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Proving once again that judging a book by its cover almost always pays off, I picked up Altered Carbon for no other reason than the intriguing Da Vinci-esque anatomical sketch adorning the front page. Interestingly, I’ve never seen this version of artwork in any other bookshop, leading me to wonder whether it has been discontinued altogether, which is a crying shame. Armed with my copy of Richard Morgan’s first published tome, I meandered to the cash desk only to have to fend off excited advances from the geeky female attendant who seemed determined to jump my bones, just because I was an Altered Carbon fan. Things were looking promising.
Altered Carbon is a piece of hard-boiled detective fiction, set on a future Earth, where important technological advances have fashioned a whole new way of existence for the human race. To say the book hits the ground running is an understatement. You’re thrown immediately into the action as the principal protagonist - Takeshi Kovacs - and his girlfriend are slaughtered by rampant commandos amidst the opening pages. I have to admit, I haven’t read many books that begin by killing off the lead character in the prologue, but it certainly made an impact…
Luckily, there are now two types of death. Mankind has achieved the impossible by digitising the human ’soul’. A person’s memories, experiences, abilities and personality traits are all saved automatically onto a ‘cortical stack’ - implanted deep in the spinal column at the back of the neck at birth - which can then be uploaded into another body (or ’sleeve’) or stored indefinitely. Real Death can only be inflicted by destroying the stack, otherwise the human conscious can simply be downloaded again into a new sleeve to fight another day. Takeshi’s death was purely superficial and upon awaking again, he finds himself on Earth, millions of miles from his home planet and in a non-descript, middle aged sleeve.
He has been commissioned to help an unpopular, yet extremely wealthy suicide victim who is convinced he was actually murdered. Those with extreme wealth can not only afford the extravagant cost of re-sleeving, but also keep reserve clones of themselves, as well as back-up stacks, making them seemingly invincible. No longer restricted by the ageing process of the human body, the wealthy now seek to extend their lifespans ad infinitum, earning them the nickname of Meths - of Methuselahs.
Kovacs is sought after because of his status as an Ex-Envoy. With the human race now spread across the galaxy, the UN mandate expanded exponentially and a ‘Protectorate’ was formed. The ultimate tool in the Protectorate arsenal is the Envoy shock troops. Designed to beam across the universe into dormant sleeves, and then engage in either stealthy or all-out warfare, the Envoys are the ultimate peacekeeping soldiers. Each individual is intensely trained in combat, self-control, subterfuge and slaughter. Kovacs knows how to look after himself due to his relentless mental training.
Some of his experiences with the Envoys are alluded to as the story unfolds, as well as the reasons for him quitting the unit. His flashbacks and psychological delusions were some of my favourite parts of the book. In times of great distress he speaks with his dead friend Jimmy de Soto who seems to help him overcome incredible odds, or spark him back into life after taking a thorough beating. Such spectres of his imagination give you an idea of how Kovacs manages to maintain his sanity against the brunt of such clinical and inhumane Envoy conditioning. His ability to harness and channel his anger into effective energy is devastating, saves his life on numerous occasions and presumably made him such an effective candidate for Envoy training in the first place.
The future universe created by Morgan is packed with intelligent ideas and a superb Martian mythology side story. I loved reading about humanities interaction with an alien species and how that, combined with re-sleeving technology almost eradicated organised religions. The present state of Earth, and humanity’s extrasolar existence is elaborated on in mere snippets as the story progresses, and as a result, you’re never overwhelmed with information or swamped with the cyber-jargon that seems to be a mainstay of most sci-fi novels. For Kovacs, Earth itself is an alien-world and so he acclimatises to his new surroundings with the same hesitancy as we do as a reader. Morgan also overflows with ideas of how re-sleeving can be abused, how human flesh is now a commodity to be bought and traded and generally how all of the issues that plague humanity today are still firmly unchanged in this futuristic universe. The abuse of the poor by the rich is simply taken to whole new levels of depravity and the fear of an overwhelming military might still exists in order to frighten the human race into obedience.
Along with the outstanding world-building, the characterisation is a real strong point for Altered Carbon. Kovacs is a demi-god of a protagonist who you never tire of reading about. He is such a ruthless and effective murderer that you begin to believe that violence is like an addictive drug for him. Yet despite his borderline psychosis, he is still troubled by very human emotions, such as love. Morgan’s writing style is extremely easy to digest. I never once found myself lost within the text and even the combat scenes were described with crystal clarity. Short, engaging chapters resulted in me reading much more of the book in single sittings than I’d intended.
Altered Carbon is an outstanding sci-fi novel that begins an engaging Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, leading into Broken Angels and ending with Woken Furies. I think it was actually half way through the second book that I realised I was in love with the world that Morgan had created. I found myself imagining what life would be like in this futuristic dystopia and was constantly over awed with the authors brilliant imagination. Altered Carbon became an instant favourite and I’d recommend its furious-paced futuristic action to any science fiction fan.
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