Book Review: Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Altered Carbon

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by Kyt Dotson

Altered Carbon: A Takeshi Kovacs Novel represents a little bit of a diversion from my usual highly academic, social science fiction with sprawling high technology civilizations trying to learn themselves from the inside out and introduces instead a sort of spy thriller noir into the action scene. The book begins a series named after its main character, Takeshi Kovacs—who goes to great pains to explain to people that it’s pronounced “Koh-vach” and is Hungarian, rather at odds with his apparently Japanese first name. These two facts hint at his ethnic origins.

Kovacs is a specially trained solider, carefully conditioned with the skills and discipline necessary to carry out sensitive and grueling missions in any body.

Yes, that’s right, in the Altered Carbon universe people can end up inhabiting a body that they weren’t born with. It’s the basis of the technology behind the concept of altered carbon—which are essentially diamond-hard bolts of carbon that have been altered at the quantum level to contain vast amounts of data in the quantum spin of the carbon atoms. These modules (installed in people) contain a backup of their entire sentience and personality, and thus act in adjunct to their nervous system and brains, enabling a society who can switch bodies at will. It changes the role of imprisonment and punishment somewhat.

In the story, Kovacs finds himself in the predicament that any highly conditioned super soldier might when he’s out of a job: a lot of training, guts, glory, and nothing to do show for it. As a result, he end sup incarcerated and siphoned off world at the bidding of a political fat cat who needs his particular skills in order to do a covert investigation into his own supposed suicide. Another interesting fact being that it’s not so much a suicide as the loss of a day’s worth of experience as the man simply had a new body decanted and he was ready to go from a backup.

The capabilities of altered carbon and the availability of essentially infinite clones also produce another implied space in the culture: immortal people. These people mostly inhabit the multi-billionaire edge spectrum of the economic condition, but they’re delineated by the fact that they can forever produce new bodies for themselves and therefore live essentially forever (or at least until their empires run out of steam.) The book introduces a term for these people, Meths, taken from the name of the oldest person mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Methuselah. Needless to say, people such as these aggregate multiple lifetimes of enemies and political adversaries who might intend to do them harm and may have use for someone such as Kovacs to do their dirty work.

As a result of the development of technologies that essentially permit body switching, the authorities and policing agencies also need to change. In the ready absence of actual murder for some folks (due to the presence of altered carbon implants) it means that instead of dying, people suffer injury; sometimes these injuries are so severe that they cannot recover without a new body. A concept we’ve already seen built into science fiction role playing games: body recovery insurance. Or, in this instance, they might just rent the body of a convict and work out their lives that way until the person serves their sentence. The truly rich, like Kovac’s employer, can simply make due with blank clones.

Altered Carbon unfolds a universe where the problem of intergalactic flight times is resolved by not having to ship people across space—why shuttle meat bodies through space when we can needlecast their sentience digitally across the span between stars. People in these communities live with a sort of limbo about identity that divorces the self somewhat from the physical body.

As for reasons why people like this book beyond the technology and the social implications, there is a particularly interesting artificial intelligence that set this novel aside for me: the Hendrix. Some readers may be cognizant of genus loci, places with spirit or personality. The Hotel Hendrix happens to be one of those. It’s a hotel with an artificial personality agent that runs the establishment, better known as an automatic hotel; its avatar happens to be a neon blazing form of Jimi Hendrix. Not only does the Hendrix house Kovacs during his adventure, it’s a real and compelling character.

Few science fiction novels to date offer a gritty noir atmosphere along with a hotel-cum-dead-rock-star willing to get down and dirty into a seedy criminal enterprise in order to advance the plot.

Altered Carbon is the first in a series of currently three books following Takeshi Kovacs and his strange adventures. It provides a backdrop for the next two books, which jump out in very different directions. The Martian artifacts and ruins briefly mentioned in the book become quite prominent in the second book. People who enjoyed this book will probably enjoy the next two; but should be warned that they’re in for a different ride each time. Richard K. Morgan shows that no only can he write, but he has a dynamic range to carry as well.

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