Altered Carbon

It's a sad fact that I only manage to get one book read for every ten or so I acquire. It's not that I'm a slow reader, it's all got to do with the budgeting of time, and the variety of media that compete for my attention. The bulk of my reading is actually done during my 15 minute coffee breaks (actually 20-- shh don't tell the boss) at work. Which is my way of explaining why I just got around to reading Richard K. Morgan's terrific future noir Altered Carbon, even though my buddy Mike gave it to me as a Christmas gift. Christmas of 2006, that is!

Now I'm smacking myself in the head for waiting so long. Altered Carbon kicks 87 different kinds of ass! I can see why the novel appealed to Mike, who is a big fan of hardboiled shamuses (shamii?). Mike is waiting for 30's fashion to come back into style in a big way, so that he can wear a fedora 24/7. The milieu of the novel is futuristic, but at its center is a good old-fashioned detective story. Consider the plot, boiled down to its basics:

A hard-bitten outsider, down on his luck, is strong-armed into working for a powerful rich person to look into the unanswered questions surrounding a mystery that can‘t or won‘t be handled by proper authorities. The more our (anti-)hero looks into the case, the more questions arrive, and the entire situation turns out to be way more complicated then he ever suspected. His investigation takes him from the extravagant playgrounds of the rich and famous to the sordid underbelly of the city's darkest corners, crossing paths along the way with hired killers, maverick cops and a sexy femme fatale.

Sounds like it could be the plot description of hundreds of different detective stories, doesn't it? But from this familiar starting point, Morgan blasts off in exciting and original directions, reworking the premise into an imaginative far future setting.

One of the major technological advances of Morgan's future is the ability to digitize, back-up and store people's memories in a small device called a "stack", which is implanted at the base of the skull. Citizens of the future can survive unfortunate "accidents" by having their memories downloaded into a new "sleeve". The advantaged of society can simply be revived in a younger clone of their previous self; some lower classes have to settle for artificial sleeves of lesser quality ranging from plastic mannequin down to clunky robotic.

Because people can exist in digital form, they can have experiences in virtual reality. As with any technological advance there are positive and negative applications. The forum can be used for entertainment purposes, and even as a way to transfer via "needlecast" to different planets without having to physically board a starship and travel generations to get there. On the downside, criminals must serve their time in virtual, and often their bodies are co-opted as temp sleeves without their awareness. Oh, and interrogation is a bitch in virtual-- all the pain and mental anguish of the real thing without even the relief of retreating into unconsciousness when the body goes into shock from damage. Nasty.

In a previous time Takeshi Kovacs was an Envoy, one of an elite force of enhanced super-soldiers assigned to do the United Nations Protectorate's dirty work. But now Kovacs has fallen on hard times and is looking at a 118-year prison sentence in "storage." One instant he is being gunned down in a firefight with authorities, and the next thing he knows he has been downloaded into a human sleeve on Earth at the request of a long-lived billionaire who has need of his services.

Laurens Bancroft is a meth (short for "Methuselah"), meaning he has lived for centuries because he can afford to keep transferring his consciousness into new young clones. The newer generations resent meths because they are perceived as considering themselves godlike, above the law, and generally better than everyone else. Bancroft uses his money and influence to have Kovacs paroled and beamed across space in order to investigate the circumstances of the death of Bancroft's previous sleeve, which the local cops have written off as a suicide. Bancroft has no memories of how his head came to be blown off, because the stack was destroyed as well. He was only able to cheat death because he had a backup of his mind in storage elsewhere. He refuses to accept the suicide ruling, not only because his ego won't let him entertain the idea that he would ever kill himself, but also because of what a pointless gesture it would be, in light of the backup self and a series of ready-to-wear clone sleeves. What's the point of killing yourself if you know your private clone lab will simply resurrect you again?

Kovacs is given the choice of looking into the circumstances of Bancroft's "murder" and making a good chunk of change in the process, or returning to storage and serving out the rest of his century-plus sentence. Not much of a decision, really, is it?

