Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
Ah, Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. I have no doubt recommendations gleaned from Book Lust and More Book Lust (I haven’t read Book Crush or Book Lust To Go, because a reading list a thousand books long just sounds burdensome) will last me well into cronehood, especially at the rate I’m going. Altered Carbon is a title a lot of people I’ve been talking to lately have vaguely heard of; I assume the novelty of cyberpunk noir and the novel’s Philip K. Dick award has it made more visible than most. I wasn’t really quite sure what to expect going in, but I wanted some gritty sci-fi to change things up.
Altered Carbon takes place in a future where people’s personalities can be digitized and downloaded into new bodies, which certainly makes the interstellar travel necessary to get between Earth and the other settled planets a bit easier. But it’s not a perfect solution—for religious reasons, Catholics refuse to be “resleeved” into new bodies, and the United Nations created the Envoys, a military force uniquely equipped to deal with the problems of interstellar battle and subtler missions in a universe where you’re wearing many different faces. Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-Envoy, is taken out of storage and promised an end to his prison sentence if he can solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft, an immensely wealthy man who has resleeved himself over and over over the past two hundred years. While the police are calling suicide, Bancroft swears he was murdered, and Kovacs must navigate the Earth he doesn’t know to get the truth.
Just as I find something about old-school, traditional fantasy very comforting, I find something comforting about confidently intricate sci-fi. Altered Carbon isn’t the most accessible, although it never tries to lose its reader. Its issues in term of accessibility is trusting the audience a bit too much, which is quite rare in speculative fiction. What that means is that I respect the choice, but it did hurt the readability, as I was occasionally confused as to who certain characters were because Kovacs wouldn’t spare a word or two to remind himself. (This is actually part of the world; Kovacs’ Envoy training has given him perfect memory, so he wouldn’t logically have to. There’s a reason for it, which I appreciate, but it’s still a bit annoying.) The logic of the interesting world holds together and, most importantly, this story is a story that could only happen here, in this particular world. How do you spice up a murder mystery? The victim is still walking around and doesn’t remember. Whenever I described the premise to someone, they thought it was great, which tells me a thing or two about Morgan’s elevator pitch.
So the worldbuilding is very tight. The world is much more multicultural—Harlan’s World, where Kovacs comes from, was settled by Dutch and Japanese settlers—and Morgan does try and go for better gender balances here, although no apparently trans characters appear. You actually do see women in roles that don’t revolve around their sexuality, and its beyond a female mechanic here and there: the woman who haunts Kovacs doesn’t haunt him because they were involved, but because she’s violent, sadistic, and the most powerful woman on Earth. And most of his immediate superiors back in the Envoy Corps are women. But I’m still a little torn here, because of the sexualized nature of violence against women. At one point, Kovacs is captured by the bad guys and tortured. How they torture him is by putting him into a virtual environment as a young, defenseless woman, and then doing unspeakable things to him. On the one hand, this is an ultraviolent universe where awful, gendered slurs fly like dust motes and its the bad guys who are committing these awful mistreatments, but on the other hand, it occasionally seems to flirt with something exploitative. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I bring it up because it did bother me.
The action is relentless, although Kovacs’ perfect memory can make it a bit muddy, since he knows more than the reader a lot of the time. For the most part, it’s used well, but I really never thought I’d yearn for just a bit more Worldbuilder’s Disease. While it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, it’s still dark, gritty, and grim; fans of Blade Runner will find this comfortably reminiscent of the film. And I really appreciate that Morgan, even in the midst of an action thriller, takes the time to mildly explore the identity issues inherent with the resleeving process. Kovacs ends up involved with a woman who loved the man who wore his sleeve last, and when he’s resleeved for a different mission, he wonders about the nature of their relationship. It’s not as fully fleshed as I would hope, but it’s at least present.
Bottom line: Altered Carbon is a piece of confidently intricate and incredibly dark and gritty sci-fi, with a well thought-out world, a story that could only take place here, and relentless action. While the accessibility is off due to character reasons (if the protagonist has a perfect memory, he never needs to bring you up to speed) and there’s something slightly off about violence towards women here, it’s still a solid novel for fans of Blade Runner. If you would like!
I rented this book from the public library.