Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

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Central plot – a technically dead off world mercenary is hired by a murdered millionaire to investigate his own murder.

I couldn’t help but imagine Altered Carbon’s as a spinoff from Hyperion’s Brawne Lamia – Keats storyline or as a salty gritty take on Sheckley’s Mindswap. In Morgan’s futuristic pseudo dystopia, Earth is no longer the centre of human civilization and science has successfully dichotomized human body and consciousness. Physical bodies are more like interchangeable vessels (sleeves) and identity or memories of an individual is stored in a chip based cortical stack that can be downloaded, transmitted, broadcasted and even insured. This stack consciousness can be transferred organically or hyper spatially through ‘needlecast’ and be resleeved into a different body, even interplanetary-ily and at a speed faster than light – very similar to Hegemony’s Farcasting and Webworld if you ask me. This forever changes the concept of mortality, morality and death as we know it, since anyone with enough resources can, technically, extend their life as long as they desire by resleeving themselves into cloned organics. Or an Orwellian government can keep citizen stacks in perpetual storage. Anyway, in this futuristic cyberpunk premise, Altered Carbon surprises by being a hard-boiled detective story, a noir locked room murder mystery.

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I was constantly reminded of these three masterpieces during the read

The politics and philosophy of this world is intriguing in so many ways and also perplexing with our contemporary conventions. Also, the universe of Altered Carbon feels more believable now that than when the book was initially released, thanks to the ever increasing exposure to wireless technologies, cloud computing, wearables and STEM cell research. Novel’s very concept of mind body Cartesian duality and technological metempsychosis of consciousness has serious ramifications on the way we perceive morality. For example the recurring graphic violence gets the philosophical justification of it being replacable organic damage, and death as something that a resleeving can fix. It also raises questions like “Who are you when you are not in your body, to yourself and the people around you?” This also braces religion with multiplicity of souls, spirituality and metaphysics of rebirth or afterlife. In fact, Catholicism is presented as a progress inhibiting adversary in this novel with its negative stance on relseeving and clone storage. I was repeatedly blown away by the immediacy of the technological concepts book had to offer. On the explanation and exposition side, an appreciable balance was kept between the hard and soft extremities of science fiction spectrum. Still the believable futuristics and fast paced cinematic narrative wasn’t enough to take me over the general frustration I kept having with the novel.

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Still from Netflix adaptation. Looks like the stage for book’s iconic snuff shootout (could be an iconic moment in TV history, if done properly)

Morgan’s already uptight prose suffered from digressions and plastic dialogues, at least in my eyes. Every time I entered the universe, it offered something impressive and had my attention unaltered for a while. But the moment I put the book down, it looked like an ordeal I don’t want to resume. Plot line was derivative and the murder mystery was off the spotlight less than halfway the book, it was still a good incentive though. Takeshi Kovacs was presented as this hyper masculine antihero to whom everyone in the story is somehow drawn into, no matter how much of a dick he is. The backstory of Ryker’s body or Quell excerpts or Envoy flashbacks or even the first person narrative did little to make me cut any leeway for his actions. Bancroft, on the other hand, was a complacent Meth(book’s term for people who resleeve extensively, after Biblical Methuselah) with a femme-fatale wife and disparaging view on women in general. Everything was overly sexualized in this world, and even with the blurred philosophy I wasn’t able to digest the snuff brothels, unaccounted brutality on bystanders and sexual violence. Author’s efforts to justify them with the premise made it all the more infuriating. His angry dig on religion and neurachem induced Envoy combats made me look back to Hyperion again, to Dure and Kassad, and Forever War.

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It was really weird to be repeatedly impressed by a book and be frustrated over it time and again. Maybe Kovac’s Westworld would have found better audience in my younger self.