It's a daunting task which only gets more complicated as Kovacs gets deeper into his investigation. For starters, he soon learns that Bancroft didn't have him resleeved into just any body, but into the skin of a former local cop who's been sent into storage on (possibly trumped up) corruption charges. This is the meth's petty way of exacting revenge against an uncooperative local constabulary, but now Kovacs must deal with a resentful police department. He can't even tell if the tails he picks up and the would-be assassins who try to take him out are looking to impede his investigation or seeking revenge against the cop whose face he's wearing.

And then there's the matter of Bancroft's wife Miriam, a fellow meth who for reasons of her own urges Kovacs to drop the investigation altogether. Her powers of persuasion are greatly enhanced by her sexy young custom-made sleeve capable of sweating out aphrodisiac pheromones which can turn both men's and women's mind to mush.

A word of warning to the more faint-hearted of my readers: this is definitely a "hard-R" narrative we're dealing with here, filled with extreme violence, gore, sex, and all sorts of harsh language. Normally, stuff such as this doesn't faze me in the least. In fact, I appreciate some adult content in my entertainment that hasn't been castrated to "protect the children." Nevertheless, even I felt my stomach do a somersault when one of Kovacs' enemies shoves a pair of pliers into his eyeball in order to extract an implanted recording device. This is the kind of world we're dealing with here, people!

The noir detective story template has been around for generations and has been fused with SF elements at least since the 80s with Blade Runner and the cyberpunk movement. And John Varley was exploring mind transferal and gender switching back in the 70s. What Morgan does is take threads of previous concepts and weaves them together to create an exciting new world that is both fascinating and more than a little scary. His vision of a future dystopian Earth is very well realized, with Kovacs' quest making stops at a sentient hotel, a virtual whorehouse, a shady medical clinic and an underground combat arena. Without ever going overboard with exposition, Morgan is able along the way to also drop in information about the wider universe and its politics, as well as interesting bits of Kovacs' backstory.

Richard K. Morgan's writing is so sharp, his themes so cogently explored, his action so exhilarating, his plots so satisfyingly resolved, its shocking to me that Altered Carbon was actually his first published work. Morgan juggles a dozen different characters and story elements with nary a twitch. There are only a couple of scenes in the whole book that didn't come off as well as the author intended. One involves Kovacs pretending to be the distraught mother of a dead prostitute in order to trick another working girl into giving him information. Yes you read that right. Another section concerns a character who's been illegally "double sleeved" (that is, having his personality downloaded twice into separate bodies) sitting around arguing with himself. I simply didn't buy that two characters with the exact same mind could have a conversation that was nearly as interesting or revelatory. In fact, I expect they'd spend the whole time finishing each others' sentences.

But these are minor quibbles-- this guy is good! I would rate Altered Carbon a solid 9. I’m also psyched to learn that Morgan has published four more books in the interim, including two more featuring Kovacs. I’m definitely not waiting two years to pick up the next one.


Hyperkinetic #1

It must be hellish for an independent comics publisher to get potential readers interested in a new project. I mean, the way the system works now, you really need customers to commit to buying your product 2 months before it will actually be released, based sometimes on nothing more than a short teaser blurb buried somewhere in middle of Previews. If you are one of the Big Two companies, and your comic has an "X" or "Bat" in the title, then you have a chance. If you are publishing through Image with a brand new concept, you had better make that teaser as tantalizing as possible.

Well, here's what Image solicited for the first issue of their four-part Hyperkinetic miniseries:
"Four intergalactic highly skilled female bounty hunters pursue an elusive prey. They end up going through a wormhole and crashing on a weird alien planet. They now have bigger concerns such as giant killer robots and crazy aliens."

Talk about hitting a home run! Give that solicit writer a raise. "Female bounty hunters"? "Weird alien planet"? "Giant killer robots"? Exactly how fast can someone get a copy of this bad boy into my sweaty little appendages? I preordered the thing with no hesitations.

Two months later, I've read Hyperkinetic #1 and come to a sobering realization: the solicitation wasn't a short teaser suggesting the skiffy delights within, but rather a detailed, thorough plot synopsis of everything that happens in the issue!

