Review: Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon

Post date: Jan 18, 2013 9:43:58 PM

Richard K. Morgan has successfully taken 20th century hard-boiled crime fiction, tossed in a little noir, and needle cast it into the 25th century.

In Altered Carbon, Morgan creates a universe where the human race has spread itself among the stars, human attraction has been distilled down to a few basic chemicals, and death requires a new definition. Human consciousness is digitalized and downloaded into small cortical “stacks” implanted in the spine. As long as the stack exists, death is simply a minor bump in the long road of life living in different bodies or “sleeves.” Real death, or “R.D.,” only occurs if your stack is destroyed – and there are ways of getting around that if you have enough money.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former Envoy (basically a henchman) for the reigning government, called the United Nations Protectorate. Following his latest death, Kovacs is beamed via “needle casting” from his home world to Earth and sleeved into the body of a corrupt cop whose digital personality is serving time “on stack.” Kovacs was brought to Earth by Larens Bancroft, a 300-year-old billionaire, to investigate Bancroft’s last death, written off by the cops as a suicide. Bancroft, now resleeved in a cloned body, has no memory of the event, and believes he was actually murdered.

Morgan pulls off this unlikely plot by weaving a hard-boiled narrative with intricate sociological details. His wise-cracking hero, Kovacs, is hardened by his life of violence, yet remains sympathetic. Morgan’s eye for detail does for his version of the 25th century what J.R.R. Tolkien’s detailed eye did for the Wilderland. In doing so, he raises many philosophical questions about what constitutes a person’s life and death.