Monday, September 3, 2018

Book Review: Altered Carbon

book cover for Altered CarbonFour hundred years from now mankind is strung out across a region of interstellar space inherited from an ancient civilization discovered on Mars. The colonies are linked together by the occasional sublight colony ship voyages and hyperspatial data-casting. Human consciousness is digitally freighted between the stars and downloaded into bodies as a matter of course.

But some things never change. So when ex-envoy, now-convict Takeshi Kovacs has his consciousness and skills downloaded into the body of a nicotine-addicted ex-thug and presented with a catch-22 offer, he really shouldn't be surprised. Contracted by a billionaire to discover who murdered his last body, Kovacs is drawn into a terrifying conspiracy that stretches across known space and to the very top of society.

Biotechnology has advanced far enough that immortality is available for those who can afford it. Consciousness is digitized in "stacks" and stored until a new "sleeve"—an all encompassing term for natural, cloned, or synthetic bodies—is ready. Add to this a diverse menu of drugs that enhance or dull aspects of human physiology. A whole slew of possibilities, noble and illicit, opens up. Death, prison, identity, and sex are all re-defined. The whole system is exploitable, and therein lies the story.

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-Envoy, a type of Special Forces, who is taken from stack prison on another planet and dumped into a sleeve on Earth. He's been recommended to a billionaire (Laurens Bancroft) to solve his murder. The police say it was suicide, but Bancroft believes he was murdered. If Kovacs can solve the case to Bancroft's liking, the billionaire will purchase his freedom. If not, Kovacs goes back on stack for the rest of his two-hundred-year sentence.

What difference does it make to a billionaire why one of his sleeves died? He claims not to be the suicidal type. He has daily backups, keeps new sleeves on standby, and has already lived 350 years (making him a "meth," short for Methuselah). What's the point of suicide, if he won't remember it when he's downloaded into a new body the next day? Murder makes more sense, which likely means that there's a conspiracy afoot.

As Kovacs sets out to solve the case, he shares his experiences as he gets accustomed to a body that isn't his. Some readers have found this to be oversharing as Morgan is graphic in detail. I saw Kovacs' adjustment as having to go through puberty again. The changes our bodies go through seem alien and strange, and it takes some time before our minds grow accustomed to them and reasserts control. What Kovacs (and others) goes through when entering a new sleeve is no different. It's awkward and discomfiting.

Kovacs' past, both military and criminal, bubbles up in flashbacks, offering glimpses into what shaped his psyche. Underneath the cool, indifferent, tough guy exterior lies a soul that seeks justice for the little guy. The plutocrats can buy their way past the wheels of justice; the poor are ground up like hamburger. And it's that sense of injustice that fuels Kovacs. He internalizes it, makes it personal, and sets off on rampages.

Overall, I have to say I loved it. It's a sci-fi story soaked in noir: Cigarettes and whisky, posh AI-run hotels, a femme fatale, morally corrupt billionaires, and a complicated relationship with the cops. You could also think of it as a much more violent cousin of Blade Runner. Like that film, it also asks questions about the human condition, but doesn't lead to easy answers.


No comments:

Post a Comment