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Cyberpunk detective novel Altered Carbon really is all that

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For years now, people have been telling me to read Richard K. Morgan's cyberpunksploitation novel Altered Carbon, and I've been meaning to get around to it. But holy fuck, it really is that great. Spoilers below.

So yes, to everyone who's been recommending this book to me, you were totally right. The only reason I didn't get around to reading it sooner is because I've been trying to keep up with newly released books and I'm becoming a slow reader lately. But yes, it is a must-read for anybody who's interested in post-humanism, politics, cyberpunk or the intersection of the science fiction and detective genres.


If you've read every single Raymond Chandler novel three times, like I have, then Altered Carbon will be both like coming home and like a revelation. If only the late Robert B. Parker's attempts to channel Chandler had been half as successful as this — you get the hard-bitten detective with a past, who gets hired by a complacent, deeply flawed rich guy, and you get the rich guy's seductive femme-fatale wife. You also meet tons of the "little people" who've been stepped on by the wealthy and their schemes. Morgan gets that Chandlerian detective fiction isn't just about secrets — it's about the secrets of the rich and powerful, and the powerless people whom those secrets hurt. And just like in Chandler's best novels, ultimately the solution to the murder mystery is almost an afterthought — the book has long since outgrown that question and moved on to bigger, more important questions.


As you have probably heard, the central conceit of Altered Carbon is that people can be "re-sleeved" — in other words, their consciousnesses can be restored from a backup and they can be ported into a new body. Sometimes it's a clone of their original body, sometimes it's a cheap-ass synthetic, sometimes it's an entirely different body. This is pretty similar to Charles Stross' Glasshouse, Cory Doctorow's Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom and some other SF novels of the early-to-mid 2000s. For some reason there was a rash of books about people getting "backed up" and "ported" into new bodies, as a kind of pervasive posthuman fantasy swept through the SF writer community.

Altered Carbon came slightly earlier than Doctorow or Stross' books, and Morgan has a bit more fun with the concept of "resleeving." The murder mystery revolves around a victim who's still alive, a rich guy named Laurens Bancroft who was brought back in a new body as soon as he was shot in the head. He was restored from a backup, except that he's missing the last 48 hours of his life. And the book is full of recurring characters who die and then come back in new bodies, including a few instances where someone manages to occupy two different bodies at once — which is illegal, but seems to happen a lot. People can also have their disembodied consciousnesses dumped into virtual worlds, where they can endure days of torture in minutes of realtime.

Morgan's playful, gritty use of this conceit means that you get to have passages like this one:

Street scene:

Tiered balconies on either side, tongues of light and sound splashed out onto pavements from the myriad tiny bars, the street itself knotted with people. I walked beside the woman I had killed last week and tried to hold up my end of a conversation about cats.


But there are plenty of other nifty concepts in Altered Carbon, which reads like a debut novel in the best possible way. It's popping with innovations, from drugs that turn you into a psychopath with no body-heat to futuristic weaponry to bizarre and terrible new types of sex-work. It's like the work of someone who's throwing in every cool idea he can think of for his first book, in case he doesn't get another shot.


The detective/shit-kicker in Altered Carbon is also one of science fiction's great bastards with heart, Takeshi Kovacs. Morgan does a great job of setting Kovacs up with a Past, including the fact that he used to be an Envoy, a sort of galactic enforcer, before he turned to crime. As he explains at one point, you make an Envoy by burning out "every evolved violence limitation instinct in the human psyche," and replacing it with "a conscious will to do harm." Despite being basically a state-created killing machine, Kovacs is surprisingly human and capable of generosity, even sentimentality by the end of the book. It's easy to see why he's able to support more books in the series.

The politics of Altered Carbon are more complex, and more fascinating, than I've made them sound so far. It's definitely a world where the rich piss on everyone else — the ultra-rich are known as meths, short for methuselahs, because they can live forever thanks to endless cloned and engineered bodies. They lose touch with the rest of the human race and start to believe that human life has no value. Meanwhile, though, the Catholic Church has ordained that Catholics must not be brought back to life after being killed — which means if you kill a Catholic, you're likely to get away with it since the victim can't testify against you, and Catholics have a huge bulls-eye painted on their foreheads. Earth is no longer the center of the human world, having devolved into a backwards shithole. Oh, and Kovacs is fond of quoting from a kind of Kropotkin-knockoff named Quell, whose writings include gems like, "I will die angry."


It's a potent stew of politics, religion — and I haven't even gotten to the book's weird, disturbing gender politics — and it could make a terrific movie, if they could travel back in time to 1990 and get Bullet In The Head-era John Woo to direct. And it really does make something new out of the noir formula, rather than just a pastiche or homage. Check out this passage from late in the book:

For a moment something ached in me, something so deep rooted that I knew to tear it out would be to undo the essence of what held me together. The feeling rose and splashed like the rain behind my eyes, swelling as the drumming on the roof panels grew and the glass ran with water.

Then I locked it down.

That's some razor-sharp writing, right there. If you're ready to be kicked in the forehead by post-cyberpunk violence and subversion, then you owe it to yourself to hunt down a copy of Altered Carbon.