Gouting action and mystery like a severed artery, Richard Morgan’s 2001 Altered Carbon holds no punches. Its worldview cutting to the bone of human vice, the novel’s content is a combination of a variety of sources. The storyline has the shape of a Raymond Chandler detective novel; the technological creativity has the intuition of Greg Egan’s sci-fi; and the world has the overall feel of Neuromancer. More visceral than Gibson, however, Morgan combines these influences into a blood-soaked, tech-feast that will divide readers along a few different lines.
Altered Carbon is the story of Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-military convict brought out of storage to solve the mystery surrounding the suicide of a wealthy entrepreneur. Human bodies like hardware and personalities like software, the USA of 500 years in the future features up- and downloadable personas. Called ‘sleeving’, Kovacs wakes up to find himself occupying another man’s body, assassins and Meths (people who’ve sleeved for centuries to keep themselves alive) hot on his trail. In typical noir fashion, a variety of busty dames and gutter girls arrive on the scene to provide valuable input - the sexual side of what is otherwise a very violent existence for Kovacs. The gory details unabashed, Kovacs shoots, stabs, is tortured, and slowly blasts his way, one death at a time, to the heart of the mystery.
And many have noted the explicit nature of the novel. Rightfully so; few chapters pass without a drop of blood or sweat. Morgan’s philosophical view forms the foundation of the novel’s content: humanity will forever be subject to its vices, no matter the century or degree to which technology has integrated itself. It is here that an interesting point can be made regarding the book’s nihilistic worldview. While Gibson’s Neuromancer – a book Altered Carbon is often compared to – remains indifferent, leaving the door open for discussion regarding the fundamental nature of humanity, Morgan closes it, pushing the storyline of Altered Carbon steadily forward under the assumption humanity’s base desires for sex and violence will forever be its motivation. Depending on the reader, this aspect will either amuse, disgust, or enthrall, no matter how justifiable the actions of Kovacs are.
Its thematic disposition aside, there are other criticisms of the novel. As with most detective noir that attempts a complicated story, there are bound to be plot holes, and Altered Carbon is no exception. In lieu of dropping spoilers, its perhaps best to simply say that while reading, the attentive reader will on several occasions shake their head and say something to effect “Well then, why didn’t Takeshi just…..” or “If that bit of tech is in place, shouldn’t they have been able to….”. Those reading for fun will not notice; logicians will cringe. The other missing aspect of the novel is mood. While the scene at hand is sketched by Morgan in detail that nicely balances the flow of story, the feel for San Francisco 500 years in the future, however, is lacking. There are no short passages scattered throughout which establish the tone of the story. There are only pockets of setting based on where the action happens to be for the moment, the hotel, the whorehouse, the mansion, etc., nothing more to build the world.
Light on theme, but dripping, breathing, bleeding heavy with action, Altered Carbon is a plot driven novel to the core. In fact, its plot structure could be the carbon copy of a 50’s pulp detective novel if it weren’t that Morgan dresses the story up with the mouth watering-devices of sci-fi - a techy/who-dunnit arising in the mix. Thus, for action junkies looking for a rollercoaster, (knife) twisting, both barrels blazing, ride of a mystery in the 24th century, by all means have a go. But for those who enjoy having their ingenious futuristic devices fleshed out for their relevance to the human condition or moral imposition, perhaps you should look elsewhere. Those who can handle both will at least say the novel was interesting, but perhaps never read it again.