Altered Carbon introduces us to Morgan’s recurring hero, Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-military Special Forces officer (known as Envoys) with specialized training and conditioning making him both more and less than human. Kovacs has become something of a private investigator with a dislike of authority and law and a complicated moral code – just like any other hard-boiled private dick you’ve read about. The difference is in the setting – humankind has spread throughout the galaxy and conquered death through the use of direct digital download of person’s consciousness into a cortical stack implanted at the base of the brain that can transferred to a new body as needed (if you can afford it).
In Altered Carbon Kovacs is hired by a rich, powerful and long-lived man on Old Earth to determine if his client was murdered or committed suicide (death and the like can get a bit complicated when a backup consciousness can be stored).The resulting chain of events is typical of hard-boiled, noir stories – there’s a love interest or two (with somewhat graphic description), ass-kicking, past catching up, trouble with cops, trouble with organized crime, visits to whorehouses, drugs, sex, guns, knives, lasers, etc. All is told in colorful language, vivid description and around a twenty-fifth century setting reflective of our world but sufficiently advanced to be fascinating.
In many ways this is a ‘man’s book’ – there are lots of witty dialogue, ass-kicking fights, some gratuitous sex, and women are generally objectified while being limited to overly sexualized characters (admittedly, some of them do kick ass) – of course the guys are rarely caste in a very positive light either. This is a book that won’t appeal to all, and will likely find its biggest audience bearing a Y chromosome.
Kovacs is well characterized in the gritty-gray zone one would expect. He is dark, dangerous and comes with a scarred past that hasn’t healed completely. With his slightly psychopathic tendencies (the slight part is debatable), death and destruction is never all that far away.