It’s more than likely that Altered Carbon will stay with you long after you close the final page or consign it to the archive of your eReader. The reason for this is that author Richard Morgan has composed a masterpiece that doesn’t just satisfy your every science fiction need, it takes the genre and mixes it up with a dark detective drama (ala Blade Runner and Chandler), places a worthy puzzle at its heart, and throws ideas at you that will make you marvel at the imaginative prowess of their creator but are also guaranteed to agitate your mind like a cyberblender.
Altered Carbon introduces us to Takeshi Kovacs, a detective of sorts, who has been hired to investigate the violent death of the immensely powerful Laurens Bancroft. The unusual point to make here is that it’s Bancroft himself who hires Kovacs.
In this universe, for the wealthy at least, death is simply an inconvenience. Everything that makes a human what he or she is, is preserved in the ‘stack’ which lies at the top of the spine. If killed, this stack is transplanted or ‘re-sleeved’ into another body or clone. The poor are just as likely to find themselves in storage, bodiless, for decades. At worst, their bodies are reused by the rich, put on like suits. Even soldiers killed in action are re-sleeved in the only bodies available for them. Imagine, then, being reunited with a family that doesn’t recognise you. Could you stand it? Would you walk away?
Death is temporary and life is both cheap and priceless. The vulnerable and the poor can be ‘snuffed’ out in the games played by the wealthy. Torture has become an art form and a human can suffer through more than one lifetime. The Catholics, though, refuse to be re-sleeved but as a result they are popular targets for violence because they can not be recreated to bear witness.
The powerful are as good as eternal, living hundreds of years, with even their stack backed up. They are the Meths, named after Methusalah of the Bible. If their body and stack are destroyed, as happens to Bancroft, all they will lose is 48 hours of memory. It’s these two days that Kovacs is tasked with recovering.
Kovaks is himself re-sleeved. He has been given the body of Ryker, a copy from a city once called San Francisco, who, rather unfortunately and conveniently, has money on his head and killers on his tail. Things get complicated. It also makes his characterisation and personality wonderfully rich and enigmatic, to us and to the people around him.
The world of Altered Carbon is fantastically layered and textured with idea after idea after idea filling the pages. Without doubt, many of them will make you stop and think. What would it be like to be a woman re-sleeved into the body of another woman very different in appearance, knowing that your own body has been invaded by someone with enough money to choose, and now finding that your loving husband cannot escape from the idea that he is committing adultery by lying by your side?
There are moments in this book of great emotion, shock, horror and amusement. The compelling ideas are matched by the superb characterisation. Both humans and robots, virtual monsters and criminals, have depth and life to them. Altered Carbon is beautifully imagined, tightly grafted and perfectly constructed. It is an absorbing, riveting read, littered with unexpected humour, hints of Martians, alien wars and other worlds. It’s a relief to know that these themes, as well as Kovacs, are to be picked up in the subsequent two novels.
Above all, the achievement of Altered Carbon is the wonder of it all.