THE CYBERPUNK DEBUT THAT LIVED UP TO THE HYPE
A noir murder mystery in a future where death has been rendered obsolete by technology.
(Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy, Book 1)
Richard K. Morgan
Genre: Science Fiction, Cyberpunk, Mystery
Format: Paperback, 534 Pages
Date: 4th September 2008 (First Published 2002)
Hip-hop legends, Public Enemy, once famously proclaimed: Don’t believe the hype. It is a sentiment that I have adhered to all my adult life, helping to shield me from numerous disappointments. So the first time I picked up the novel, Altered Carbon, a decade or so ago, I was unmoved by all the critical praise it had garnered, and unimpressed by the accolades it had received. The comparisons to Philip K. Dick were unconvincing, as such a comparison must surely be an unjustified exaggeration, especially for a first time author. And as for the reports that the film rights had been gobbled up by Hollywood, looking for the next Matrix; this was not a big deal. But once I had finished reading the book I was pleasantly surprised to discover that all the hype was more than justified.
This engrossing début novel by British writer, Richard Morgan, has been described in some quarters as a hard-boiled detective caper; a noir murder mystery, by some; and a cyberpunk classic in the vein of, Snow Crash, by others still. In truth, Altered Carbon, is all these things and more. It is an intricately plotted, twisting and turning, thought provoking, tale; in a futuristic setting that is just as intriguing as the whodunnit unfolding within it (perhaps even more so, in fact), with a morally dubious protagonist who is equal parts Philip Marlowe and Dirty Harry. It’s hard to believe that such an accomplished piece of fiction was the work of a first time author, writing his début novel.
Before delving into the plot, it has to be mentioned how impressed I am with just how well thought out and constructed Morgan’s setting is. It’s quite apparent that a considerable amount of effort went into the development of the 26th century future depicted on the page; not just in terms of the technological advancements, or the changes in lifestyles and attitudes brought about by the new technology. But more fundamentally in how different people have come to regard and define human life, in the future.
I also really appreciated the sense of history that is ever present in the background of the story. At no point does it feel as though history only began shortly before the commencement of the novel. There are numerous, almost throwaway, references to future (from our point of view) historical events and historical figures, littered throughout the story; and though they have no bearing on the plot, these moments draw attention to the fact that Morgan had obviously gone to the trouble of mapping out centuries worth of history for his universe’s timeline. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, to learn that twice as much time was spent on developing the setting for the book, than actual writing of its narrative. Whatever the case may be, it was time well spent because the story wouldn’t be nearly as effective without such comprehensive world building.
With all that said and done, the one thing that truly elevates Altered Carbon is that the author doesn’t ignore or shy away from the ethical dilemmas brought about by the technology in his story. In fact, these issues are integral to the progression and resolution of the plot. In Morgan’s future, humanity’s greatest achievement is not that it has conquered the stars, colonising new worlds, overseen by the United Nations. Rather, the most significant technological breakthrough is the ability to digitise human consciousness; to make backup copies of people’s minds or transfer them into brand new bodies. This tech has become so all pervasive that everyone, by default, is implanted with a cortical stack at the base of the brain stem, to digitally capture their memories. In the event that someone suffers from “organic damage” (that’s death to you and me), their stack can be retrieved so their minds can be “sleeved” into a new body. Virtual immortality, if you like; “real death” can only occur if the cortical stack is destroyed along with any backup copies.
While the idea of death being obsolete may sound attractive to some people, not everyone is pleased with this state of affairs. The remnants of the Catholic faith are completely opposed to the technology. All adherents refuse to ever be re-sleeved, believing that the soul moves on to the afterlife upon death. Subsequently, Catholics opt out of the system via do not re-sleeve instructions after passing away; from their point-of-view, a re-sleeved person is just a soulless shell. In any event, though the technology theoretically offers everlasting life, in reality only the wealthy can afford to pursue that option. Acquiring a new organic body is prohibitively expensive, so those who are unable to pay to be re-sleeved end up having their minds placed into data storage facilities indefinitely, or until such time as somebody else pays to have them brought back.
Eternity is a long time, however. Living; ageing; getting old; becoming decrepit; dying; multiple times, eventually takes its toll. So even among those who can afford to live forever, most eventually chose to shuffle off this mortal coil. The very few who can psychologically cope with immortality and chose to live on and on, are disparagingly called Meths, in reference to the Biblical figure, Methuselah. Such people have become so accustomed to holding onto life that they pay to keep multiple backup copies of their minds in remote storage facilities, just in case. In addition to owning multiple clones of their favourite bodies. (Why go through the ageing process at all, when you can simply transfer your mind to a pristine new sleeve, once the current one doesn’t look as good as it used to?). For all intents and purposes, killing a Meth is a futile exercise; they just keep coming back. Which begs the question: why bother to investigate the death of a Meth?
Enter Altered Carbon’s protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs. Morgan introduces his bad ass anti-hero in a brief prologue which sees Kovacs killed in a gun fight on his home planet, Harlan’s World. He awakens a 180 light years away, on Earth, in a new body. It transpires that Kovacs’ mind has been removed from a data storage facility, where he was serving a 117 year sentence, and transmitted to a re-sleeving facility in Bay City, formerly known as San Francisco. His temporary release has been secured by Mr. Laurens Bancroft, a Meth whose recent death was quickly declared a suicide by the Bay City Police. Bancroft, for his part, believes that he was actually murdered, but cannot prove it. As his cortical stack was destroyed, Bancroft had to be re-sleeved using a backup copy of his mind made two days before his death, so he has no memory of the forty-eight hours leading up to his death. Bancroft feels that Kovacs, as a former member of the UN Envoy Corps, is eminently qualified to investigate his death in a manner that the police are unwilling and unable to. (I guess I should mention that the Envoys of the future are chemically enhanced super soldiers.) Kovacs is given six weeks to solve the case; if successful his sentence in data storage will be annulled, making him a free man again.
What follows next is an absolutely riveting tale with numerous twists and turns. Every time I felt certain I had solved the case there would be an unexpected turn of events that completely threw me off; Altered Carbon is a whodunnit very few readers will figure out before the mystery is resolved. The pacing of Morgan’s narrative is incredibly effective too. There are long, drawn out moments of slow, patient, character driven story-telling, regularly punctuated by short bursts of brutal violence and action. There’s even the occasional graphic sex scene, here and there; this story is definitely not for children. The main plot is complimented well by all the thought provoking ideas orbiting around it, and Morgan’s characters are so well written and compelling, it’s easy to forget that few of them are actually very likeable. I was even able to sympathise with the ruthless anti-hero, Takeshi Kovacs; a man whose morality is so disjointed that he is unable to abide prostitution, but thinks nothing of fucking another man’s wife at the first opportunity.
In closing, Altered Carbon, is an amazing accomplishment for the author. For better or worse, Richard Morgan, has set the bar extremely high for himself. All his subsequent works will be judged against this one. It is the second best début novel I have ever read, so it is most certainly deserving of all the plaudits it has received, including winning the Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel. It is an instant classic that will be remembered for decades to come, serving as a shining example of Cyberpunk done right.
If the members of Public Enemy were to read Altered Carbon, they would surely proclaim: Do believe the hype!!!
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.