I’ll be adding it to my enormously long book list.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on REVIEW: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

  1. I too will give Altered Carbon 4 out 5 stars. I really liked the meshing of a noir-style hard-edged detective story with a well thought-out SF world. Very well done, especially the tech aspects.

    I took off because, as John said, the story seemed to meander in the middle, and, for me, the reason for Bancroft’s death just didn’t live up to the hype. Otherwise, I recommend it for your reading list.

  2. Looks like Science Fiction Weekly gave the sequel, Broken Angels, a good review.

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