Fantastic cyberpunk to rival Deus Ex

Written by

Richard K. Morgan in 2002

Altered Carbon is a book full of arseholes. There aren’t any characters that I can even say are likeable and certainly nobody I’d root for in the story. But there’s something about the book that had me unable to put it down because it was just such an engrossing read.

Altered Carbon is Richard Morgan’s first book and is quite frankly a modern masterpiece of cyberpunk science fiction. The story is set in what feels like the middle of 2500s and is told from the first person perspective of one Takeshi Kovacs, a descendent of settlers from the planet Harlan’s World. As his name suggests, he is a mix of Balkan and Japanese origin – those being the most common ethnic groups on Harlan’s World and has grown up in a life of crime, war and mercenary contracts. This is not a main character that knows subtlety.

The universe in which Kovacs exists is far more advanced than we can imagine. Selective immortality has been achieved, though very few people actually take up the option of living for as long as possible. It’s done via the convenient extraction and insertion of data – in this case an entire personality, consciousness and their set of memories – in human bodies. This doesn’t mean that a person can’t permanently die if they don’t take precautions, as the little chip that stores aforementioned memory, personality and consciousness can of course be destroyed. There’s a good lesson in this about backing up and ensuring you have multiple copies of data.

This concept is pretty cool, but obviously needs some suspension of disbelief. It’s also central to the story and as long as you don’t have a problem with the way the concept works and accept it as just part of the universe, it won’t matter. As a result of this resleeving technology, a person’s body is no longer really viewed as sacred, since you can jump in and out of them by choice. They turn into commodities, with genetic engineering and other more physically conspicuous augmentations present in quite a number of characters.

The story itself is a crime and murder mystery set in what is now San Francisco, but in the future is just called Bay City. It seems to be a pretty bleak place, full of prostitution, criminal gangs, drugs and cyber warfare. Kovacs is tasked with finding out who killed Laurens Bancroft, a mogul who is over 350 years old and has a predilection for sexual deviancy. It’s a pretty violent book and the reader is spared no expense on account of gore, dismemberment and decapitation. Although, this is of course based on the fact that someone doesn’t really die even if you cut their head off, as long as their personality is kept intact within the head. Therefore, characters are pretty non-plussed when they get stabbed, shot or even blown up as long as they have a backup of themselves.

A lot of the themes of the book relate to identity and even questions the natural order of things. As a person can literally walk around in any body on any given day, it’s hard to know how who it is you’re talking to. It’s even possible to easily commit crimes and thwart the rule of law with this kind of technology and there’s hardly any surefire way to know who was ultimately responsible. As for family and things like that, do you fall in love purely with the personality or does the whole package matter, including the body that person inhabits? Even the question of life and death, including a subplot involving an old religious sect called the Catholics is examined.

If I can say one thing about Altered Carbon, is that it’s a must read for science fiction fans. Even though none of the characters are particularly likeable, its the setting that ultimately draws you in, much like the future of Deus Ex where conspiracy, crime, body augmentations and a society gone wrong all coalesce into a fast paced action thriller. If only more books were this exciting!

Rating

A great mixture of crime, police and futuristic foresight.

Should I read this?

There aren’t many nice people in this book, but it’s still an intriguing murder mystery in a fantastic setting.

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