Altered Carbon

October 26th, 2005
This entry is part of 1 in the series Takeshi Kovacs
  • Altered Carbon

Until a year or so ago, I’d never heard of Richard Morgan, and then this book started showing up high on my list of Amazon recommendations. Still, I don’t buy books based solely on that…but then the book starts showing up in one favored booklog after another, and that gets my attention. It goes on the trusty Treo’s “ToRead” Database, and I found a barely used trade paper a couple of months ago (My biggest assault on The Database in a single go ever, as it happens, grabbing several books I’d had on there for years. Quite the haul…but I was almost more pleased by the simple acquisition of Last Call than all those spoils…but I digress) and dug in. Amazon and the booklogging coterie did me right, on this one…Altered Carbon is a fun read in the same vein as Snow Crash and Bladerunner…a future world corrupt and utterly human, where ubiquitous technology has made human life far less fleeting. The plot is a relatively straightforward murder mystery in flavor, albeit one in which the detective is an rogue killer and the murder victim hires the detective himself after the deed has been successfully accomplished. The technological marvel most central to Morgan’s world is the cortical stack, a database & computer stored in a tiny cylinder of “Altered Carbon” implanted at the base of the skull of every child, capable of storing many lifetimes worth of memories and thoughts and doing so automatically. Should death occur, the cortical stack can be implanted in a new body (called “sleeves” in Morgan’s future), clones for the very rich (original or custom designed), and whatever may be available for the common man. Should no new sleeve be within the unfortunate deceased’s means, then they go into storage until their family (or some other agency) chooses to bring them out. Regular backups ensure that even if the cortical stack should be destroyed, the individual is not lost…only whatever time passed since their last backup. So when a very wealthy and powerful man is awoken in a new sleeve and told he improbably blew his own head (and stack) off, he wants to know why, and when the police are of no further help, he hires an outsider…Takeshi Kovacs. Kovacs (pronounced Ko-vach) is an offworlder, and a former member of an elite combat unit, trained to be able to observe closely and deal with almost any circumstance, including frequent disorienting resleeving. He’s also a professional criminal, wasting away in storage as punishment for his crimes…until his mind is transmitted to a new stack on Earth, installed in a temporary sleeve belonging to some other incarcerated criminal by the murdered rich man and told he’d be paid handsomely and given his freedom if he can solve the mystery. Kovacs accepts, of course, and the story roams around the far future Bay Area from its highest heights to its lowest whorehouse in search of the solution. The attachment of the psyche to the body, religion, the meaning of death when life is so easy to maintain…all these are explored in a book easily as packed with action as any three other books I’ve read this year. It’s no wonder that the film options were snapped up…pieces of this story scream Hollywood. It’s not the most thought provoking book, by far, but it’s a great deal of fun. Highly recommended.

4 Responses to “Altered Carbon”

  1. The cortical stack concept sounds very similar to Doctorow’s mind backups in Down and Out…

    How does Altered Carbon compare to Doctorow’s work?

  2. Skwid says:

    Well, the basic concept is similar, but the implementation is really quite different. For one thing, Morgan doesn’t assume a hippie cultural revolution leading to the abandonment of traditional currency, so while the implantation of cortical stacks is government funded (and effectively universal), backups and new sleeves are something you need to pay for in most cases.

    And as I mentioned, backups for most folks aren’t cheap or automatic, so your average joe has a bit more to lose than the few hours a billionaire with built-in satellite relay does. Doctorow’s ubiquitous cloning tech also means that you don’t have to adapt to a new body, and Morgan explores quite a bit how even if your brain works the same (which raises, to me, some fundamental issues…but I digress) a lot of our emotional responses are heavily influenced (if not governed entirely) by the "body" part of our nervous system.

    Also, rather than handwaving away the folks with religious concerns about the soul’s connection to the body as readily dying off, Morgan incorporates them thoroughly (Catholics, specifically, play an important role in the plot).

    So I’d have to say that while they use some similar mechanisms, they’re using them to explore different principles and ideas, which is what we’re looking for from SF, right?

  3. So I’ve heard people recommend this book, but it looked kinda bad — all cyberpunky and generic. Perhaps now I’ll check it out.

  4. Skwid says:

    It is kinda cyberpunky, but it rises above generic, I think. I wish I could recommend it more heartily to you, Koz, but occasionally our tastes just do not jive.

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