Friday, January 19, 2007

Altered Carbon - Richard Morgan

You can tell from the cover that this is one for the boys. It's a sort of shimmery, science-fictiony version of those airport thrillers by Tom Clancy and his ilk, probably about grizzled veterans chasing down terrorists and that sort of thing - a fairly accurate indication of the contents, as it turns out, though it's leagues above those mainstream potboilers. This is a gritty cyberpunk thriller, featuring one of the best anti-heroes I've encountered in a while, and I thought it was great.

The "altered carbon" of the title is the technology on which the story hinges - the ability to store human consciousness on a carbon stack embedded in the base of the skull. The technology has become so ubiquitous that the whole nature of human mortality has changed - what was once murder is now only "organic damage", and immortality is now a practical possibility as long as you can afford a new body when your old one runs out. This sound like classic hard SF, where technobollocks often takes precedence over character or plot, but luckily Morgan has handled it very well - he never gets too technical, and all the machinery is just a frame for the plot, not a substitute for it.

Takeshi Kovacs is our hard-bitten protagonist; in the grand tradition, he is an elite combat veteran turned criminal, bought out of his online incarceration by a powerful Earth magnate to investigate a murder. To complete the picture, he's also been downloaded into the body of a world-weary, chain-smoking ex-cop, though this makes for some entertaining moments where the non-smoking Kovacs tries to stave off his new body's nicotine addiction. In the course of his investigations, he tangles with the cops, the criminal underclass, the gang-lords and even his employer's wife, who has an agenda of her own; his position as an offworlder unfamiliar with Earth customs means we can get the extensive infodumps with only minimal clumsiness, as he finds out what's going on at roughly the same time as the reader.

The plot has terrific pace and energy; it generally only slows down for the glimpses of Kovacs's past, his military training and some of the horrors of his brigade's actions. This is probably just as well - I suspect that there are more than a few holes in Morgan's technology and the grand solution to the murder mystery, but we are never given time to stop and consider them, just whisked along with the ride. The mystery itself, altered carbon aside, is fairly formulaic, but the investigation is so much brutal fun that it's hard to care. I'm not sure how well Morgan's other Kovacs novels will compare to this one, as there is (obviously) less of Kovacs's history and character left to reveal, but I'll certainly be reading them to find out.



Blogger Bob Lock said...

Hi Alice,

Yes Richard Morgan's Kovacs's series is an excellent read, very Chandleresque, I thought, with a SF flavour. Broken Angels and Woken Furies are two good follow-ups. I think he's mentioned he might do a final Kovacs one. I'm sure there was talk of Altered Carbon being made into a film too.

I was a little disappointed with his Market Forces though, I have to say. However, I'm looking forward to his new one which is out this summer called Black Man.


8:00 pm  
Blogger weenie said...

I loved Morgan's Kovacs' series. I don't normally enjoy books written in the first person but after reading these, I've gotten over my 'affliction! :-) My favourite was probably Broken Angels and I did hear that Altered Carbon was being made into a film...that would be excellent!

12:52 pm  

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