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
Science fiction writer