Book review of Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
This review contains minor spoilers.
I’d heard about Altered Carbon a couple years ago from a friend who said it was one of her favorite sci-fi books (and she has read quite a few). Then Netflix came out with the series based on it last year and I decided to watch that instead. I didn’t think much of it and almost gave up watching at one point but wound up seeing it through to the end of Season One.
Then I was in LaGuardia airport recently and to my surprise I discovered a very nice independent bookstore in Terminal B called McNally Jackson Books. They had a small but well-curated sci-fi and fantasy section with several books I had on my to-read list, including Altered Carbon. Fortunately, in addition to my friend’s recommendation, I’d recently seen it mentioned on a list of best genetic engineering books on the Best Sci-Fi Books blog. So, I decided to give it a shot.
I am so glad I did because this was one amazing book. It is a perfect fusion of my two favorite sub-genres, cyberpunk and noir. The story is set 400+ years in the future, in a world in which humans have learned how to transfer their consciousness into a small piece of hardware called a cortical stack. A stack can be transferred into any human body through a process given the wonderfully disgusting name of “resleeving.” Or, as in the case of Takashi Kovacs, the man from whose perspective the story is told, it allows people to serve prison sentences decades, even hundreds of years long.
In the prologue, Kovacs and a girlfriend get into a shootout with the police in which their bodies are killed but their stacks remain intact. Then, in chapter one, Kovacs wakes up in a new "sleeve" – but with 117 years still remaining to be served on his sentence. He's been taken off stack early at the behest of Laurens Bancroft, an extremely wealthy and powerful man who wants Kovacs to conduct a special investigation into Bancroft’s own death just a few weeks earlier.
Bancroft has multiple copies of his original body and backups of his stack automatically updated every 48 hours, an arrangement has enabled him to stay alive for more than 350 years. This makes him a “Meth,” a nickname based on the character of Methuselah in the Bible for the elite class of persons who have used this technology to stay alive far beyond the normal human lifespan. Bancroft doesn't buy the police department's conclusion that his death was a suicide, so he offers Kovacs, an ex-soldier and “envoy” with special psychological and physical combat training, the chance to have the rest of his prison sentence commuted in exchange for figuring out who really killed him and why.
This clever premise sets the stage for some wonderful thought experiments about consciousness, identity (including gender identity, since a stack can be plugged into any sleeve, male or female), eternal life, and much more. It does so against the backdrop of a well-paced murder mystery and a very believable and well-constructed world.
The writing in this book is excellent, with fantastic setting descriptions, clever dialog, and some unexpectedly profound observations about humanity. One of the signatures of Mr. Morgan's writing style is his use of vivid, powerfully descriptive verbs. Here's one example.
The fact that this was Mr. Morgan's first novel is astonishing to me. Granted, it took him over a decade to finish it (he taught English as a second language while he wrote it), but this is a more impressive effort than any other first-time breakthrough sci-fi authors I can think of, including Andy Weir’sThe Martian and Ernst Cline’s Ready Player One. Trust me, it's that good.
They only warning I'd give is there is a lot of violence, including one torture scene. You could skip a couple of pages to avoid that scene, but if you skip all the violence there wouldn't be much book left. OK, it's not quite that bad, but there's definitely a lot of shooting and mayhem throughout. There are also a couple of graphic sex scenes but they were tastefully done in my opinion.
I have no idea what the people who did the Netflix series were thinking, but they changed a ton of stuff and added a bunch of stuff, and in my opinion, almost none of it worked. I often wish books that are made into movies had been made as serials so they could have included the extra detail from the book that gets missed. In this case, however, I felt the opposite, where it seemed like the writers were struggling to come up with extra side stories in order to fill 10 episodes. Personally, I think it would have been better to make this a stand-alone movie or at most a four or five episode miniseries.
Anyway, if you love sci-fi mixed with a great noir murder mystery, do yourself a favor and skip the Netflix series and read the book instead.
Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
A couple of weeks ago I finally decided I'd had it with WordPress. I'm a user experience designer in my day job, and from the day I started using WordPress three years ago I've been amazed at how difficult it is to use. WordPress now drives more than 30% of the websites in the world, which I find staggering considering what a piece of crap user interface it has. For anyone who manages a WordPress website and is wondering if there is something better, I recommend checking out Weebly. I'm only a couple of weeks into using it, but so far I've been delighted. It has nice themes, an excellent drag-and-drop interface, and allows you to fully customize the design if you so choose. It also has plenty of third-party integrations. I looked at Wix as well but apparently you can't change the theme without losing all of your content, which for me was a non-starter. One thing I know about myself is I will change my mind. :)
I've still got some work to do, primarily around re-posting all of my book reviews, but those should be up in he next few days. I hope you like the new site - feel free to let me know what you think.
