Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Review: Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

In Altered Carbon, the debut novel by Richard K. Morgan, cyberpunk grows up, has a seedy affair at a whorehouse in ‘licktown’ and hires a private investigator to investigate its own murder. After that, things get nasty.

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.

I found Altered Carbon to be an immensely enjoyable and fun book to read without the usual stumbles first-time authors usually make. It’s a dark and dangerous world – definitely not a place you want to talk to your mother about. I can’t wait to read the further adventures of Kovacs in Broken Angels and Woken Furies. 8/10

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