Seriously, next to nothing happens in this comic. The four leads chase a fleeing fuzzball in their spaceship, while cracking wise to each other. Their ships crash; they make more snarky commments. Their pursuit is briefly interrupted by a jungle cat attack, then they catch up to the perp at his safehouse, where he sics some giant robots on them. The end.

Almost nothing is explained. We don't know what this bad guy, Renpy, is wanted for, who sicced the bounty hunters on him, or why normal law enforcement couldn't handle it. We don't know where Renpy is running to, or who he is supposed to be meeting that will be angry that he is running late. All we're given is "there's these girls chasing this alien".

Usually I'm all for some witty one-liners slipped into a fun romp of a story. The problem here is that it's nothing but snarky comments, and really the level of humor is pretty sophomoric. Of course, humor is subjective, so let me give a few examples of the hilarity which ensues. Be prepared to play back the snickerings of Beavis and Butthead in your mind as you read the following:

Robot pilot, after the ship crashes:
"I think my lug nuts are loose"
"Ewwww. Keep that to yourself, perv."

(Get it? 'Cause he said "nuts"! Genius!)

"Oh yuck. I stepped in some kitty poo and ruined my new shoes."

"Alicia, I'm sorry I told that cute guy you liked on Zevpen 7 that you have genital fungus."
"You're the one with gential fungus!"
"Yeah, now he has it too."

Ahhh, good times. Let me pause a sec whilst I wipe the tears from my eyes. Did I mention the "heroes" track down their mark because he leaves behind a pair of dirty underwear with his name and address written on the tag?

At the very least, you would expect a comic like this to have some sexy T-and-A quotient. After all, these "highly trained" bounty hunters run around in belly shirts and pushup bras with their thong straps showing. But sadly, Matteo Scalera is no J. Scott Campbell. His wonky, cartoony style depicts these girls as gangly and angular with spastic facial expressions. And did I mention they have a genital fungus? They're about the unsexiest sexy comic characters you will ever come across. Scalera's art might be suited to, say, a Spongebob Squarepants comic, but good girl art is not his forte.

Hyperkinetic is not completely amateurish, but it is shockingly slight for the $3.50 cover price. The fact that this is a four-issue mini rather than a one-shot floors me, because really I see nothing in here that would entice anyone to spend another $10.50 for the rest of the story.

All in all, I can't give this comic anything higher than a 5 out of 10.


Clone Wars: No More for Me, Thanks, I'm Driving

It almost stuns me to say it, but there's a Star Wars movie in theaters and I have absolutely no intention of going to see it.

I mean, I'm a product of the Star Wars generation. Saw the original in theaters at age 7, played with the action figures, collected the trading cards, read the Marvel comics.(Valence the Hunter! the Wheel! Baron Tagge!) Between HBO and the coming of the VCR, I watched and rewatched Star Wars enough times in my formative years that to this day I know from memory that the hatch to the Death Star trash compactor is 3263827! A lot of my lifelong love of SF and all things geeky stems from that magical time of the late 70's, weaned on Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Battle of the Planets and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

I don't live, breath, and eat Star Wars, my interests have greatly diversified as I've gotten older, but I've kept my proverbial toe in the SW pool and remain a fan. I've probably read 60-70% of all published Expanded Universe material (and when you consider how much of it there is, that's a decent amount), and have done my damdedest to defend the prequels (well Eps. 2 and 3, anyway) from many a naysayer.

I've come this far, but no further. This new Clone Wars con is a dealbreaker for me, I'm afraid.

Let's face it, first and foremost it's been getting just abysmal reviews. Even a pro-genre site like Ain't It Cool News posted scads of dismissive early looks. Alexandra DuPont found it "depressing" and gives a pretty thorough explanation of why it isn't worth your time. Capone says it's actually better than the Phantom Menace (not that that's particularly high praise), but ultimately "a huge missed opportunity." And the Headgeek himself, Harry Knowles, says "I hated the film. HATED IT. REALLY HATED IT." Feel free to use that quote on your poster, George Lucas!