Book review of We Are Legion (We Are Bob), by Dennis E. Taylor
This review contains some minor spoilers.
This book first came to my attention because it was named Audible's best sci-fi book of 2016. Then I learned it was another indie author success story, in which the author, Dennis E. Taylor, couldn't get a traditional publishing deal, so he released it through his agent's publishing imprint. But when he published an audiobook version, it exploded in popularity. So I decided to check out the audiobook for myself.
The plot centers around a guy named Bob, the founder of a successful mid-size software company who is able to retire early after selling his company. Rather comically, however, Bob gets killed in a car accident shortly after he sells his company and before he can enjoy the fruits of all his hard work over the years. However, since he was a science nerd with some extra cash on hand, he paid a company to cryogenically preserve his body in the event of his death, in hopes that technology in the future would be able to bring him back to life.
The preservation succeeds, but not quite as he had intended. Bob is indeed brought back to life 117 years into the future, but as a computer simulation rather than a human. Despite his shock and disorientation at his newfound condition, Bob must quickly adjust to his situation and try to find ways to continue to preserve himself. This proves difficult in a world in which some nations and religions have become increasingly ideologically polarized and many nations now have nuclear weapons. The rest of the book details Bob's quest to survive the ticking time bomb that is Earth and to explore the galaxy.
The tone of the book is very similar to The Martian, equal parts erudite and snarky. It spends a lot of time mocking religion, as well as human beings in general. However, despite the irreverent sense of humor, this is very much a hard sci-fi book, with lots of conceptually interesting stuff like Von Neumann probes, artificial intelligence, the physics of space travel, and more. The author takes the time to explain the more technically challenging stuff for less-technical readers, which probably explains why the book has found as broad of an audience as it has.
I found my interest waning a bit toward the end because it got challenging to keep track of all the characters and what they were doing, but overall it was still a very fun read. The audiobook version was outstanding. Narrator Ray Porter captured the author's sarcastic tone perfectly. I have no doubt this is one of those cases where the audiobook was better than reading it on my own would have been.
We Are Legion (We Are Bob), by Dennis E. Taylor
Book review of Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
This review does not contain any spoilers.
One of the podcasts I listen to is called "Writing Excuses." It's a weekly podcast hosted by Brandon Sanderson and a rotating group of other authors who give writing advice on a variety of different topics. The podcasts are only 15-20 minutes long, and they are excellent: short, entertaining, and packed full of super-useful information about writing fiction.
Sanderson writes epic fantasy, which isn't a genre I'm normally that interested in, but over this past Christmas, I saw he had written a book called Oathbringer, which Amazon dubbed the most "unputdownable" book of 2017. Well, this piqued my interest, because what author doesn't want readers to be unable to put their book down, right?
So I went to Amazon and discovered Oathbringer is priced at $16.99. For the e-book. Riiiiight.
So, rather than fork over $17 to Macmillan (sorry, Brandon), I went to my local library and was pleased to find they still have books you can borrow and read for free! Not surprisingly, Oathbringer was not available, nor were either of the previous two books in the series. However, I did find one book, called Mistborn, which he wrote in 2010. So I checked it out and read it while I was on vacation.
Damn, it was good.
If Oathbringer is more unputdownable than this book, I may avoid it, because I don't think I can handle another string of sleepless nights like I went through with Mistborn. This book kept me reading until the wee hours of the morning for about five straight nights. I don't know yet what it was that turned me into the literary equivalent of a heroin addict, but I'm going to spend some time analyzing this book to figure it out. I'm going to re-read the first fifty or so pages, break down the plot and character development in each chapter, and study the transitions between chapters because I have got to put some of what made this book so good into my next book!
I will say I was a little bit disappointed in the ending. I won't give any spoilers, but when I finished it at 12:30 a.m. last night, my initial reaction was "Yeeessss!!!!!" But after I woke the next morning and reflected on the ending, I realized there were a few elements added at the end that didn't really stand up to close scrutiny. Partly this is because Sanderson did such a good job establishing the rules for how allomancy and feruchemy work (these are superpowers granted through ingestion or possession of metals) as well as the physical characteristics of two types of people (terrismen and steel inquisitors). Because of this, it was pretty clear those rules got violated in a couple of big ways at the end.
Nonetheless, the ending was still very satisfying, and the ride up to that point was fantastic. What I found notable about this book for me was that Sanderson's writing to me has no weaknesses. He does an outstanding job at world-building, character development, action, dialog, and setting. There were no dead spots where I got bored even though it was 650 pages long. It was all combined in a way that the book stood by itself even though it's the first book in a trilogy. In addition to rarely reading epic fantasy anymore, I also very rarely read books over 500 pages. Mistborn blew past both of these hangups like they didn't exist. It will almost certainly do the same with another hangup of mine, namely, reading beyond the first book in a series.
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
Science fiction writer