Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Review of “Altered Carbon” novel by Richard Morgan


In Richard Morgan’s 2002 debut, cyberpunk is blended seamlessly with hardboiled noir in a futuristic dystopia where the mind can be stored in a mechanical cortical stack and bodies are worn like interchangeable clothes.

Plot Summary:

Six pages into this ~400 pg novel our protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is shot and killed.

Next chapter. Kovacs finds himself downloaded into a new body on Earth, light-years away from his home. His mandatory criminal sentence has been given a six-week reprieve courtesy of Mr. Bancroft, a rich, influential Meth (as in Methuselah, who supposedly lived 969 years). Kovacs has been hired based on his reputation for the sole purpose of solving Bancroft’s own death, attributed to suicide by the local police whose advanced forensic techniques have shown no clues or suspects to the contrary. Bancroft finds the diagnosis impossible, since he lacks motive and was surely aware that the large clone facility he owned would immediately place him in a new body (a process known as “re-sleeving”).

Kovacs must find out what happened in the roughly 48 hours that occurred after Bancrofts last remote backup and his violent death. He has a wealth of experience as an Envoy (an elite, but cruel, military organization akin to a space-age Delta Force) and as a criminal of various trades, but he is a cultural outsider on Earth with little in the way of clues or trustworthy allies.


“Altered Carbon” grafts the style of Mickey Spillane’s amoral criminal underworlds onto the type of dystopic cyberpunk universe recognizable to fans of “The Matrix” or the works of Neal Stephenson. Both halves of Morgan’s well-balanced noir/SF equation merit discussion.

The future-Earth of “Altered Carbon” is informed by the technological, social and pharmaceutical trends available to the culturally literate 21 century writer, an asset that makes Morgan’s book feel viable and contemporary. However, the aesthetic is fairly obvious and familiar by modern standards: neon lit streets (now with ads broadcast directly into the minds of those passing by), unsavory dens of drugs and prostitution, black-clad citizens with biological and synthetic enhancements, etc.

What makes “Altered Carbon” unique is not just the addition of sleeving into new bodies, but the skill with which the idea is executed. The nuances are worked out and plot holes avoided. The background is fed to the reader gradually and in an unobtrusive, highly-integrated way. Most importantly, the implications are fully explored and applied in enough original variations to make the idea seem fresh (although it’s far from new) and sustaining.

The detective/mystery side of the book also draws heavily from its own genre traditions, particularly film noir and the pulp novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Morgan doesn’t quite possess the flowery prose stylization of Dashiell Hammett or the cynical weary rasp of Raymond Chandler, but he has the rawness, directness and attitude of Spillane’s best work. The result is that “Altered Carbon” reads quick and hard, chock full of violence, sex and crime in a way that will alienate or disgust the more sensitive and earn dubious accolades from angsty adolescents.

However, woven into the surface qualities that elicit unsophisticated, but fully earned, citations as “cool” and “hip” is a complicated critique of morality gone rotten. Morgan makes his readers cheer for acts of cold-blooded violence one moment and just as easily makes them realize the disturbing or reprehensible implications the next. Kovacs is a remarkably despicable character who earns our redemption (if at all) more through charisma and determination than by possessing the type of underlying personal code trademarked by characters like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Kovacs is effective at what he does primarily because he is able to lie and trick, not because he possesses the typical array of cyberpunk hero skills like fighting, hacking or even being observant.

The moral ambiguity and instability mounts steadily, culminating in a series of dark revelations. The narrative makes ample use of genre staples like femme fatales, alley chases, crime lords, vicious assassins and even underground boxing but does so with wit, energy and personal style where baseline originality is lacking. The mystery itself, while slow to get off the ground, is a satisfyingly clever and elaborate plot with the undertone of conspiracy and paranoia that accents the best cases. However, Morgan hasn’t quite gotten the knack of inconspicuously slipping in clues and it’s often obvious when something will later be important because he gives an extra paragraph of explanation more than he usually dedicates to innocent details.

Ultimately, “Altered Carbon” can not really be considered the most important, original, stylish, strange, believable, dark, thoughtful or well-written novel but it scores well across all criteria. Morgan is the type of talented late-comer that re-invigorates material with the Tarantino-type sixth-sense for knowing what to borrow and how to spin it.

Altered Carbon’s release in 2002 stirred quite a bit of hype and a touch of controversy too. It won the Philip K Dick Award and had its film rights snatched up almost immediately for a hefty sum, but received backlash from intellectual quarters such as Inchoatus, whose reviews I usually respect. Make sure to read the accompanying rebuttal.

To cover for my personal bias I’m presenting a more fluid scoring this time around.

My Grade: A+ (not because it’s perfect, but because it’s a personal favorite)

More objectively: A

If you don’t care for one of either cyberpunk or noir: B+

If you don’t care for both cyberpunk and noir: B-


Patrick said...

You know, originally I figured I'd put most things you gave a B or higher on my reading list. I quickly realized that that was impractical because that's too unfocused, which isn't to say I'm not interested in all these books, but rather that I'd like to keep my list condensed and then expand outwards as I read what's on it. The point is, here you go giving something an A+/A and I can't help but put it on my list. Thanks. (You pick if that's sarcasm.)

Elaine said...

Ooo. I saw Altered Carbon at the bookstore the other day and was thinking of picking it up. I think I will once I finish my current stack.

(Hm, between this, the Ballantynes, and Otherland, this is shaping up to be a very sci-fi summer)