Mind-numbing. Big Ideas. Suspense. These are only three things that begin to describe Richard K. Morgan’s debut novel, Altered Carbon. The title of the novel refers to the state achieved when a person’s soul and personality are downloaded into new sleeves, or rather bodies. Within that simple premise, at various levels of discourse, Morgan explores the nature of the soul, the nature of the individual, and the nature of immortality. In this future, those with power and wealth can achieve a limitless life. Is this unending cycle of life worth living? These questions, while maybe not fully answered by Morgan, are however more importantly brought to light in Morgan’s fine novel.
The primary setting is 25th Century Bay City (formerly San Francisco) that is both recognizable in many ways and alien in others, but plausible nonetheless. Man has colonized planets, artificial intelligence is commonplace and the essence of an individual’s personality can be stored at the base of the skull and removed and inserted into a new body upon death of their current body. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs is a rather prototypical anti-hero, he is a brash, egotistical over-the-top investigator who lives by his own rules. Takeshi is a former Envoy, or UN special services agent, trained to kill without feeling, following their directives with thought patterns and conditioning methods that have been developed over 4 centuries of human advancement. While Kovacs is a bit of an exaggerated character, his faults are well dealt. Despite his power, stature and place in an imagined future, he is a character we can identify with through his thoughts, his plausibly told actions and his faults. This is one of the most important factors in any novel or story-creating a character the reader can identify and Morgan has handily done his job in this area.
As the novel opens, Kovacs and partner Sarah are killed in a shoot out. With the protagonist dying in the prologue, Morgan has started the novel in an interesting manner, while perhaps done before, it is handled quite originally by Morgan through his Big Idea of downloaded personalities. We next see Kovacs as he is re-sleeved on the most ancient of civilized worlds, Earth. He is brought out of storage by the rich, powerful businessman Laurens Bancroft on one condition-Kovacs determine who, how and why Bancroft was murdered. Being a rich and powerful man, Bancroft has a limitless supply of cloned bodies he can have his essence downloaded into. However, living for over 300 years, as Bancroft has, can lead to many enemies and a sense of alienation. On the enemy front, the initial list is conceivably large, but Kovacs soon shaves down the list to primary suspects.
Something else Morgan skillfully incorporates into the story is class delineation and the aforementioned alienation. As the centuries have passed, the racial lines are blurred, but there are still class lines. Due to Bancroft’s wealth, he has a limitless supply of cloned bodies he can use and rotate at will, while those with less financial power can only be downloaded when bodies are ready. The rich and powerful are called, almost as a slur of disdain by the masses as Meths, in reference to Methuselah, the Old Testament patriarch who lived to 969 years of age. The alienation, though, is something that Meths and many of the re-sleeved characters experience. The re-sleeved characters can be uploaded to bodies anywhere in the colonized worlds, as was the case for Kovacs when he turned up on Earth, far from his home of Harlan’s World. The Meths are alienated basically due to their long ‘lives,’ and in this alienation Kovacs and Bancroft have something in common. Something else Kovacs has in common with Bancroft, and most people in this postulated future is Real Death-that is the destruction of where their personalities are stored. Again, Morgan explores this Real Death deftly, bringing questions through the thoughts of the characters about the nature of their lives. In this, Morgan has ultimately connected with his audience, pushing the reader to consider the same questions about themselves.
All said, Morgan has created a character that readers can identify with whose adventures readers will want to follow. The only minor complaint about this staggering novel is that perhaps Morgan threw a bit much into this first novel, attempting to cover all of this impressive story rather quickly. However, the future he has postulated, while containing many Big Ideas in their fruition, is plausible and recognizable as our own world. As much as the term may be trite and over-used today, the book does have a dark feel to it. Then again, it may only be natural for a book that uses Death as one of the primary plot points to be somewhat dark. With this novel, Richard K. Morgan has announced his presence in the Science Fiction genre as one to keep both eyes on.
Reviewed by Rob H. Bedford
© 2003 Rob Bedford