reviews
Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs #1) 27, Nov

5/5

ALTERED CARBON by Richard K. Morgan is probably the first major cyberpunk novel since Neal Stephenson's SNOW CRASH. The genre didn't die in 1992 but it suffered a bit of a downturn with only The Matrix actually carrying on the genre afterward. Basically it was the time computers became ubiquitous and corporations DID take over the world so the dystopian future of the 80s was just the present now.

Altered Carbon is something that helped revive the genre for the literary world even as the cyberpunk genre has managed to fix itself on television (Mr. Robot), video games (Watch Dogs), and now movies (Blade Runner 2049). It managed to give a boost to what was a dying genre that still had some wonderful independent stuff (Prime Suspects: A Clone Detective Mystery, The Immorality Clause, and Technomancer: To Beat The Devil). Altered Carbon is something special, though, with a truly great noir protagonist and an amazing setup.

The premise of the book is technology has managed to copy consciousness onto "stacks" that can be moved between human bodies at will. This means a person can be murdered one day and alive the next. However, this hasn't benefited the poor as while the rich can afford new bodies to be grown, the poor often find themselves cheated out of their bodies then dumped in a file drawer somewhere to live out their existences digitally.

A shoot-out results in Takeshi Kovas, former U.N. super soldier (called an "Envoy"), being killed and his consciousness hijacked before it's transferred to Earth. On Earth, he is blackmailed into serving a 300 year old "Methuselah" named Laurens Bancroft. Laurens apparently committed suicide with one of his previous bodies but wants Takeshi Kovacs to investigate as that's not something he believes he'd do. If Takeshi doesn't, then he might never get off the Earth again or worse. What follows is a noir mystery involving porn, classicism, a sentient hotel, gangsters, and affairs with beautiful women. Plus more body-swapping.

What truly works about the story is it managed to combine the low life with the high tech. Takeshi Kovacs is a sociopath, a manipulator, and a professional killer but it allows him to move between the worlds of corrupt high society along with the dingy digital strip clubs with practiced ease. Sometimes he's helping a family of impoverished fishermen try to get their bodies' back while others he's trying to deal with the fact a police officer is in love with the body he's currently inhabiting even as he sleeps around with a client's wife. Good stuff.

Much like classic detective fiction, Takeshi is an outcast investigating the seedy underbelly of the Big City (Earth in this case). Everyone has secrets to hide and all of them are morally compromised to one degree or another. Takeshi's own corruption makes him unpredictable as he's willing to cross quite a few moral lines but has a genuine disgust for a number of people in the book. The fact he can't permanently die is mitigated by the fact the body he's in is the one of someone who can't afford a replacement. So while Takeshi might survive the book no matter what, he's being held hostage to someone else's existence. Plus, there are permanent ways to kill people in this world--they just require destroying the device which stores memories that's located in a person's head. Destroy the brain, destroy the cyber-zombie so to speak.

I think my favorite characters in the book are the Bancrofts and Officer Ortega. The Bancrofts are a corrupt and decadent old family but I don't think of them as evil, just extremely flawed. Certainly, Laurens has a better side to himself than people suspect even as he's also undoubtedly a sleazy old man. Miriam is similarly multi-faceted, being the kind of femme fatale I think Takeshi would love under other circumstances. Ortega? Ortega is a nicely flawed hypocrite who is, nevertheless, probably the most decent person in the story.

I love all the characters, I love the world created within, and I love the technology despite how horrifying it is. It's fairly clear the people aren't "transferred" but just mentally copied by the technology. That means we get to see the cast murdered repeatedly across the series as well as brainwashed into thinking they're other people. It's dark, humorous, and entertaining but also sometimes sweet. The action is fast, the situations absurd, and yet it all makes a wonderful amount of sense. It may not be the best cyberpunk novel ever written but it's close. I'm very excited about the Netflix adaptation of this book coming out but I think there's no substitute for the novel.