Review of Altered Carbon By: Richard K Morgan

by 7:36 AM 3 comments



First things first-Altered Carbon is my favorite book of all time.

There, I said it.

I have read a multitude of fascinating books, but the one that I always come back to is the first novel in the Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy. I do not consider the trilogy my favorite, however, because that will likely always be the Dark Tower series by Stephen King. I feel as though the second novel in the series, "Broken Angels", is a little weaker than the others, and in all honesty can be taken out of the series without hurting the transition to the third (Woken Furies).

But I digress....

The first book in the series, Altered Carbon, has won numerous awards, one of which is the Philip K Dick award for Science Fiction. This is one of the "Big Three" awards for Science Fiction novelists (which are the Campbell, the Hugo, and the Phillip K Dick Awards), and every aspiring Science Fiction author dreams of the day when they are nominated for one of these, let alone win one. (Myself included).

Needless to say, I am not the only person that has enjoyed this novel. It has even been optioned by Hollywood to be turned into a feature film, though it is currently stuck in developmental hell (along with The Dark Tower). So, one day we may actually get to see this story on the big screen, and then those of us that have had these characters all to ourselves will get the distinct honor of being told by everyone and their uncle that THEY have always been fans. Yeah, I went there.

But, in getting to the actual REVIEW, I find that the best way to bring someone into the realm of Altered Carbon is to start at the same place that Mr. Morgan does, with Takeshi Kovacs fighting for his life and losing. Yeah, the main character dies in the first chapter, along with his girlfriend.

Woops, did I just ruin the book for you? Not at all, because the books are set in the future, where humans are implanted at birth with a "Cortical Stack", a small cylindrical implant that stores everything that we've done, every thought, every memory, etc. in duplicate. Provided you don't have your Stack melted into slag of die in some way where your stack cannot be retrieved, you can simply be downloaded and transferred into a new body (or, sleeve, as they are referred to in the book), and walk out of a re-sleeving facility within an hour or two.

Wealthy people are known to have what is called "remote storage" of the contents of their stacks, which along with custom grown clones, ensures almost guaranteed immortality.

At the beginning of Chapter 2, Takeshi has been retrieved from the storage facility (where his consciousness has been sitting on a disc while his prison sentence is served) on Harlans World (Takeshi's home planet) and put into a new body on Earth.

While approximately 30 years has passed since he died, Takeshi erupts from the tank still feeling the bullets ripping through his body. This would be extremely disorienting to anyone, but Takeshi isn't just anyone-he is a former Envoy. The Envoy Corps uses a specialized psychosomatic training program that is beyond the physical training received by today's military.

Richard outlines it very well at one point early in the book, with something along the lines of, "If you are running a protectorate, and someone starts rattling tactical nukes several hundred light years away, you can send a ship, but it would arrive just in time to quiz the grandchildren of the survivors. You can even take a crack tactical squad, interstellar needlecast (faster than light data link) directly into steroid grown bodies with high impact chassis, but they are on a planet they don't know, fighting a war for people they don't know, in a body they don't know. That's where the Envoy Corps comes in. It's a training program so complete, that graduates of it are barred from holding any public office....anywhere"

So, as he gets dressed and becomes acquainted with the new face in the mirror, Takeshi begins pulling information about this alien world into his mind for use later. He is human, but has never been to Earth before, and as the birthplace of the human race, he sees signs everywhere that the culture is pretty stagnant and ancient.

He soon learns that he has been bought out of storage to assist a man named Laurens Bancroft in finding a murderer.

Lauren's Murderer.

Apparently, someone torched off Lauren's head weeks ago, and he disagrees with the judgment handed down by the police that he had committed suicide. Of course, with a backup set to update every 48 hours, Laurens has no recollection of how he died. He wants to know the truth, and presents Takeshi with a deal so good that he cannot pass it up-a new body, 100K in UN currency, and his charges dropped.

Knowing he cannot refuse, he begins searching for information on Lauren's killer.

Now, all of what appears above may sound like much of the story-it's not. It's basically a very condensed version of the events of the first few chapters, and tells you nothing about what the ultimate conclusions of his investigation brings.

Needless to say, as much as things change, much still stays the same. Information is still obtained through torture, people can still die, and religious groups still reject technology as interfering with the natural order of life.

As the story continues on, many of the implications of the new technology are explored, and it's the existential questions that arise that I find the most interesting.

-How does one learn to love another face, once a family member is returned from the dead?
-Would you live your life differently, knowing you could run your current body into the ground with drugs and physical abuse, only to be able to buy a new one down the line?
-What if you were financially unable to keep your loved ones body from being purchased by another person, and had to occasionally see their face passing you in the street, knowing it's not them?

These questions are what makes this book so great to me. Science Fiction is about the implications of new technology in the lives of people, how it changes those lives and in what way. Some very profound insights are explored in this book, though there are plenty of great action sequences and tech in it as well.

Well, I believe that to say any more would be giving away too much. So in closing, I will say my favorite line from the book and leave you to find it somewhere between it's covers.

"I'm stacked, backed up, and I'm 5th Dan, and I'm not afraid of the Patchwork Man".

Chris Godsoe

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Christopher Godsoe is a science fiction author in Central Maine. A single father, he spends his time enjoying video games with his son, cooking, and is an unrepentant film buff.