Thursday, June 6, 2019

Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon
© 2002 Richard K. Morgan
416 pages

Takeshi Kovacs,  soldier-turned-commando-turned rogue,  is rudely awakened with a job.  Imprisoned for two hundred years, he’s now being offered the chance of parole if he can solve a murder.  Or should it be attempted murder? The victim’s head was blown off, but being rich,  a backup copy of his consciousness was simply downloaded into a waiting clone.    You can do that in the future, you know: your consciousness is stored on a chip within your neck, and if you die...well, if you’ve the means your friends or family  can just copy your consciousness into any available body. (There’s likely to be quite a few, since people imprisoned go into digital storage, their bodies rented out.)    Kovacs’ patron is an exceedingly long-lived and unthinkably rich fellow who wants to find out who killed him, and why they tried to mock it up like a suicide.  Although Kovacs has never been to Earth before,  between his past service in the interstellar military and his training, he’s more than prepared to learn what he needs and solve the mystery.   As cynical as he is, however, Kovacs is about to enter a story grimier than he could have imagined.

I’ve been in a science fiction mood as of late, and recently watched Altered Carbon on Netflix in its entirety.  Finding and reading the original novel was an obvious followup, although the  background of Tak  and of the chief antagonist vary quite a bit between the mediums.  What hasn’t changed is the main plot and premise:  in this future, human civilization is interplanetary,  but the few who need to  travel between  settled worlds  do so by transferring their consciousness to a body-for-hire (a "sleeve") there. Tak is an expert in sleeve-switching, having done it professionally and usually with a dose of psychotropics that inhance intelligence, creativity,  etc.   A manufactured killer, Tak has enormous incentive to figure out what  who tried to kill his patron -- especially when he narrowly escapes being killed by a squad of  hitmen at his hotel. They knew him by name, despite the fact he's never been on planet and has been on ice for quite some time.

Although Tak's personality is not exactly winsome, he does have allies, chiefly a cop who keeps showing up. Kristin Ortega has her own reasons for shadowing Tak: he doesn't know it, but he's wearing the body of her boyfriend,  imprisoned on suspicion of being a bent cop. Together they explore a story and a world saturated in sex and violence.   It turns out that when you live for century after century,  there's really no limit to how depraved you can get. Frankly, it makes for disgusting reading at times, and I continued with the show and the book only because the premise  was and continues to be...well, absorbing.  The chip integrated into the neck -- the cortical stack -- doesn't just allow for immortality for those with the means and the desire. It allows people to spend time in virtual realities -- sometimes against their will, as those being interrogated know. The cortical stack expands the human potential for experience: not only can people explore different bodies, but drugs can be fine-tuned for their specific metabolism.  All this available pleasure creates an atmosphere of jadedness, however, not of contentment, and the sad restlessness that permeates the world here is not all that unfamiliar. The detective story, when it's not submerged in blood, sex, and sadism, is genuinely interesting --  even considering that I'd already experience the story.   The antagonist has a special connection to Tak in the Netflix series which makes their interactions with Tak all the more tragic in the endgame, but that relationship is absent here, and...well, it makes things less intense.

Despite the frequent...unpleasantness, I imagine Altered Carbon  will be one of those books I can't forget about at the end of the year. I don't think I'll be continue in the series, though  -- the sex and violence are too detailed for my tastes.

German title, just because it looks cool:


  1. Haven't seen the series (yet) but the book and its sequels are high on my read soon list. Unfortunately its quite a substantial list!

    1. The sequels seem like more military SF, but Morgan has quite a few other works outside the Kovacs series. I might try a couple -- like "The Black Man", about a man searching for human clones of an illegal classification..


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