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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