Altered Carbon

Review: Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan

Publisher: Gollancz
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0-57507-390-X
Pages: 534

Schwarzenegger meets film noir detective crossed with Blade Runner. Add a hefty helping of Neuromancer and you have Altered Carbon, a very visual first novel with a cinematic feel and a high body count. This is the novel equivalent of a high-tech action movie: the final confrontation features cutting-edge weapons, dramatic explosions, and lots of shooting.

Surprisingly, it's also a well-written book.

It's not an original book. Morgan wears his influences openly. But he also understands how to use the stock scenery of SF. The point of not inventing your own furniture is that you don't have to spend a lot of time explaining it. The reader is already familiar and comfortable, so you can leave the background in the background and focus on your characters and your few defining ideas. When handled well, the result is tight pacing and few infodumps, and despite the 534 pages, Altered Carbon never bogged down.

The defining idea here is the concept of sleeving, combining personality capture implants (reminiscent somewhat of the implants in Iain M. Banks's Look to Windward but with more retrieval options), a touch of uploaded personalities (the holodeck Matrix version, not the Singularity version), and the possibility of putting someone into someone else's body. That body probably belongs to someone convicted for a crime who is sitting out their sentence in electronic storage, during which they lose any rights to their original body. It's a disturbing and cynical idea that Morgan explores in detail, focusing on how the rich use it to achieve immortality and the less fortunate beggar themselves to try to get some of the benefits, or at least avoid ending up in hoc to the powerful. (As with most stories in this genre, there are the haves and the have-nots and not much inbetween.)

The hero, Takeshi Kovacs, is an ex-Envoy, a type of military special forces with special training in being beamed through space into random bodies on whatever world he's supposed to operate on. It's a good justification for why he's a bad-ass, since all sorts of military training can be called upon as a plot device to justify his fighting abilities, but it also adds to the dark cynicism of his first-person viewpoint. This is not a pretty or optimistic world, nor does it become more so over the course of the story. Kovacs gets a chance to help a few people who are down and out, but he's mostly looking out for his own interests and trying to get through the mystery he's forced to investigate.

Perhaps the best symbol of this story is the Hendrix, an AI hotel in downtown San Francisco that Kovacs gets a room at early in the story and uses as his base of operations throughout. It's one of the best characters in the story, delighting the reader in an early scene and hinting throughout at a complex and nuanced relationship between AIs and the government and elites. It's also an obvious plot device at multiple points, having just the right facilities or just the right access that Kovacs needs for some scheme. This mix of fun characters, beautiful visual set pieces, and occasionally heavy-handed plotting typifies the book and makes it feel very much like an expanded, well-written, big-budget action movie (if such a thing actually existed). If one inspects the plot too closely under the pile of bodies, splashes of blood, and flying fortresses, it's a bit too obvious and a bit too forced, but moves so quickly that one usually doesn't notice.

I liked the visceral action sequences a bit more than the convolutions of plot towards the end of the book, but mostly that's because Morgan starts expecting the reader to recognize characters by name that hadn't been seen for many chapters. A dramatis personae, or simply more narrative help, would have been nice towards the end. That and the occasionally too-graphic brutality and too-seedy sex scenes are the only parts of the book that turned me off. It's an action movie in book form, but it's a good one, and while this is the first of a series of books featuring Takeshi Kovacs, don't worry about cliffhanger endings or unresolved plots. This is a complete story with an end, and it won't leave you desperate for the next book.

Recommended, and given that this is a first novel, I'm guessing that I'll be able to recommend Morgan's later work even more strongly.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Posted: 2005-10-09 20:11 — Why no comments?

My review of one of the most overrated poorly written pieces of shit on the shelves.
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

Altered Carbon is a detective novel set in 26th century. Yes, yet another piece of shit detective novel with a sci fi background. Obviously Mr Morgan liked Willian Gibson in the eighties and you know what, we all did (to a certain extent, Neuromancer was actually pretty average and the less said about Johnny nemonic the better) but its not the eighties anymore. For all those people out there raving about this being a new generation of the sci fi genre, go the fuck away. For those raving about him being an amazing writer, read some Hamilton, Bear, Card or even old school sci fi such as Wyndham then see if you can handle reading this rehashed detective/cyberpunk/Jack Bauer shit.
Altered Carbon is poorly written thinly disguised detective shit that belongs in the 1950's.

