Sunday, February 2, 2014

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

Richard K. Morgan 

Reviewed by Carol
★   ★   ★   ★   1/2
A fun and fast-paced thrill ride, almost impossible for me to put down. Picture a hard-boiled noir, the solitary, weary worldly detective, blunted emotional skills, stepping on toes as he investigates. Merge that plot and character with innovative science fiction–digitized personalities that can be downloaded into new bodies with the right reasons or enough cash, and the result is eminently readable.
A fast summary for those who are entirely new to the book (and for my poor, over-tasked memory): Takeshi Kovacs, most recently of Harlan’s World, has been killed in his latest caper. Kovac is a man of special skills: after leaving the military, he became an Envoy, an elite member of tactical peace-keeping force. There’s hints that the cumulative trauma of ambiguous morality eventually led him to turning those skills to a life of crime. While his personality is imprisoned in the ‘stacks,’ he is bought and downloaded to a new body on Earth and offered the deal of a lifetime.  Laurens Bancroft, three hundred and fifty year-old mogul, wants Kovacs to find out who killed his prior body. Although the local police have shut the case, calling it a suicide, Bancroft knows his personality is backed-up every two days, and with six clones on standby, suicide is pointless. Bancroft gives Kovacs carte blanche to discover his killer. Before he leaves the estate, Kovacs has a run-in with Mrs. Bancroft, bored and beautiful society wife. The first hint things aren’t on the level is when he checks into his hotel (complete with artificial intelligence) and someone attempts to abduct him. Investigation will take him from deluxe personality storage companies to the slums and brothels of Earth. 
I loved the voice of this book. Morgan achieves classic, sophisticated hard-boiled noir in a futuristic setting. Kovacs’s personality is exceptionally realized, managing to convey a weary and cynical personality who still harbors glimmers of hope and altruism.  His thoughts at his first meeting with Bancroft: The thought of scrolling through hundreds of meters of incoherent vitriol from the lost and losers of this antique world was quite sufficient to uncap my weariness again. A profound lack of interest in Bancroft’s problems washed through me.”
At a meeting with police:
The other one just stared at me the whole time as if he hadn’t eaten red meat recently. I met the stare with a gentle smile. Following the meeting with Bancroft, I had gone back to the [hotel] and slept for almost twenty hours. I was rested, neurachemically alert and feeling a cordial dislike of authority.
The world-building atmosphere excelled, and sense of tension was well-developed: “The walk out of the chart room seemed to take forever, and my footsteps had developed a sudden echo inside my skull. With every step, and with every displayed map that I passed, I felt those ancient eyes on my spine, watching.
As most sci-fiction, interwoven through the mystery is an exploration of what the ability to download into different bodies may mean, from ‘eternal’ life, to societal punishment (jail? death penalty?) to religious redemption (can you be reborn if you never die?) Hidden in the midst of this exploration, Kovacs shares an interesting view of humanity, and the possibility of eternal life. “On Harlan’s World, most people could afford to be resleeved at least once, but the point was that unless you were very rich, you had to live out your full span each time and old age, even with antisen treatment, was a wearying business. Second time around was worse because you knew what to expect. Not many had the stamina to do it more than twice.
 As only the very, very rich can afford the frequent updates, cloning and storage, there’s a tension between the “Meta,” who have lived hundreds of years,  and the “normal” person who is on their first body. Like many cultures, though the police are enforcers of order, they lack economic power, and part of the refusal to investigate Bancroft’s suicide/murder further is a belief in the essential pointlessness of resolution when he’s already downloaded into a new body.  Kovacs, like all good noir detectives, has a complicated relationship with the police he meets, particularly Lieutenant Ortega, chief investigator for the Bancroft case.
Then there’s the politics. I just about cheered half-way through when Kovacs quotes a famous sect leader, right before he unleashes his anger. “The personal, as everyone’s so fucking fond of saying, is political. So if some idiot politician, some power payer tries to execute policies that harm out or those you care about, take it personally. Get angry… Only the little people suffer at the hands of Justice; the creatures of power slide out from under with a wink and a grin. If you want justice, you will have to claw it from them. Make it personal.
The less than perfect score? A couple of ‘meh’ sex scenes, particularly as the violent death of his last lover is supposed to be fresh in his mind. But then again, it was very true to noir tradition. I may revise star opinion on re-read.
The mystery was likely the weakest part of the story, but as with any good mystery, it is thewhy that matters as much as the who. Because of the “why” being a core question, knowing the ending doesn’t spoil the convolutions of the journey, making it highly re-readable. I’m extremely pleased I have a paper copy of my very own, available any time.

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