Altered Carbon (Gollancz S.F.)
by Richard Morgan
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575081246
Date: 04 September 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Gollancz are reissuing Richard Morgan's back list with all new cover art. The first of these is the book that launched Morgan's career, Altered Carbon winner of the Philip K. Dick memorial award and a novel destined to become a classic for sure. We re-running all the relevant Sfrevu's of Morgan's work in this issue and follow this link to read the interview I conducted with the author at the time his début novel was first released.
In Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan has written a real firecracker of a book. That this is a début novel makes it all the more astonishing. The novel is centred on a wonderfully thought out SF idea. The concept of a person's personality being preserved through technology literally downloaded is in itself, not a new one, but in this brilliantly inventive and executed novel the author explores and develops this idea, continually examining its implications and dangers.
Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-UN Envoy a highly trained military and diplomatic operative. Being killed in action is something of an occupational hazard and he awakes from his latest death to find himself revived and re-sleeved and very much out of the frying pan into the fire! From Harlan's world, Kovacs has been electronically transported in his stacked state back to Earth (a place he's never visited before) to San Francisco where he has been hired by tycoon Laurens Bancroft to investigate a murder, that of Bancroft himself! The official verdict on this is one of suicide the police believe Bancroft blew his own head off, but Bancroft doesn't buy this. Why would he do such a thing when he has himself backed up every day and a bunch of cloned bodies on hand? This is the bizarre case that Kovacs has to unravel and in doing so, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy that has the reader turning the pages long into the night.
Science fiction PI novels are ten a penny when you think about it and so how wonderful it is when one comes along that is as good and as original as this one is. If you're partial to top class SF detective fiction (like Al Reynolds's Chasm City, or Lethem's Gun With Occasional Music) then Altered Carbon will be right up your street.
It is not the cosmetic futuristic flashing lights that stick in my mind on reading Altered Carbon excellent though it all is, rather it is Morgan's examination of the ethics and morality at play in his scenario. This is a fertile land of ideas that Morgan explores to the full. Kovacs has to work with a police officer who shows an ambiguous and confusing interest in him. He finds out why this is when he discovers the body he is sleeved in belongs to her lover. At one point, Kovacs kills another character in self-defence. Later on the character returns with no ill feeling towards him for the murder. It happened before the current backup was resleeved. Morgan continues to mine this vein throughout the novel and comes up with some truly superb plot twists in the process. In doing this he is asking some very searching questions, indeed topical ones in light of recent scientific advances. Should we create clones to use as spare parts? Or indeed if you committed a heinous crime and then were killed, could the resleeved and revived version of you, the version backed up before the crime occurred, be held responsible for an action you don't remember committing? These questions and the many others that Morgan raises here make this so much more than a simple detective story. The result is a rich stew of thought provoking concepts. As well as being involved in the absorbing and precisely written narrative, you'll find yourself hooked on the ideas behind it.
Altered Carbon is a truly remarkable debut. Brash and violent, highly intelligent and highly entertaining. One really couldn't ask for more. Morgan bounds on to the stage with this debut performance and totally astounds his audience. Definitely an author to watch, Altered Carbon comes with my highest recommendation.