 


Altered Carbon is the first book in Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, followed by Broken Angels and Woken Furies. It is getting a live series adaptation from Netflix and is scheduled for 2018.
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Artemis by Andy Weir

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I often get confused between Andy Weir and Ernest Cline, and there was a part of me that got excited mistaking Artemis for Art3mis, and hence a Ready Player Two. But after enduring months with the opening chapter tease and having my expectations already raised by Egg, Martian and even Lacero, I must admit to being massively disappointed. This might be an over statement, but in all this author confusion I am inclined to tag Artemis as Wier’s Armada than a worthy successor of his debut novel.

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Artemis Station Plan

Artemis is a lunar colony, a space version of Bioshock‘s Rapture city, and functions under a hierarchical society that follows a post-modern caste system. Built under the patronage of Kenyan government, who had gone Sri LankanSpace Elevatorpath with geopolitics here, Artemis provides home and employment to a considerable number of humans in Tourism and their indigenous Aluminium smelting Industry. Book opens up with impressive topographical sketches of Artemis stations and does a fairly good job in designing a sustainable functional ecosystem in Moon. Written in first person monologue format, the story unfolds through the eyes of a first generation Artemisian and is confined mostly in Conrad Bubble, which is basically an affluent Belt favela from Expanse universe. Our protagonist is a Saudi girl, Jazz, with name of Jasmine and lifestyle of Aladdin, and a weird obsession towards poor life choices. Weir explicitly and repeatedly states the genius of Jazz and her state of life being her own edgy choice than lack of options. But, like her Dad and acquaintances around, I too was not impressed by her or the course of events.

uk-scientists-announce-crowdfunded-mission-moon.jpgThe diversity and the cosmopolitan culture of space station, though conspicuously forced, were commendable, and I enjoyed the small town treatment of lunar bubble in consideration. The cultural contrasts between Earth and Moon, though through brief epistolary side narrative, was well expressed. Even with this edgy diversity and ecumenical lunar immigrant city life, the novel’s near future wasn’t free of clichéd stereotypes. Like the semi centennial Hollywood tradition of killing off the black guy first or making the Asian guy in the guild either a nerd or a Katana expert, Artemis had its own weird conventions. Working classes, for some reason, were from Middle East, tourists were majorly Americans, crime syndicate from Brazil etc. And to me, this cronyistic nationalism and sterile approach was a huge turn off, considering story’s futuristic premise surrounding a lunar colony. There was even a closed room geek who pretty much manufactured every tech the plot needed, and he, with his shady business background, was conveniently a Slav.

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Appolo 11 Visitor center, the major tourist attraction of Artemis

I remember the reddit AMA where Weir answered Doctor Who to a question whose answers of choice were Star Trek and Star Wars. Not sure whether its this predisposition or his weak attempt to attribute references just for the sake of it, the NCC 1701 code breaking felt like ‘trying too hard to stay mainstream’ to me. In fact he didn’t stop there, and went off the narrative to insert an unnecessary and misplaced Han Solo reference as well, like crossing off some list. I love them both, even Who, but its a bit cringy when contemporary literatures find themselves compelled to make passing references, by any means necessary. The contrast was all the more visible, since other pop culture comments felt so natural and aptly placed. Watney‘s SOL log styled quirky monologue and well conveyed science, in my opinion, are author’s strong suit; and novel’s ‘Jashn Bahara’ easily rendered this style irritating by being an arrogant snowflake that somehow enjoys infinite lifeline. The science also felt misplaced at times too, like author had decided to write down everything in his research, no matter what the question was.

Rather than being an alcove into life in Moon, the novel was invested in being a panegyrical record of its young delinquent’s jagged adventures. And Weir based it so much on the central character that everyone else felt like some insignificant yet obligatory NPCs, who were there to just nod and propel her narrative. She wasn’t any help either.

Or like Jazz might say, “In comparison with the red planet castaway, Artemis was just a glorified cheap slugged gunk, if you know what I mean.”

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne-HPThis novel is about a shape shifting super intelligent vanilla smelling Groot and a giant lethal Bear whose favourite pass time, other than flying, is terrorizing an already ruined city. I did not make that up. And with a premise as ridiculous as, maybe, that of Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla, Borne was surprisingly heartwarming. I did not make that up too.

