Book Review: Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon

I’d been browsing Wikipedia a few weeks ago looking for various authors, and noted with interest that Joel Silver had apparently purchased the film rights for Altered Carbon for a reported $1 million. Now, as a developing writer, I want to see what makes a million-dollar novel, so I thought I’d give it a shot and check it out.

Most of the reviews of the story say “gripping” – I think this is fair. True to its (post?)cyberpunk roots, there is a hell of a lot of noir influence on the story. The body count started building from the prologue, and never stopped. The main character, one Takeshi Kovacs, personally dies at least twice, is copied once, and switches bodies a few times for good measure.

Granted, this ability to switch bodies, to “resleeve” one’s consciousness in a new “sleeve” by transplanting a “stack” containing what might be best described as one’s soul (the exact functionality is never particularly spelled out), helps the body count along. Apparently a person can only be truly killed if the stack is destroyed, made “Really Dead” (a phrase which brings to mind the “Mostly dead” from the Princess Bride movie of yore). Of course, Mr. Kovacs (Pronounced Kovachs, with that “loch” sound for the “ch,” as we are duly informed shortly into the novel’s first chapter) seems to be somewhat heartless, and mercilessly “Really Deads” several people who tangentially inconvenienced him. Not that I have a problem with this.

I can see why the story attracted the producer behind The Matrix though. The novel has the same dark, gritty feel. Hell, Kovacs is “resleeved” in a gel-filled tank sounding remarkably like those little gel-filled tanks that the Machines stored their “human batteries” in (speaking of which, has anyone ever managed to make sense of why that was even remotely practical/efficient for advanced intelligent machines to do?). Kovacs shoots up a laboratory in the same fashion that Neo wastes the lobby of the building where Morpheus is held. Trepp seems to be the story’s Trinity, the ass-kicking female hardass who gets alternately detached and bubbly. (Hmmm…Trepp…tripp….triple…trinity? Too far of a stretch? It’s hard to say. In all fairness, Trepp is never attached to Kovacs romantically, that I’m aware of.)

The technology? At least there are no skul-guns. I can’t say why Morgan chose to arm his characters with spider venom monomolecular flechettes (wouldn’t these get tangled up at the slightest dense material?), either, as there are more efficient toxins out there, but hey, who am I to argue. Overall, I find the sociology to be more interesting, and the pharmacology. From betathanatine to hallucinogen grenades, there is enough exotic chemistry to make your neighborhood street pharmacist turn green with envy. And the Envoy mind-training, while sounding like a weird mix of the Force and NLP, is admittedly well-written.

Overall, the story is pretty well-envisioned, and the futuristic setting masks a standard noir feast of hard-boiled detective, big-breasted panting women, a murder-suicide mystery, and enough violence to make even a jaded person like myself raise an eyebrow at times. An entertaining read, to be sure.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon”

  1. You might also like to read: Alastair Reynolds, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Ken MacLeod & maybe Charles Stross. Their writing often have a noir distopian feel. But all including Morgan have produced at least one book with a silly ending/element.

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