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Altered Carbon
Richard K. Morgan
Victor Gollancz, 400 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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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

In the far future universe of Richard K. Morgan's debut novel Altered Carbon, human consciousness has been digitized. Every human being is implanted at birth with a cortical stack, which records every second, every thought, every experience. If you have the money (or purchase the right insurance policy), you can be brought back to life after you die by the simple expedient of implanting your stack into a new body, a process known as sleeving. The penal system no longer stores live criminals, but only their digital selves. Travelers beam their minds across space via needlecast, and wake up in new sleeves. Wars are fought by troops whose minds are downloaded into bodies on-site -- troops like the Envoy Corps, the enforcement arm of the despotic UN Protectorate, which rules Earth and its colony worlds with an iron fist.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former Envoy. Envoys' specialized training and neurochemical enhancements, designed to make them perfect long-distance warriors and flawless investigators, also place them just this side of psychopathic. Many Envoys, when discharged from the Corps, turn to crime, and Kovacs is no exception. Sentenced on his home planet to more than a century of storage for his part in a brutal heist, Kovacs wakes to find himself in Bay City, Earth, housed in an unfamiliar sleeve. He's been retrieved and hired by industrialist Laurens Bancroft, whose fabulous wealth allows him, among other things, to maintain a clone facility that renders him and his family effectively immortal. Kovacs' assignment: to investigate Bancroft's death in a previous body, which the police have ruled a suicide but which Bancroft is certain was attempted murder.

The investigation is dangerous and complicated, drawing Kovacs deep into Bay City's seedy underworld, and simultaneously into a realm of wealth, privilege, and corruption that most ordinary people would be unable to imagine. A strange planet, a strange body, and the not-entirely-friendly attention of police officer Kristin Ortega don't make things any easier. Still, assassination attempts and torture notwithstanding, it's all in a day's work -- until a dangerous connection from Kovacs' past re-surfaces, with an offer Kovacs can't refuse. From a matter of time and money, the investigation becomes a matter of life and death -- Real Death, that is, Kovacs' own.

Altered Carbon is an exciting SF/crime hybrid, with an intricate (but always plausible) plot, a powerful noir atmosphere, and enough explosive action to satisfy the most die-hard thriller fan. It's also an extremely well-crafted piece of fiction. For all the ultra-violence, there's no American movie-style overkill: the furious pace is balanced by contemplative passages, giving the reader a chance to take a breather. The writing is skillful, with elegant prose that lifts even the most gruesome scenes above the ordinary. And there's a depth to this novel, with its strong characterizations and thoughtful treatment of alienation and loss, that one doesn't find in the average thriller.

Especially impressive is the world building. Morgan's 25th century Earth is a fascinating construct, both in its vividly-depicted futuristic strangeness and in what, under all the technology, hasn't changed. Earth's complicated history, as well as the histories of a number of colony worlds, is revealed in controlled snippets throughout the book -- bits and pieces that solidly establish atmosphere and context, yet are glancing and elliptical, and leave much unexplained. For the most part this mosaic approach works very well -- after all, this sort of vibrant half-knowledge is exactly what one has about the real world. Only in the book's central premise is there a bit of a gap. There are hints as to why it might have been useful to develop a method to digitize human minds, but in real life, expensive technological solutions rarely trickle down to the poor and disenfranchised, and it's not entirely credible that digitization should be universal. Morgan does take care to draw distinctions between rich and poor -- there's a big difference between the re-sleeving options available to the wealthy Bancrofts and those available to Louise, a prostitute Kovacs encounters. Still, the ramifications of such a radical social change don't seem quite adequately elaborated.

Morgan also does a good job with his characters, who for the most part aren't particularly likeable, but are always understandable. With Kovacs he walks a thin line; it's not easy to convincingly portray a character who is brutally violent yet essentially honorable, profoundly alienated yet capable of compassion, possessed of supra-human abilities and yet prey to human frailties. Much of the time such characters wind up being Janus-like, their unmatching halves never meshing into a believable whole. But Morgan succeeds admirably in unifying Kovacs' different aspects, and even in making him sympathetic, in large part through Kovacs' haunted memories of his past, which form a melancholy refrain throughout the book.

Altered Carbon is a really impressive debut, an auspicious start to what (I'm assuming) will be an ongoing series. I look forward to seeing more from this talented author.

Copyright © 2002 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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