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.