Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

2012 Limelight reviews
Mystery and Crime, Science Fiction & Fantasy

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan would not have been my first choice to read; I’m not too big on the hard-boiled detective genre – and combined with cyberpunk? Well, lets just say I anticipated this book would rate a ‘meh’ at best.

Thankfully, I was wrong. Altered Carbon manages to take the best of both genres and subvert the cliches quite skilfully. The technology, the world-building and the plot kept me guessing at every turn.

Takeshi Kovacs has never been to Earth, although as an ex-Envoy (an elite military ‘peace-keeping’ force), he has been to more planets than he can name. Despite (or perhaps because of) his military heritage Kovacs is somewhat sociopathic, and was serving a criminal sentence.

The novel opens when Kovacs is abruptly woken from ‘storage’ at the request of an eccentric billionaire in order to investigate the billionaire’s murder. But Kovacs’ brand new body comes with a history of its own that may complicate matters, and it seems that his own past activities – both military and criminal – may make life on Earth more than a little interesting.

No, you’re not missing something. This is a world in which the mind and body have been separated. In which ‘true death’ is rare, at least for the wealthy.

Just about everyone has cortical stacks in their spinal columns to store their memories so that they can be re-sleeved, i.e. put into new bodies. ‘True death’ only occurs if the stack is damaged in some way; otherwise you simply download into a new body, or if you can’t afford that, go into storage. The rich download themselves repeatedly into sleek designer sleeves, always with a few extra, younger bodies at the ready in case the worst happens. Catholics, however, are alone in refusing to participate in this technology on the basis that the soul is more than a binary series.

Don’t let this unique cyber-noir scenario put you off, though. It creates an intriging backdrop to the mystery that Kovacs must solve, and Morgan uses it to explore themes of class and ethics. When the wealthy can live forever if they choose, what happens when they clutch the reins of power as tightly as they clutch to life?

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan is the first of the Takeshi Kovacs series, and I truly enjoyed it.