It’s hardly surprising Netflix has announced a 10-episode series based on this book. If done right, this “pure high-octane science fiction” mixed “with the classic noir private-eye tale” will lend itself pretty well to the 21st century TV audience.
Altered Carbon is Richard K. Morgan’s debut, and instantly got acclaim. It won the 2003 PKD award, and comparisons to Blade Runner and Neuromancer are found in reviews all over the net. More on that later.
It’s an entertaining read, and fairly easy at that. Don’t believe reviewers who speak of a complex plot: one has to pay attention, yes, but the story simply goes from point A to B: easily recognizable events take the protagonist by the hand throughout a murky world to the inevitable conclusion, and new clues pop up at regular intervals. Events as: being ambushed, being shoved into a limousine to see some mighty powerbroker, being confronted by a female cop followed by kissing, being tailed, being seduced by the wife of your client, being put into a fighting pit (bare knuckles to the death!), going to an arms dealer to get new toys, etc., etc. All in all, pretty pulpy stuff.
That’s not to say the novel doesn’t have merit:
As I said, it’s entertaining, and the world Morgan envisions is quite interesting. Altered Carbon is set in the 25th century, and the core idea of the book is that people are able to store their personalities digitally, and download them in a new body when they die. There are some practical restraints (like money), but basically, without technical failures, the really wealthy can live forever. Takeshi Kovacs, the protagonist, is a badass off-planet ex-soldier with some super duper training (“conditioning”) turned PI. Outside of his own will, Kovacs is forced to investigate the apparent suicide of some tycoon: after his death, the tycoon was downloaded into a new body, but doesn’t remember events 48 hours prior to his passing, as a continuous backup process doesn’t exist. He refuses to believe he killed himself.
That seems original at first, but as he and his wife were the only people with access to the room where he shot himself, and the wife seems innocent, the book starts with a classic case of a Sherlock Holmesy mystery setup: an impossible murder or an inexplicable suicide? As the options to unravel such a setup are limited, the basic outlines of what happened were clear to me early in the book. That doesn’t make the book less entertaining, since the details and the action are what it’s all about. Altered Carbon is hard paced and fun indeed: the setting is compelling, and events keep on coming.
There’s quite a lot of techno stuff in the background of this story. Morgan is an okay world builder, and there are some fresh ideas. Still, the basic science of the book is an utter mess: I had numerous conflicting quotes lined up, but decided not to bore you with them. Suffice to say that Morgan is totally undecided about the physical nature of the mind. What exactly is uploaded and stored? A soul-like essence? That essence manages to retain earlier physical (!) conditioning across multiple bodies? Yet at the same time the brains of a new body play a role as well, and retain stuff like nicotine addiction or being in love/attracted chemically (“pheromones”). There are some onsets of the characters discussing the mind-body problem, and the psychological effects of changing bodies (or seeing your loved ones change bodies), but they remain onsets only. Morgan could have done much more, but that probably would have shifted the book’s focus, and its target audience.
There’s other stuff Morgan can’t seem to make up his mind about too, and those are fairly important to the basic philosophical implications of the plot: the animalistic nature of sex and the effect of age on self-acceptance on that matter; everything being “in flux” vs. “nothing ever does change”. The novel would have benefited enormously if the author had fully thought through the underlying blue print of the story, details included.
These wobbly inconsistencies translate into an overall wobbly book that tries to be lots of things and succeeds in being thrilling entertainment, but not much more. This is not Neuromancer. Yes, Altered Carbon has a semi-dystopian, cyberpunkish vibe. But while my first reading of Neuromancer wasn’t a fully successful experience, it is clear Gibson made a genuine work of art using language. Altered Carbon‘s prose is not bad – it does the job and there even are a few alright similes spread throughout the 375 pages – but what Morgan made is just an entertaining story. That’s why it will even be better via your Netflix stream – if the cast & crew is any good that is.
So all things considered, the best comparison I can make is not Blade Runner, but a gritty Mission Impossible. The book’s finale also has an impossible break-in, past precision sensors, aided by a brilliant computer programmer offsite. It even includes disguise and a mask of some sort. Why gritty? Because of the smoking, the killing, the shooting, the semi-nihilistic protagonist, the explicit sex, and, the ultimate in grittiness: the snuff subplot…
Yes indeed, the powerful rich bad guys in Altered Carbon are of that type. They are really, really, really powerful, as they like their sex to be the ultimate in domination: secretly killing whores. It’s a cartoon form of badassery, and apparently whole swats of the 1% in the 25th century like it like that. I wonder if that particular subplot says anything about the secret desires of the author, and it always puzzles me why on earth a story would turn to snuff – as if on the ultimate dystopian Earth things like the following would really come to pass:
“You are still young and stupid. Human life has no value. Haven’t you learned that yet, Takeshi, with all you’ve seen? It has no value, intrinsic to itself. Machines cost money to build. Raw materials cost money to extract. But people?” She made a tiny spitting sound. “You can always get more people. (…) Do you know it costs us less to recruit and use up a real snuff whore than it does to set up and run the virtual equivalent format? Real human flesh is cheaper than a machine. It’s the axiomatic truth of our times.”
It shouts more “lack of imagination” than anything else, and more crucially, in its grotesqueness does disservice to the critique of capitalism that underlies this book too. Even more crucially, it does disservice to the possibility of enhancing the reader’s empathy for real suffering – today’s suffering and future suffering alike. Maybe Netflix should get the Nicolas Cage that did 8MM to play our hero.
Morgan wrote two more books with Kovacs as a protagonist. Apparently the next one, Broken Angels, is something totally different, as it is more military SF. I’m adding it to my list of things to read in the summer. If pressed, I’d recommend Altered Carbon, albeit with all the caveats that follow from the above.