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.
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, 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.
Takeshi Kovacs — (2002-2005) Publisher: In the twenty-fifth century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Now, assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person’s consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or “sleeve”) making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen. Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched one hundred eighty light-years from home, re-sleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats “existence” as something that can be bought and sold. For Kovacs, the shell that blew a hole in his chest was only the beginning…