Sunday, July 15, 2007

Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan [4]

****/***** (4/5)

In the relatively new genre dubbed as cyberpunk, British author Richard K. Morgan's first Takeshi Kovacs novel ALTERED CARBON (2002) leaves an indelible impression. A captivating blend of suspense/mystery, hardcore first-person detective story, and action/adventure in the midst of a science fiction backdrop, ALTERED CARBON is sure to hit you hard with its unique style and flavor. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs is exactly the sort of kick-ass, intelligent hero I love to read about. Although I'm not a huge fan of first-person storytelling, our narrator Kovacs manages to admirably build the science fiction universe of ALTERED CARBON with its futuristic vocab and prose. ALTERED CARBON's settings, including the bureaucracy, economic social hierarchy, the vernacular, and futuristic sights are thorough, if not confounding at times. For a debut novel, Morgan ably sets the scene and builds his universe which support his story. There's plenty of related history too. Again, the prose can be ambiguous at times, but it depends on how you receive it; don't let the futuristic vernacular bog you down, just take it in stride. Richard Morgan doesn't shy away from explicit language, brutal violence and sex to grab your attention either. His science fiction world is very morbid, and these things are a part of its "culture."

In the futuristic ALTERED CARBON, human civilization conquers death itself. "Poor Death, no match for the mighty altered-carbon technologies of data storage and retrieval arrayed against him. Once we lived in terror of [Death's] arrival. Now we flirt outrageously with his somber dignity, and beings like these won't even let him in the tradesman's entrance." Ouch. But these things are a reality for the universe of ALTERED CARBON: cloning, mind data storage/retrieval, resleeving (brand new body or same body but younger). In a macabre observation, the book notes how virtual prostitution is actually more expensive than sex with a real prostitute, since bodies don't have much significance anymore. Many "Meths" (rich, influential people, socially and economically high on the food chain) have stacks on storage, and they transmit their current memory over regular intervals of time to a data center containing hundreds of their cloned bodies. "Meths" are often thousands of centuries old. Other, common people also have "stacks" for storage and retrieval in their spinal core, though they often don't have the monetary means to afford more than one clone, let alone hundreds. As the story begins, Morgan weaves in religion as we learn of religious Catholics demonstrating with placards against any form of data storage and retrieval on Earth, arguing such altered-carbon technology destroys the soul. In fact, many Catholics still live a traditional lifespan and forgo any form of cloning and resleeving in a new body.

Ex-U.N. Envoy (military conditioning and training) and criminal Takeshi Kovacs has just been hired by a Meth, Mr. Laurens Bancroft to investigate Bancroft's apparent suicide. The story begins as police commandos gun down Kovacs and his friend Sarah to death on Harlan's World. Next thing we know, authorities "needlecast" (transmit) Kovacs' "stack" (stored mind) over to Earth to be resleeved in a new body sanctioned and paid for by Bancroft. Bancraft is convinced it was a murder not a suicide, and he maintains he wouldn't try to kill himself when they'd download him to a new cloned body later anyway. Unfortunately, his last "update" to his personal data center was well before the events preceding his apparent suicide and now, he has no memory of his suicide or the time before it. Bancraft hires Kovacs on the strength of a recommendation by Reileen Kawahara, who Kovacs did some work for a few years back. The police and the ranking officer Lt. Kristin Ortega have already closed the case, declaring an open-and-shut suicide.

As Kovacs pursues the investigation, we learn more and more about the various pieces of the puzzle. If you're astute unlike me, you may be able to figure out some links well before the end. Kovacs investigates Bancroft's proclivity for blue-collar prostitution establishments like Jerry's Closed Quarters, he learns more about Bancroft's wife, the drop-dead gorgeous Miriam Bancroft, and even Kovacs' current "sleeve" (body) and its rightful consciousness currently stacked away seems to bear some disturbing connections to the leading police officer who closed Bancroft's case, the austere Lt. Ortega. Everyone except Bancroft himself wants Kovacs to leave well enough alone, and drop the investigation. The wild joy ride seems to intrigue Kovacs and he doggedly continues his investigation.

Morgan intersperses a lot of history and world-building into Kovacs' characterization. Although not as old as a Meth, Kovacs is an ex-Envoy and a few hundreds of years old himself with a rich and dark history. He often recalls gruesome wars, gritty experiences and brutal people he's met.

Here's just a taste of Kovacs' hardcore characterization. The following passages comes relatively early on in the book when there's a cold fury raging through his veins. It's actually a lot of fun. In a book Kovacs often quotes throughout, he notes: "And make no mistake about this: being taken seriously, being considered dangerous, marks the difference -- the only difference in their eyes -- between players and little people. Players they will make deals with. Little people they liquidate. And time and again they cream your liquidation, your displacement, your torture and brutal execution with the ultimate insult that it's just business, it's politics, it's the way of the world, it's a tough life, and that it's nothing personal. Well fuck them. Make it personal."

There's traces of love in the story, but don't hold your breath there, the book's focus rests on the hardcore first-person characterization of Takeshi Kovacs and the mystery he's hired to solve. What I like about the book: the nihilistic Kovacs' motivations behind his actions are very personal, drawn from a caring for the people he values. Nonetheless, Morgan explores some interesting themes here in the midst of his scifi world. In love, is it the body we love or the consciousness behind the body? Can you love a new consciousness in the body of your lover (Ortega/Kovacs/Ryker)? Can you love a new body with the consciousness of your love (Victor & Irene Elliot)? Is any of this cheating? It seems that a true long-term relationship hinges equally on both: the person behind the body and the body itself. And in Morgan's science fiction universe where bodies are interchanged as quickly as shirts, love is tricky.

My main criticism with this novel has to do with the prose. Because of the rich fabric of history and science fiction vernacular Morgan sprinkles into the first-person narrative, the prose takes some patience to follow, and if you don't really care for this brand of hardcore cyberpunk detective story, you're not going to like it. I dropped this novel in favor of others for months before I actually came back to finish this one. Having finished it, I will definitely continue reading other Takeshi Kovacs novels.

It's an interesting ride to say the least.

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