Apocalypse and its aftermath are rather obscure in novel’s first person reticent narrative. Like the fallout setting of, say, Metro 2033, world is recovering from or accepting its fate of being a bio-technical wasteland. Most of its inhabitants are Frankenstein-ish in appearance and have traceable origins to a biotech corporate known to readers only as ‘The Company’. And in what appears to be a menagerie of hybrid transgenic beings and discarded experiments, the King or Kong is a ridiculously enormous Bear named ‘Mord’. VanderMeer scales Mord to multistorey buildings, and though it often inflicts destruction along its way, many of city’s inhabitants consider Mord as their Lord and Savior. During a scavenging operation, our protagonist Rachel finds baby Borne on Mord’s furries. Rachel’s boyfriend, Wick suspects Borne of being a bio-weapon, but she decides to raise it as her pet and soon develops a mother-child bond between them. Book doesn’t offer clear definitions or explanations for what Borne is, and like Borne itself, readers are kept in the existential crisis of assigning identity for sentient beings outside humanity. I have mixed feelings about the novel as a whole, but I loved Borne and the beautifully prosed dynamics between him and Rachel, and Rachel and Wick.

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Jeff VanderMeer during one of his promotional tours.

Everything is more or less a priori in this narrative and it often succumbs to the genre cliches like dictatorship of corporate, romanticizing past glory, mulling over the greenery, morality etc. But rather than glorifying the apocalyptic SuperGod perspective, VanderMeer develops the story through the insignificants- people who are caught in the crossfire. Unlike the evil Company or levitating Mord or the resistance leader Magician, Rachel and Wick are expendable humans whose primary concern is staying alive than the outcome of events in grand scale. Consider them as the ones whose buildings, cars and tax money get destroyed in cliched Superhero battles under the rhetoric of ‘saving the day’. I adored the relationship between Rachel and Borne, and their life in Balcony Cliffs till the point it turned dark. From there on I mostly read Borne’s child like dialogues in Tommy Wiseau’s voice to reduce the uneasiness.

200To Rachel, Borne was a ‘mirror and window and scene that kept changing’, and to Borne, Rachel was the only way to perceive a world it can hardly comprehend. Borne has a congenital weakness that goes again the general notions of morality, and with a ruined city as the frame of reference Rachel finds it difficult to raise him like a normal person. While Borne was trying to make sense of the world through Rachel, she was trying to make sense of Borne. His child like curiosity and misplaced instinctual priorities were off the usual societal reservations for any usual observer except Rachel. Many of those weirdly playful moments between them were adorable and managed to produce a smile on my face. In fact, the connection author made between Borne’s very first encounter with Mord proxies and his final Boss rush, in Rachel’s monologue, managed to make my eyes moist.

southern-reach-paperback-coversI must admit to treating Borne universe as an extension of Area X, and mentally, consciously or unconsciously, naming this story’s Umbrella Corporation as Southern Reach. And though it might not have been the smartest strategy for someone struggling to accept Acceptance, it did enhance the reading. Both employs a sempiternal narrative, but Borne was more limpid and less stolid in comparison. Also among many details, Wick being an ex company employee who engineers fish ponds (human-eyed dolphins of Annihilation), VanderMeer’s plant fixation and ‘southern’ base of company helped. Nevertheless, Brone offers something that Southern Reach deems luxury – a closure. It’s comprehensive towards the end and provides revelations that changes the way we read the novel and characters altogether, and might even break you in the process.

Borne, though lyrically masquerades itself as a final fantasy filled with parademon-ish miniature Mord proxies and obscure underground movements, is essentially about a mother and her coming in terms with the fact that her child is no longer a child. And it is beautiful.

Anyway, now I consider myself cleansed off Atwood’s pigoons filled abstract apocalypse by an even weirder, even abstract eco catastrophe involving the giant flying Bear and a glorified house plant.