Well, I’m on a roll now, I just finished Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon this week, making it two books in a month! *sigh* Yeah, I’m not impressed either. Back in the good ol’ days of jr. and high school and undergrad, it was nothing for me to read three novels every two weeks. I guess I shouldn’t feel completely lame; the last few years of grad school I was reading non-fiction maybe four a month, or two and three plus handfuls of articles. No, I still feel lame.
Anyway, enough pity, the first month of my New Year’s Resolution to read more fiction, on a daily basis, is going well! After all, Altered Carbon is a rather longish novel. And a good one to boot! Though… somewhat flawed. Well, let’s get to it!
(As usual, I’ll try to keep it non-spoilery to begin with, and then if I have to talk about spoilery things, I’ll keep that for the end and with decent warning.)
I don’t like to recap novels, you can go read what it’s about somewhere else. But the short of it is it’s a noir mystery novel set a few hundred years in the future, and told by the protagonist “detective,” Takeshi Kovacs. He’s a reconditioned ex-special forces-esque soldier with a shadowy past, skeletons in closets, grudges tightly held, and a pencahant for losing his temper and killing people. But that’s OK, sorta, because in the future, death is rarely permanent. Most everyone has a “stack,” a computer chip in the brain that holds their identity, memory, personailty, and should you die (and not be a Catholic), you can be re-sleeved in a new body. (So long as your stack remains undamaged. However, Kovacs ocassionally finds the need to damage stacks.) He’s been given an offer he can’t refuse, literally, to solve the suicide of a wealthy “Meth,” or a Methuselah — a person who’s been around for a couple hundred years or so. Hired, of course, by the victim who doesn’t believe his own death was a suicide.
And so begins Kovacs’ tale of pavement-beating detective work while being gunned for by crazy assassins, tortured by people he gets in the way of, and involved in love affairs (or just pheromone-enhanced sexcapades) with girlfriends of the man whose body he’s wearing and wives (singular, actually) of clients (also, singular). Yeah, it gets pretty crazy, plot-wise. But one of the great things about Altered Carbon is how it keeps the twists and turns well-organized, easy to follow (with some furrowed eyebrows), and more or less within the realm of internal consistency. Very impressive for a first novel, by the way!
(Pause for scene cut…) Yikes! Since I started this review, I’ve read and finished another novel and started another! If I’m going to have any hope of getting reviews out the door, I need to keep them quick and superficial.
So, general thoughts: Basically, Altered Carbon is like a marriage of a Charles Stross novel with early 80s William Gibson. Morgan creates a future world where, because of the ability to re-sleeve your mind, life has become cheap and the commodification of the human has reached an apex. Or at least a crisis moment. The plot is superficially a noir in which the hero is a reluctant near-anti-hero who, thanks to becoming a target of the “bad guys,” takes the case personally, and jumps from femme fatale to femme fatale to get closer to his goals.
The writing was extremely compelling, expertly balancing descriptive and utilitarian. Morgan writes so you can easily picture the people and places, almost smell and touch it. The pacing was excellent with even the “slow parts” situated and developed within the narrative so as to remain compelling. While it’s a relatively thick novel, I read through it and a good clip, and never found myself lost or confused as to what was going on.
The posthuman elements and the depiction of future technology was quite convincing and believable, although we only see a very narrow slice of this future world, depicting both the lifestyles of the ultra-rich and the seedy underbelly of the dispossessed and terminally exploited. Nothing of the in-between classes.
And, for that matter, neither did the early cyberpunk of Gibson. His goal was to show the machinations and motivations of the corporate capitalists which controlled humanity, and the lower-class of people who were the only ones with the relative freedom to fight the system. Altered Carbon inhabits the same essential world.
In closing, I had dog-eared a few pages where something that resonated with my Marxist-materialist Critical Theory outlook jumped out at me. Granted, the entire novel is a critique of postmodern capitalism (again, just as cyberpunk in general is), but here are a few passages that really stood out. Instead of commenting on them, I present them as-is:
But this was worse than personal. This was about Louise, alias Anenome, cut up on a surgical platter; about Elizabeth Elliott stabbed to death and too poor to be re-sleeved; Irene Elliott, weeping for a body that a corporate rep wore on alternate months; Victor Elliott, whiplashed between loss and retrieval of someone who was and yet was not the same woman. This was about a young black man facing his family in a broken-down, middle-aged white body; it was about Virginia Vidaura walking disdainfully into storage with her head held high and a last cigarette polluting lungs she was about to lose, no doubt to some other corporate vampire. It was about Jimmy de Soto, clawing his own eye out in the mud and fire at Innenin, and the millions like him throughout the Protectorate, painfully gathered assemblages of individual human potential, pissed away into the dung-heap of history. For all these, and more, someone was going to pay. (437)
“The value of it. The value of a human life.” Kawahara shook her head like a teacher with an exasperating student. “You are still young and stupid. Human life has no value. Haven’t you learned that yet, Takeshi, with all you’ve seen? It has no value, intrinsic to itself. Machines cost money to build. Raw materials cost money to extract. But people?” She made a tiny spitting sound. “You can always get some more people. They reproduce like cancer cells, whether you want them or not. They are abundant, Takeshi. Why should they be valuable? Do you know that it costs us less to recruit and use up a real snuff whore than it does to set up and run the virtual equivalent format. Real human flesh is cheaper than a machine. It’s the axiomatic truth of our times.” (491-92)
“Kristin, nothing ever does change.” I jerked a thumb back at the crowd outside. “You’ll always have morons like that, swallowing belief patterns whole so they don’t have to think for themselves. You’ll always have people like Kawahara and the Bancrofts to push their buttons and cash in on the program. People like you to make sure the game runs smoothly and the rules don’t get broken too often. And when the Meths want to break the rules themselves, they’ll send people like Trepp and me to do it. That’s the truth, Kristin. It’s been the truth since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago and from what I read in the history books, it’s never been any different. Better get used to it.” (524)