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Altered Carbon
Richard Morgan
Gollancz, 534 pages

Altered Carbon
Richard K. Morgan
Richard Morgan is an English language teacher at Strathclyde University. Altered Carbon is his first novel.

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SF Site Review: Altered Carbon

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A review by Donna McMahon

The London Times described Altered Carbon as a "seamless marriage of hardcore cyberpunk and hard-boiled detective tale," and I can't improve on that except perhaps to mention overtones of galactic space opera.

It's far future Earth, and mercenary Takeshi Kovacs is waking up in another unfamiliar body.

"Nearly two decades I've been doing this and it still jars me to look into the glass and see a total stranger staring back. It's like pulling an image out of the depths of an autostereogram. For the first couple of moments all you can see is someone else looking at you through a window frame. Then, like a shift in focus, you feel yourself float rapidly up behind the mask and adhere to its inside with a shock that's almost tactile. It's as if someone's cut an umbilical cord, only instead of separating the two of you, it's the otherness that has been severed and now you're just looking at your reflection in a mirror."
Kovacs has been revived to investigate the murder of Laurens Bancroft, a man centuries old and immeasurably wealthy. Bancroft is alive and healthy in a backup copy of himself, but he wants to know who managed to kill him and how. And if Kovacs succeeds, he will earn freedom, money and release on his home world.
" 'You're a lucky man, Kovacs.' Sure. A hundred and eighty light years from home, wearing another man's body on a six week rental agreement. Freighted in to do a job that the local police wouldn't touch with a riot prod. Fail and go back into storage. I felt so lucky I could have burst into song as I walked out the door."
After the graphically violent prologue of this book, I didn't expect to finish more than a few pages, but I soon found myself intrigued by the setting and gripped by Kovacs' dilemma. This is not usually my kind of book -- extreme violence and tough, wise-cracking detectives don't turn my crank. But Richard Morgan kept me reading. Some of the draw was sheer momentum -- the plot is complex, with much action and many marvelous twists -- but the real strength of Altered Carbon lies in the complex and subtle characterization, which takes Kovacs far beyond hard-boiled stereotypes. And there is utter fascination in the relationship between Kovacs and police Lieutenant Kristin Ortega, partner and lover of the man whose body Kovacs is wearing.

The background is terrific, too. Morgan paints it in as he goes, avoiding excessive chunks of exposition while still managing reveal a richly detailed society, technology and history.

I didn't only read Altered Carbon, I went back and immediately re-read it. Expect to see this book win all kinds of awards.

Copyright © 2003 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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