Book review: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

If it wasn’t for the recent Netflix series, this book would have been largely forgotten, except in more niche communities like biopunk aficionados. It presents a fascinating idea and milks it for what it’s worth. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it does a really good job exploring the consequences of the technology. It also does so in a vibrant and interesting world, full of characters and environments. However, the writing is disjointed, the pacing very poor and the author’s obsession with sex greatly detracted from my immersion into the novel’s world. Very few will reread the book or pick up the sequel.

The story revolves around Takeshi Kovacs, a former Envoy who is put on stack for the crimes he committed, but is then re-sleeved on Earth on the request of a Methuselah, who wants him to investigate his own murder. I hope the following sentence made no sense, because it’s illustrative of the narration style where a relatively straight-forward concept, which has been floating around science fiction for decades, was developed to almost absurd details. So, let me start at the beginning.

In the distant future, where mankind occupies planets outside the solar system, a technology is developed where a person’s personality and memories can be downloaded to a chip. This creates many different possibilities: from the most obvious, existing in a virtual space, to the more practical ones, such as switching from body to body, uploading one’s persona onto the chip implanted in the body’s spine. Instead of slow spaceships, people can also be sent long distance via data transfer.

Being uploaded to a body is called sleeving. People do so for various reasons, but it’s never a pleasant experience, mainly due to the fact that each body is different, and it takes some using to. The bodies often come from convicts whose personalities were put on stack, on a chip in storage, to serve their sentence. In the meantime, people can buy or rent the empty bodies for their own personalities. Only the richest people can afford to grow their own clones and switch bodies once every few years, in order to keep forever young. These people are colloquially referred to as Meths, short of Methuselahs.

Kovacs is a former Envoy, an elite soldier trained in combat and psychological warfare, as well as adapting to new bodies very quickly. He has since retired from the corps and found his calling in a life of crime, when his body was shot dead, and he ended up on the stack, serving a long sentence. Suddenly, he awakens on a new body on Earth, far from his home planet. He is informed that one of the super-rich Meths pulled some strings to have him released, so that he could investigate the Math’s murder. He was killed two days after his last personality backup, missing the two days in his memory, and he would like to know why he was killed and by whom.

Kovacs has to retrace his steps, while contending with the Meth’s promiscuous lifestyle, a jealous and very powerful wife, a murderous Russian terrorist, a police investigator whose lover’s body Kovacs now occupies, a very powerful mob boss who holds Kovacs’ girlfriend hostage, and a myriad of other characters, some more hostile than others. As he investigates, he is tortured, beaten, shot at, forced to lie to his employer and kills lots of people in his way. Really kills them, destroying their spinal implants in the process. Oh, and he fucks. He fucks a lot. Almost every female with a viable heartbeat he meets. And he narrates these encounters to the greatest detail.

The story changes directions too many times to count, and part of the fun reading is trying to figure out what’s going on, so for once I won’t spoil the entire plot. Suffice to say that at times it gets really convoluted, but there are subtle hints throughout the narrative that point to the general outcome. Unfortunately, they are so fleeting and subtle that both the reader and Kovacs keep missing them for the longest time. They serve only to entice the reader to reread the book, knowing where the narrative is heading, and trying to uncover all the clues ahead of time.

The problem with rereading the book is the same as with reading it the first time. The prose is incredibly disjointed, and the pacing is way off. It appears that the author had tried to do too many things with the narrative. At times it is a moody description of the futuristic world, akin to the beginning of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Other times it’s a very bloody, yet compelling action sequence, noir investigation, or very graphic sex scenes. The book also contains two drug-fueled sequences that stand out as a sore thumb, with very compelling prose that does not fit the rest of the narrative at all. Sometimes I could not put the book down, other times I had no problems finishing a paragraph in the middle of the chapter and going to sleep.

What makes the book so gripping is the central idea and what the author does with it. The idea is simple: future technology allows people to download themselves onto a chip and transfer themselves from one body to another. There are many implications that can be made, and Richard Morgan is excellent at developing them into a new, vibrant world. He explores where the technology came from: advances in biotechnology. It was not created in a vacuum, so it’s just natural that mankind knows how to preserve bodies, how to instantly heal grievous injuries, or how to transfer one’s personality over long distances. Then we have the various personal advances that this technology offers: people can “travel” to meetings instantly if they need to, but they can also opt to meet in virtual space. Rich people can create backups of their personas and maintain an army of clones. Their antagonists can develop computer viruses to destroy the backup copies.

But let’s take it even further than that. This technology forces social changes. On a personal level, there’s the question of who’d want to live forever in a body. So, we have a few people who do, and they are all insane in one way or another. The middle class, when their bodies die, are put on stack, and only rent bodies for family reunions or occasions (must make for some expensive weddings). There are people whose religion doesn’t allow them to be re-sleeved, and there are laws protecting their wishes. On a global level, you have the UN, with a full set of laws regulating the sleeving of people, from the prohibition to inhabit two bodies at the same time, to overriding people’s wishes against re-sleeving in contingencies. Morgan could not cover all eventualities, but he is making a much better job at developing an idea than most other authors I’ve read.

It’s not only the idea he is developing. He created a very vibrant world full of memorable characters, set pieces and history. Many books feel isolated, where the character operates in a near vacuum from the society. Not so here. Kovacs and the others really feel like parts of the world, and even though their story is rather inconsequential to the overall order of things, they feel important. I was truly fascinated by how the author managed to create such a compelling world, told in first person through Kovacs. My re-read did not focus on the clues to the final outcome of the story, rather on the technique Morgan employed to paint the bleak futuristic world in such vibrant colors.

Unfortunately, the compelling worldbuilding is just another symptom of the author trying to do too much. It seems to me that until he could not decide what overreaching theme the book would have. The disjointed themes then translated into very poor pacing. This makes the book a difficult read, and the final payoff is too small and inconsequential to care about. Altered Carbon is a valiant effort, parts of which may please different readers, but the whole will satisfy very few people.

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