Thursday, 16 January 2003

Richard Morgan: Altered Carbon (2002)

Edition: Gollancz, 2002
Review number: 1139

For many years, there has been science fiction about how death might be defeated (going back at least as far as Robert Heinlein's Howard Families stories). The closest match to the ideas explored here is probably found in the Gateway series by Frederik Pohl, in which the rich can make copies of their personalities to live in a virtual world. This idea is not the main one in Pohl's novel, and Morgan is able to develop a similar scenario more thorougly because he makes it central to Altered Carbon. This is a future in which people can not only copy themselves into computers, but where the copies can be downloaded into other bodies, which have in consequence become known as "sleeves". Morgan has created an entire culture based around this, where (for example) criminals spend sentences having their minds stored on stacks, where people keep backup copies, and where organic damage is a more serious crime than mere murder. An important part of Altered Carbon is the reaction of established religions to the idea; not surprisingly, Christian groups tend to view resleeving as a denial of the possibility of a final resurrection.

A new breed of special forces came into being - the UN Envoys, transmitted at supra-light speed (Morgan assumes technology to transmit information but not mass faster than light) to troublesome planets, downloaded into a strange sleeve, trained to overcome the disorientation which follows from waking in a new body. Kovacs, the central character, was one of these soldiers, now (in common with a fair proportion of his comrades) into a criminal, an assassin. Sentenced to a couple of centuries on the stack for his latest killing, Kovacs is unexpectedly revived on Earth by a rich man in need of a private investigator. The police have decide that a few days ago he committed suicide, blowing his own head off. This contradicts his own opinion of hinself, once he is revived - if he had wanted to commit suicide, he would have prevented a new sleeve (he keeps clones for the purpose) being ready to take his stored backup personality. The police, on the other hand, were convinced that his security arrangements would prevent an intruder gaining access - in other words, this is basically a locked room mystery.

In style, Altered Carbon is clearly strongly influenced by Raymond Chandler; Kovacs is one of the many Marlowe-like private detectives in crime fiction. Elements in the scenario also recall more specific Chandler moments - Kovacs' arrival at the mansion reminded me of the equivalent in The Big Sleep, for example.

There are also obvious science fictional influences, particularly from cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk writers, though it would be safe to say that cyberpunk has become the dominant voice in the genre today. Altered Carbon is at the grittier end of the genre, with some grimly humorous details (I liked the idea of a crime of "excessively armed robbery".) The most immediate cross-reference which occurred to me is Jon Courtenay Grimwood's redRobe.

Altered Carbon is very enjoyable, so long as violence does not put you off too much (and it does not produce the sordid feeling that I get from some writers). Richard Morgan is certainly someone to look out for in future.

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