Roughly 500 years in the future, death becomes avoidable. Initially used as a method for deep space travel, a person’s consciousness can be digitally stored for an indefinite amount of time and then downloaded into a “cortical stack” of an unoccupied human body or “sleeve.” However, the procedure does require financial means, and even then only the very rich can get their original body back. This scientific breakthrough, along with space travel, true A.I., virtual reality, biological enhancement, cloning, and other technological advances, haven’t served to better mankind as much as further complicated it. Class separation is even more extreme, now that the prosperous have several lifetimes to increase their power. Religious factions oppose man-made immortality. Meanwhile, generations are born and re-sleeved on distant planets while Earth is slowly becoming a relic.
To help maintain control of colonies at the farthest reaches of the galaxy, the UN Protectorate created shock troops called the Envoys, which deploy by instantaneous galactic digital transfer into waiting cortical stacks of bio-enhanced sleeves. The Envoys are elite combat soldiers and counter-intelligence operatives feared throughout the known universe, and Takeshi Kovacs used to be one of them.
A wealthy businessman, Laurens Bancroft, was recently murdered and had to be re-sleeved. With the police claiming his death was suicide, Bancroft needs the best to find his killer. Kovacs is the best, so Bancroft arranges to have him transported to Earth.
Altered Carbon is an action-packed, who-done-it mystery that hooked me to the very end. I state with the utmost respect that my mind imagined visuals of the movie Blade Runner as I read it. (After all, Mr. Morgan has made the comparison himself.) Blade Runner’s Los Angeles and Altered Carbon’s San Francisco could exist in the same future. Rick Deckard and Takeshi Kovacs could be brothers, though Kovacs would be the mean brother that beat up on Deckard when they were kids.
The technological advances in Altered Carbon are mindboggling and believable at the same time. The vision of the future, although grim, is so relatable to our current world that it’s easy to accept as reality. Woes that have always plagued mankind, like class separation, abuse of power, and the conflict between government and religion, continue and become more extreme.
Despite incredible scientific achievements being crucial elements to the story, Altered Carbon has the mood and excitement of a crime thriller that just happens to be set in the far future. And the voice of Takeshi Kovacs’ narration increases that ambiance.
True to the story’s tone Kovacs is the classic noir private-eye, only increased tenfold. Though haunted by the violence of his past, Kovacs is ready, willing, and capable to react with violent action whenever necessary, or maybe just because he’s pissed off. On the surface, Kovacs may seem lawless and self-serving but he lives by his own code and is a man of his word.
Richard K. Morgan has the deep understanding of human nature and society that the best authors have. Without distracting from the story, he raises profound questions about what it is that makes a person who they are. Is it the physical body, mind, memories, or is it truly all those things combined? And if that is the case, if just one of those elements gets changed, is a different individual created? However, one thing is certain: in Altered Carbon, being immortal doesn’t make life any easier.
Morgan impressed me even more with his ability to bring written words to life. The perception of Earth being an antiquated remnant of human history weighs like a constant dark shadow. The sexual interludes are more erotic than an evening spent in a high-end strip club. I would’ve given up any secret asked when just reading about a character being interrogated by torture. Because Kovacs’ sleeve was a smoker, his constant struggle with that habit made me crave a cigarette, and I haven’t smoked seriously in over twenty years.
Wherever Takeshi Kovacs goes, Hell is sure to follow and so will I. I had such a great time with Richard K. Morgan’s book that along with the rest of the KOVACS novels, I’ll be checking out his sword & sorcery series, A LAND FIT FOR HEROES.