Friday, January 4, 2013

Book Review: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan (2002)

Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Blurb: In the twenty-fifth century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Now, assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person’s consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or “sleeve”) making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen.

Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched one hundred eighty light-years from home, re-sleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats “existence” as something that can be bought and sold. For Kovacs, the shell that blew a hole in his chest was only the beginning. . . .

Thoughts: As an avid Goodreads (it's like Letterboxd but for books) user I'm always interested in the general consensus on books, sure the place is a breeding ground for people who rate every single book 5 stars whether it is actually good or not, Twi-hards, rabid old ladies who read 100 romance books a week and E.L. James but there are a fair few intelligent readers too, people who rate their enjoyment after consideration of the content and the history of the genre they prefer. When a book has an average rating of more than 4 stars from nearly 10,000 ratings you know that what you are about to read is one of two things - A) mindless nonsense that didn't reach the masses on a Twilight or Da Vinci Code scale but still encouraged fangirl obsession or B) an incredibly good book genuinely enjoyed by nearly 100% of the people who read it.

In this case I am happy that it was option B, I would have been quite distraught if it had been option A. The major drawback of it being option B is that there's just no real need to review the book at this stage, it's a popular book that people have surely already heard of and will have read it, planned to read it or dismissed it already.

It has been around since 2002 though so perhaps you missed it, so I will tell you this:

Altered Carbon is a post-cyberpunk novel, to narrow that a little further it is a post Snow Crash novel, almost an alternate history of the genre when put alongside that other great post-cyberpunk novel The Diamond Age. Where Stephenson started to develop his baroque style, drifting away from crazed killers loaded with implants and running crazy Matrix style hacks, Morgan took the totally kickass way Hiro Protagonist saved the day in Snow Crash and pushed the action to a whole new level. It is also the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for best original science fiction paperback in 2002.

This really is brutal at times, but not overly gory, whilst not losing sight of the fact that it was a post-cyberpunk novel. The scientific speculation is there with many cool ideas thrown in to the mix, my favourite being the sentient AI hotel Hendrix whilst the major conceit of transmitting human consciousness is played so subtly that you could easily gloss over the major significance of what it might mean for human beings and humanity.

The shades of grey noir hero from the classic period forms the basis for Takeshi Kovacs, which works extremely well in a plot that zigs and zags its way through 470 pages leaving you second guessing your instincts towards the character and the plot; you may think you have the mystery solved up front but Kovacs is so reckless, a man who blurs the lines of good vs evil so consistently that you're never quite sure what side he's playing, that you'll most likely find yourself wondering just what happened by the time you reach the conclusion.

This worked very well, especially as there are two more Takeshi Kovacs investigations to get involved with. Don't question this, just read the book, it's a great modern noir with a sci-fi twist.

Further viewing suggestions:
Ghost in the Shell
The Matrix
Blade Runner

Additional Reading:
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
Kop by Warren Hammond

View all my book reviews


  1. This does sound really good. It would be worth reading for the sentient AI hotel Hendrix alone. :-)

    1. Oh yeah, Hendrix is my second favourite hotel from a novel after The Dolphin Hotel in Dance, Dance, Dance by Haruki Murakami.

  2. Snow Crash is one of those books I see mentioned by a lot of fans of science fiction and that ends up getting recommended to me every few months that I've never gotten around to. I need to do that at some point...

    1. Alan you surely must. It really is the pinnacle of everything the cyberpunk genre was about. If you're pig in to sci-fi I recommend reading other cyberpunk first just so that when you read Snow Crash you won't be horrifically disappointed that nothing you ever read afterwards will be anywhere near as good.