More mainstream critics were equally unkind. Richard Roeper does his best Yoda impression to proclaim "Sucks this movie does", Roger Ebert gives it a star and a half and says "you know you're in trouble when the most interesting new character is Jabba the Hutt's uncle" and Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman plasters the flick with a resounding 'F'. Rotten Tomatoes has given it a score of 18%, and yes that's out of a possible 100!

And by the way, let's get rid of the notion that this is a movie. It's not. What we've got here is three episodes of the upcoming cartoon show, welded together with the commercials removed. This stuff was made on a limited budget for a TV screen. We're being sold a bill of goods, people. Of course, this isn't a new concept. I remember nagging my dad to take me to the theater to see the Battlestar Galactica movie, only to find out once we were there that it was simply the pilot episode with the bass turned up real high so when the ships rumbled by the whole movie house felt like it may shake apart and collapse on us.

Also, the fact that Revenge of the Sith has already come and gone makes this a real lame duck project to begin with. Nothing significant is likely to happen to the main characters, their ultimate fates are already known. Even a relatively insignificant blip in the SW canon like Asajj Ventress meets her destiny elsewhere. So where is there an iota of mystique or tension here?

Some diehard defenders might try to sarcastically argue that perhaps there should never be any new stories about World War II, since we already know how that turned out too. But no, the difference here is that WWII is inherently interesting, with battle on multiple fronts, with many nations all with different cultures and different goals, and fighting on vastly differing battlefields. Story possibliities set during WWII are limitless. Clone Wars stories are a different gundark. We're talking about vat-grown insta-soldiers marching against idiot robots, and blowing stuff up real good.

Didja ever play with toy soldiers when you were a kid? For the most part, the Clone Wars are about as meaningful as that. Don't forget that the ultimate sick joke of the whole thing is that both sides of the war essentially work for the same man, Darth Sidious. It's all a calculated means to an end, but really when it comes down to it, evil wins whether the Republic or the Seperatists come out on top.

Finally, assuming you do enjoy the time period, and want to geek out on all the clone-on-droid action, there is already a perfectly good cartoon series showcasing this time frame, not to mention a hundred comics, a couple dozen novels, and a video game or two. Generally I try to avoid video games because they're such a potential time suck, but I'd bet I'd have roughly 10x more fun playing a Clone Wars scenario on Battlefront than watching this new "movie". Hell, Matthew Stover's EU novel Shatterpoint is probably in the top ten Star Wars novels I've ever read!

Don't get me wrong, I'll no doubt check the contents of this release out when they air on Cartoon Network for free in a couple of months. Hell, I might even like 'em better than some of the bitter folks on the internet. But shell out $10 for a movie ticket? Your Jedi mind tricks won't work on me, George. Not this time.


Universal War One #1

Historically, European comics have had a hard time getting a foothold in the American market. Although manga has broken through in a huge way, the US comics industry is primarily a superhero zone, and the distribution method of choice is 22-page monthlies ("floppies"/ "pamphlets") collected into 6-8 issue trade paperback collections. For reasons that escape me, the European method of releasing longer graphic albums in genres other than "men in tights" has had little success on this side of the pond.

It's not from lack of quality. There's some good stuff that has reached these shores in those short windows when an American company had tried to broaden their readership. Way back in the halcyon days of 1999 Dark Horse struck up a deal with Italian company Bonelli to publish digest-sized reprints of Dylan Dog, Nathan Never, and Martin Mystery, but they flopped and disappeared from the shelves after six volumes apiece. Humanoids and DC Comics had a brief alliance in the mid-2000's, and DC also made a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get Rebellion's impressive 2000 AD catalog on US bookshelves.

Call me an incurable cynic, but I'm not sure how Marvel thinks their new arrangement to reprint Soleil material is going to break the losing streak. So far the material looks good, but to my mind the failure of the previous ventures can't be chalked up to quality, which was always high. But none of these had enough sales to thrive, and I wonder why Marvel thinks their Soleil books will succeed where others did not. It's not that I'm rooting against them, in fact I very much would like to see other genres outside of superheroes in the US. It's just that history suggests the odds are long.

