Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Altered Carbon - Richard K. Morgan



About the Book

In the twenty-fifth century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person’s consciousness can now be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or “sleeve”), making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen.

Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched one hundred eighty light-years from home, resleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats “existence” as something to be bought and sold. For Kovacs, the shell that blew a hole in his chest was only the beginning.

I have a friend who says that I may be genetically a woman, but I’m not really a woman. There is four reasons he always quotes when he says this (usually he’s well into his cups by this point of the discussion): 1. I hate chocolate with a vehemence that would make most people shocked. 2. I almost always hate romance whether it is in books, at the mall, on the sidewalk, at the bus station…. Anywhere. 3. I enjoy reading about, or watching a good fight wherein someone gets their ass royally handed to them. 4. I’m a sucker for a good knife/sword fight. There is no surer way to attract my attention to anything than by adding a blade to it.

This is when you, my dear reader, asks: Hey, Sarah, that’s great but why on earth is that important to open a review with?

Altered Carbon, according to many reviewers I’ve read, is a man’s book. There are some amazing (and graphic) fights sprinkled throughout the book, compounded with a nice dose of sex and a dash of some incredible language. However, while potential readers should note these things (I get the feeling that Morgan is an author who is generally not for the faint of heart), that by no means makes this a man’s book, unless my friend is right and I’m really more of a man habitually than I like to think.

Altered Carbon is Morgan’s first work. Usually I can smell a first book a mile away. There are typical writing mistakes and a good fifty or so pages for the author to feel obviously comfortable in the story they are telling, but not here. Altered Carbon is as well written and fleshed out as a book I’d expect from a time-tested writer. It’s a bold work, with a fast moving, incredibly intense plot. Despite that, Morgan keeps the book as a whole incredibly tightly woven adding only necessary information with none of the serious info dumps I’d expect from a book like this one.

Altered Carbon is what happens when cyberpunk and science fiction have a crime/thriller baby who grows up to be x-rated. There is a little of everything here. Morgan nicely balances his graphic details with an overarching mystery, which was smart for him to do. Without that mystery to justify many of the actions in this book, a lot of the sex, violence and harsh language would have been oppressive to the plot rather than supportive, as it ended up being in this case. Regardless, this is a heart-pounding book that won't release its hold on you until the intense finale. 

Morgan’s main character, Takeshi Kovacs, is so real he nearly jumps off the page to kiss you. If you look up morally ambiguous main characters in the dictionary, I’m sure his picture will be there. Though even with Kovacs, Morgan is nicely balanced. He’s not just gray for the sake of being gray. Throughout the book, Morgan drops information about Kovacs past, which helps him give reasons for Kovacs beliefs and actions. He’s a man with a past that has scarred him, and understanding that helps the reader understand more about how Kovacs thinks and why he acts the way he does.

Altered Carbon is told in the first person perspective. While I’m usually not a fan of first person narratives, it works in this case. The first person perspective is what makes Kovacs jump off the page, and helps make the technology and science fiction aspects of the book easier to understand. It also keeps Kovacs, a man who could easily be unrelatable to the reader, shockingly relatable.

Kovacs really is what makes this book pop, not the world he’s placed in. He’s an incredibly compelling character who imbues all the qualities that usually make me roll my eyes in books. Morgan somehow balances his character’s super-abilities with a nice dose of humanizing flaws. He does this so realistically that when the book was over I felt that Kovacs was one of the most human, believable characters I’ve read in a long, long time. However, despite all of this, the world suffers a bit for all the focus on Kovacs. While the world is interesting and incredibly well done it failed to captivate me quite as much as the main character. Though, in retrospect, I’m sure that is probably what the author intended as this is a “Takeshi Kovacs” novel not a “Bay City” novel.

Despite the ass kicking, language, mystery and whoring in this book, Altered Carbon is also a profound piece which subtly discusses individual identity. In other words, Altered Carbon toys with the idea of what makes us who we are. In a world where consciousness is downloaded and, for enough money, can be inserted into a different body (or "sleeve"), the issue of identity quickly becomes a central, if subtle point in this work. I found myself amazed with Morgan's ability to be both crass and thoughtful at the same time. 

All in all, Altered Carbon was a joy to read. The plot was a bit intense, the mystery was unique, but it was Kovacs who kept me in thrall; devouring page after page. The plot was tightly woven and fast moving and the issues faced in this near future world were well made and absolutely thought provoking. Morgan showcases his incredible ability in Altered Carbon to balance visceral with profound and intense with thoughtful all while never loosing his control over his incredible prose. Though I highly recommend this book, it is not for the faint of heart.

4/5 stars

4 comments:

  1. Well, nobody ever suspected me of not being a woman, I do like chocolate and reading/watching a good fight and... I liked Altered Carbon. So... The general situation strongly reminded me of C.J. Cherryh's uniververse though.
    I wouldn't call it a woman's book. Thinking about it, I realise I have not a "man's book" category. It makes me wonder why the one and not the other. The usual story, I guess (sight).

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  2. I'm glad you enjoyed this! I really love Altered Carbon, and Morgan himself is one of the most interesting authors I've ever encountered. (I don't meant that as a backhanded thing: he's genuinely intriguing, very bombastic and a real gentleman to his fans. I like him a LOT.)

    Altered Carbon is definitely my favorite of his books - and definitely the best of the Kovacs series. The others slightly tip the balance more towards SF than noir. They're good, but Carbon was something special!

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  3. You know, I didn't think Altered Carbon was really all that graphic. Now, it's probably partly because I never considered the question until I saw your review, and I've since read The Steel Remains, which is exceptionally graphic.

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  4. I haven't read The Steel Remains yet, but I plan to. For me, it really wasn't that graphic but there are people out there who have mentioned that Morgan is rather x-rated so I figured I should probably add that to the reviews. For me it wasn't bad, but for someone who wants a PG-13 read, it would probably shock them.

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