Richard Morgan's debut novel is truly a masterpiece of science fiction, a dark and gritty novel set centuries in the future. The defintion of life and death has changed, thanks of course, to technology. Courtesy of cortical stacks implanted in the nervous system, humans can be retreived after death, and their consciousness transferred to a new 'sleeve'. Assuming the stack was retreived in one piece, life just got a lot easier.
Mankind's spread out among a number of worlds, but without the use of the faster-than-light travel. They do have the ability to digitally transfer their consciousness between inhabited worlds, and this is just what Takeshi Kovacs has done for much of his life. His life as an 'Envoy' for the UN is the stuff of legend. One of the most elite soldiers ever designed, he was a ruthless killing machine and universally feared and respected. Until he quit the Envoys, that is. Now he's working for himself, and he just ended up on the wrong side of the law.
Soon Kovacs finds his sentence cut short assuming he enters the employ of the fabuously rich Laurens Bancroft, to solve his muder. Or at least Bancroft is convinced it's a murder - the cops are pretty sure he killed himself. As rich as he his, Bancroft's mind was stored in a secure location, and he was brought back to life a few hours later - with no idea of what truly happened. Positive that the police are prejudiced against him, he's determined to press Kovacs into service to learn the truth.
Kovacs isn't quite thrilled to be virtually press-ganged, but he's willing to play along for his freedom. What he doesn't know is that things are much more complex then they first appear, and events rapdily begin to spiral out of control. Soon the bodies are piling up at an alarming rate, and Takeshi Kovacs is right in the thick of things.
The future Richard Morgan has envisioned is absolutely captivating, and he describes it with skill that any author would admire. 'Altered Carbon' plays out like noir crime story, set in a world where the meaning of identity itself is ambigous, and power brokers have no qualms about using whoever they want to get ahead. The entire books reads like a boosted version of 'Bladerunner' with heads departing torsos and willing women just around the corner. The entire book is written in neon, and you always get the feeling it's raining.
Morgan doesn't just describe Takeshi's adventure on Earth however, as he drops tantalizing hints towards a greater storyline that features a little more prominently in the second book. It's obvious a lot of time and detail have gone into creating this vast set piece, and we can only hope that each novel will illuminate a little more. It's nice to see a larger continous storyling built behind the tighter focus of the current novel.
For 'Altered Carbon', that principle focus is on dear old Earth. An Earth that we know, but also one that's completely alien. Morgan draws a vivid picture of the dirty underworld of Earth, as well as the luxurious lives of the pampered rich. The technology is impressive and sometimes simply brutal - either way it's engrossing. The mystery aspect doesn't detract from the allure of the sci-fi elements, as they're very convincing and suitably intelligent.
The book sports excellent action scenes that can't be adequately described. Suffice it to say that Morgan can make the most complex firefights into a thing of beauty, and he's always got a few surprises up his sleeve. The action isn't parcelled out grudgingly either - it seems every couple pages bullets are flying and heads are rolling. When he's not busy with action, Morgan switches back to his supremely engaging storyline which evolves in complexity as the novel progresses. It's thoroughly captivating and actually manages to keep the reader guessing without reaching too far into the incredible. Things do however, get a little too convoluted near the end, and the novel loses a little bit of its focus. It's just a small concern, as for the most part 'Altered Carbon' keeps things interesting and unique.
Takeshi's character is very well developed. We're aware of his inhuman abilities, but also the weaknesses and varied neuroses caused by his intense life as an envoy. Morgan is careful not to make any giant leaps of development, and bulds his main character nicely right up until the end, with only the slightest falter at the close. Again, it's not a major slip, and is unquestionably the exception to the novel's careful exploration of character. Other characters aren't as lucky though. Although their relationships with Takeshi are carefully described, often times their motives seem a little puzzling. Women in particular fall over themselves trying to help our dashing hero (with a notable exception), and this can make for a couple baffling moments.
In general though, 'Altered Carbon' is one hell of a novel. The strong storyline is some great science fiction mystery gauranteed to keep the reader turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. It's not just the surreal descriptions and dark atmosphere, but also the sheer creativity of the character and the world. All of this is tied together seamelessly with Morgan's gripping narrative. Both 'Altered Carbon', and its sequel, 'Broken Angels', are strongly recommended. As a caveat, this book does grow pretty complex and requires a good deal of attention to be fully appreciated. In addition, there's a good amount of graphic sex and violence. Of course this is a good thing for most of us, but if you feel otherwise - keep it in mind.