The technology is neither original or conceptual (try Pandoras Star for real advancement in technology) but simply more rehashed eighties 'plug into the mainframe and live in a virtual world' crap and the author should be ashamed of himself for doing this to our genre and the masses who bought it AND RECOMMENDED IT should be ashamed for being such pathetic lemmings.

The character development in this book is great ie. there is none and thats great because the characters are cliche and 2 dimensional and I couldnt give a fuck about them so the less learnt the better.

This is pulp shit. Aimed at and loved by spotty teens who dont know there is better out there. Do yourself a favour and grab a copy of Pandoras Star by Peter F Hamilton, this is where gibsonist possibilities have progressed to the standards we deserve. The writing is simply beautiful, the technology conceptual and desirable, character development precise and the story telling... I get shivers up my spine thinking about what I went through with this novel.

Heres the crux of this piss weak little book by Richard Morgan (rich from releasing this shit to you drones):
An implant is placed in the base of the skull, recording your mind and this copy of your mind can be downloaded into a new body. (Wow how conceptual, only seen that in 30 or so scifi movies and at least hundred novels) Or into a Matrix-like Virtuality.

Kovacs (the star of this piece of shit) is no stranger to death or violence. He is contracted to find a killer so off he goes into the dark underbelly of 26th century New York… Altered Carbon is a book that could have gone very wrong very quickly. And does.

Minus 2 stars. Piss Weak.

Posted by david Thorne at 2007-01-23 23:05

Well, obviously I liked it better than you did. I agree that the characters are not particularly original, but I enjoyed the narrative tone and some of the ideas about identity and resleaving that Morgan explored. But certainly I can see why it might not be to everyone's taste.

I would like to point out one significant advantage that Altered Carbon has over anything written by Peter Hamilton: It's not thousands of pages long. There are very, very few books for which that doesn't indicate serious pacing problems, and it's one of the reasons why I've been eyeing the couple of Hamilton novels on my shelves with worry.

I will, however, read them eventually, and then we'll see how I think they compare.

Posted by eagle at 2007-01-23 23:36

I too can apreciate the resleaving and identity concepts but my point is that this is not an original idea but rather a copied and recopied concept. I was actually insulted after reading all the great reviews Altered Carbon recieved only to then read the book and find it poorly written and a rehash of several novels of far superior standard I had read previously.
I had to laugh at your comments regarding the length of the Hamiltons novels, the nightsdawn trilogy sat dauntingly on my shelves for many years and I only started the first book during a bout of insomnia and desperation. These books had a profound impact on me though and have changed the way I read - I actually think about these books often even now. If you can get past the first two chapters of nightsdawn, it goes ballistic and you will never be the same. The same goes for Pandoras Star but you will have to get through the first four chapters before it hits - and you will never have experienced anything like what it does to you. I have always been an avid reader but never took two days off work just to get through a section of a book before. All books are great though, I was just heavy handed with altered carbon as I was looking for a reaction. Enders Game by Orson Scott Card is still my favourite novel of all time and that can hardly be called a literary masterpiece.
Cheers, David.

Posted by David Thorne at 2007-01-24 18:50

I certainly agree that Altered Carbon wasn't original. That doesn't always bother me. Sometimes I like later, derivative executions of the same idea better than the originals. It's been a long time since I read Neuromancer, for example, but the treatment of computers was so bad, so unrealistic, that it bugged me a lot and I remember not particularly caring for the book, however foundational it is. But that's just me.

I've heard good things about Hamilton as space opera, and he's been on the to-read list for a while. The length is a major deterrant, but I'll try to get past that. The one I have on hand at the moment is neither of the ones you mention (I have The Reality Dysfunction), so I'm not sure if I have the best starting point.

Ender's Game is a great book. Shame that the author is a raving bigot. It really didn't come out in that book (although it shows in others).

Posted by eagle at 2007-01-25 20:48

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