Thursday, May 26, 2016

Altered Carbon review

    As a huge fan of Richard K. Morgan, I've been told I should have started with Altered Carbon and moved onto his other works but I actually am reading his Takeshi Kovacs series toward the end. As the old saying goes, I may have saved the best for last. I am a huge cyberpunk fan but it's a genre which has been receding since the Nineties. Part of this has to be the back and forth  optimism about technology's ability to solve humankind's problems among geeks.

    Cyberpunk is, at its core, an ethos which doesn't go down very well with many science fiction fans. It is the belief technology will not be able to solve humankind's problems because, at its core, humanity is a race of jerkasses. Instead, like its predecessor in noir, humanity will merely find new ways of using technology to oppress and destroy. Cyberpunk is fundamentally about stories were technology is used to **** humanity over and following those tales.   

    Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs series takes place centuries in the future with humanity having colonized the world. Furthermore, humans have discovered a way to shuttle their minds around through bodies (called "sleeves") as well as save their consciousness on implants (called "stacks"). Alien life, immortality, and space travel are not usually found in cyberpunk but the author manages to create a world which is even darker than our present one.

    For one, it's never entirely clear whether or not the people getting re-sleeved are actually "you" or just a perfect duplicate. Like certain horror theories about Star Trek, it's entirely possible people kill themselves constantly throughout the setting with the false hope they'll be reborn in a new body. Furthermore, the impoverished and imprisoned frequently have their bodies sold off for use by other people. It's possible to spend the rest of your life in a databank, forgotten and unable to afford release. The equivalent of being stuck for all eternity on a floppy disk in someone's desk drawer.

    Takeshi Kovacs is a dual-Russian and Japanese descended former member of the Envoys. The Envoys are humans trained to be ultimate diplomacy and killing machines. They're equally capable of convincing or killing. After dying in a battle with the police off-world, he finds himself uploaded not to the body he had pre-prepared or in jail but on Earth. Trillionaire Laurens Bancroft has arranged for Takeshi's release in order to have the renegade super-soldier investigate Lauren's alleged suicide (which Laurens insists he would never do).

    Like most noir storytelling, the question of who actually killed Laurens Bancroft is less important than the increasingly desperate attempts to prevent Takeshi from finding it out. It soon involves Lauren's beautiful eternally young wife, an insane professional killer, and a couple whose daughter was badly misused by Takeshi's client. It's further complicated by the fact Takeshi is wearing the body of an ex-cop who is well known in the area as well as well-liked (by some, he's hated by others).

    It's a wonderfully evocative world which manages to conjure up the 1940s while being far in the future. Technology has allowed the rich to become richer, the poor to become meaner, and the middle-class to look down on both. Even honest cops like Kristan Ortega, Takeshi's handler for much of the story, are bigots who look down on both Catholics as well as the super-rich. As much seemingly out of jealousy for their conviction or ability to break the rules as their believed moral superiority.

    I wasn't too comfortable with the fact Richard K. Morgan used an actual religious group as the ones to have a serious issue with sleeving. Usually, in this case an author will have a fictional religion or group to object to the technology. Even so, I tended to sympathize with them over the vast majority of causal re-sleevers. The technology may appear to be grand but it seemed to be selling an illusion everyone bought into despite the consequences for themselves.

    Takeshi Kovacs is something of an escapist character, being good at just about everything as well as a magnet to women. However, he's also a character whose training has warped him as he has no difficulty killing as a solution to nearly every problem. Some may find him a bit too much but I enjoyed him a great deal as a living role-playing game player character. I also enjoyed his supporting cast both enemy and friend (or both). They're a mixture of sexy, sleazy, corrupt, and principled all in one.

    There's a lot of great action throughout the story with Takeshi being a pure badass from page one to three hundred. I was most impressed, though, by Richard K. Morgan's exploration of sleeving technology and its implications. He discusses how it affects socio-economic status, politics, world-views, romantic relationships, and even life-and-death. Very few science fiction fully explores its concepts as well as tells a crackling story, while this does both.

     In conclusion, Altered Carbon is a really entertaining novel and I think it'll be worth the money of anyone who picks it up. It reminds me a bit of Jim Bernheimer's Prime Suspects: A Clone Detective Mystery, only even better. I've already picked up the sequels and suspect they'll be every bit as enjoyable.


1 comment:

  1. By the way, since you mention the Trek Transporters and the implications of them killing people, I have a hypothesis as to "proof" that they do not:

    Federation technology like the replicator and the transporter are stated to be unable to create life (at least not intentionally-circumstances where they do are "acts of God" essentially). So the transporter is clearly not creating new life so it must not be destroying it either.