I sampled the first issue of Sky Doll when it was released a few months ago, and found it enjoyable but not enough so to add to the ol' pull list. I certainly admire Marvel's balls in selecting a story that so blatantly lampoons America's contradictory obsessions with religious dogma and porno, and the artwork is terrific, but I wasn't enthralled enough with Noa as a character to invest in the rest of the series.

Now Universal War One, on the other hand, is right up my alley: Space fleets, borderline personalities, unchecked mega-corporations and a helluva BIg Dumb Object. Sign me up!

French creator Denis Bajram envisions a future 100 years hence where humanity has spread across the solar system in massive artificial gravity enabled spaceships, colonizing even the furthest planets and moons. It's not entirely clear how he expects us to advance so far technologically in just a century, but what is apparent is that in this future society, militaristic white men are in the driver's seat (just like now) and farm out the plum development gigs to powerful corporations (just like now).

Then a very big something appears to mess up their carefully maintained status quo, a massive black sphere, three billion kilometers in diameter, suddenly appears in space, seeming to emanate from the central point of Oberon, moon of Uranus. The gravity pull of "the Wall", as it's dubbed, is so intense that not only do probes sent in not return, they can't even send any signals back. Oberon is a holding of the Colonization Industrial Companies, but their reps claim ignorance.

This, to coin a phrase, is a job for June Williamson and her squad of ne'er do well pilots, the Purgatory Squadron.

Twenty years ago, during an uprising on Titan, Williamson commited career suicide by refusing orders to cut down a village of women and children refugees. As luck would have it, two of those survivors happened to be the wife and child of a fleet admiral, who intervenes on her behalf. Now the daughter, Kate Von Richtburg is June's second-in-command of a squad of misfits with a last chance at redemption.

And what a squad it is! The fractured personalities Williamson has cobbled together include the reckless, the cowardly, the perverse and the violent. Think Wedge Antilles' X-Wing Rogue Squadron crossed with Lee Marvin's Dirty Dozen. It's clearly an uphill struggle to keep these loose cannons in line; in the first issue each continues to exhibit the deviant personality flaws that got them in trouble in the first place. But in contrast to the unimaginative bureaucracy of the military, these anti-heroes may just be non-conformist enough to actually solve the puzzle of the wall.

As intruiging a set-up as this is, the artwork is even better. In the European albums, quality is stressed over quantity, and while American artists are putting the pedal to the metal to churn out a minimum 22 pages a month, artists like Bajram clearly have the time to really draw in great detail and it shows in the ship designs and the backgrounds. Even if the book hadn't been translated to English I could spend a half-hour poring over Barjam's intricate panels.

It the story falls down a little bit, it's in some of the dialogue, which reads a little more "comic-bookular" than a writer might be able to get away with in a prose novel. Also some of the scenes of conflict come off too melodramatic, particularly one far-fetched scene where a butthead Colonel puts down the theories of Ed Kalish, one of June's men, despite the fact that Kalish was the director of the Fleet's Physics Research Division before he got in trouble. Also, there is a pretty sappy encounter between Kate and her father, which has dialogue like this:

"You can give your scientist the green light to pursue his project."

"Thanks, Dad. But, you know, what I really wish is that you'd give me the green light to live my own life."


But I can't give UW1 too much flak, it might not be captial-L literature, but issue 1 has pulled me in with an intruiging premise, compelling characters and great art. And by the end of the first book, we haven't even seen what's beyond the wall yet! These comics were originally published in 1997, but I haven't read any more about the story beyond what's presented in this first issue. But with a name like Universal War One, I don't think the answer will disappoint.

Although I haven't seen issue 2 yet, I believe it is already on the shelves. If you see them out there, buy 'em both. At first $5.99 might seem like a steep price tag, but issue 1 at least has 46 of story, which means the per-page price is more or less in line with regular monthly Marvels. If you are a SF fan, and want to see Marvel's partnership with Soleil succeed, vote with your wallet and enjoy a fun comic from across the pond!

On a 1-10 scale I would rate Universal War One #1 an 8.5.