Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon, the first Takeshi Kovacs novel, is a roller-coaster ride. Morgan cycles us through traditional science-fiction, some mean-streets detective drama and a fine caper story before the book ends, all told by Kovacs himself, a disillusioned killer, a futuristic Sam Spade only slightly less dirty than the dirty business he’s in, a battered knight in tarnished armor.
In Altered Carbon’s future world, science has given humanity the ability to digitize consciousness and store it in a tiny canister embedded in a vertebra at the base of the skull. What is stored in these “cortical stacks” lasts indefinitely and can be decanted into a virtual reality or “sleeved” into a clone or any vacant human body. This technology was refined for intergalactic space travel but has now spread to everyday life.
Takeshi Kovacs, a citizen of Harlan’s World, has just had his consciousness squirted across the galaxy and “sleeved” into a body on Old Earth, where he has been hired by Laurens Bancroft, a very wealthy man, to solve Bancroft’s murder. Recently, someone shot Bancroft in the head with a blaster, destroying his cortical stack. Of course Bancroft has himself backed up, but it’s the principle of the thing. He needs to know who attacked him.
Awakening in a new body in San Francisco, Kovacs’s first encounter is with the police, particularly Kristin Ortega, a tough, sexy, street-smart cop with an interest in Kovacs. In short order he meets his employer, in a scene reminiscent of the conservatory scene in The Big Sleep, and his employer’s hot and treacherous wife Miriam.
The action starts as soon as Kovacs checks into his hotel, the Hendrix. We often say that a city or a building is a character. The Hendrix, managed by an artificial intelligence, really is a character, with its own concerns and motivations, and it is cautiously willing to help Kovacs. It protects him after he is attacked in the lobby, an incident that pings Kovacs’s highly developed intuition.
Kovacs is not merely an investigator. He is an ex-Envoy. Envoys are specially trained and highly conditioned intergalactic shock troops, deployed to keep the colonial planets in line. Because they can be dropped into any body, they can function as covert ops, spies, or traditional military troops as needed. Kovacs is on his own on Old Earth, up against institutionalized corruption, big money, planetary politics and enemies from both his own past and the past of the “sleeve” he wears. Ortega’s interest in him is suspicious, and he knows he’s not getting the whole story from his employer, while Miriam Bancroft has an agenda of her own. Kovacs takes the fight to the bad-guys, inflicting Real Death (cortical stack destruction) on the entire staff of a black-market clinic after the clinic’s director accepts money to have Kovacs tortured.
Torture is a big part of this book. It is threatened, it is carried out, and it is discussed philosophically. One character opines that with the advent of the stack, death as a threat has lost its meaning, so torture is the only viable alternative. Kovacs himself seems to refute this argument later when he muses than most people do not “re-sleeve” more than once, because they don’t want to have to experience death again. Torture seems to be one way the author demonstrates that in this society, human life has little value.
Morgan is a master of brutal, hard-edged action. Fight scenes and torture sequences are realistic enough to make the reader flinch. He also writes convincingly graphic, vigorous sex scenes. The plot is convoluted but Morgan has control of it at every step.
The cortical stack is a brilliant gimmick that allows for lots of flashy stunts, in virtual worlds and in the material one. Still, I have never understood exactly what is stored in them. Kovacs theorizes that identity is nothing more than the sum of memories, but Morgan carefully critiques that idea as the story progresses. Kovacs is more than the sum of his memories. I also don’t understand why women are treated as badly as they are in Altered Carbon’s world. One villain says that humanity is now the cheapest and most renewable resource (the example is that it is cheaper to kill an actual prostitute in a “snuff scenario” than it is to program one in virtual); yet it is women who are bought, sold, degraded, raped, mutilated and killed. To put a fine point on it, the torturers decant Kovacs into a virtual female form before torturing him, and the torture has a nasty sexual slant. The book is also filled with strong women characters, like Ortega, who take control of their own fates, and throughout the book Kovacs thinks about Quellcrist Falconer, a briefly successful female revolutionary from Harlan’s World. Morgan is making a point about the value of life and the feminine principle, but there’s just too much going on in this book to allow that theme the attention it needs.
If you appreciate thrilling, brutal action sequences, graphic sex, imaginative high-tech hijinks, snappy dialogue and wry humor, you will enjoy Altered Carbon. Although Kovacs is not necessarily likeable, you may find he grows on you. I did.