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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, March 15th, 2003


 

Altered Carbon

by Richard K. Morgan

A review by Gerry Donaghy

Let me start by saying that I don't usually enjoy science fiction novels.

Throughout my high school years, friends kept telling me I should read Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. While I appreciated the thinly veiled social commentary that these novels frequently offered, I couldn't help but loathe the stories of noble humans and their efforts to create a technological belle époque in the stars. Deep down, my feeling was that if mankind ever managed to colonize other planets, they would take along all of their problems and vices. The result of interstellar colonization would be closer to Joseph Conrad than Thomas More.

Occasionally novels appear that defy the limits of the genre and create a crossover audience. Two standout examples of these are William Gibson's Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Both novels create a bleak vision of the future where technology is a prop, but isn't used to fluff the narrative. These books work because they've succeeded in creating vivid worlds that, while technologically advanced, pretty much mirrored the present day, warts and all. In addition, they aren't bogged down in allegory or heavy-handed social criticism, freeing the authors to tell the best story possible.

To say that Richard K. Morgan's debut novel Altered Carbon succeeds in following the pattern of his precursors would not do it justice. This novel is explosively original: combining the techno-fetish of William Gibson, the hardboiled detective narrative of Dashiell Hammett and the rapid-fire heroic bloodshed of the films of John Woo.

Altered Carbon opens with protagonist Takeshi Kovacs dying in a hail of bullets only to wake up in the next chapter with his consciousness re-inserted into a new body. This is fairly standard in the twenty-fifth century, a time when death has become optional. Kovacs discovers that his consciousness has merely been paroled and he has six weeks in this borrowed body to discover who murdered mega-millionaire Laurens Bancroft. His client is the murder victim himself who has also been re-inserted into a new body. While the police rule his death a suicide, Bancroft knows better and has hired Kovacs to find the culprit. Set loose in the decaying remains of San Francisco, where life is cheap, but bullets laced with spider venom are even cheaper, Kovacs uncovers a vast conspiracy reaching many layers of what passes for society.

Reading Altered Carbon is like ingesting nitroglycerin. Morgan's prose styling is lean and mean (imagine Raymond Chandler spending as much time in science class as hanging out in bars and pool halls), yet powerfully descriptive. His characterizations are convincing, his dialogue crackles with wit, and his world of the future is completely plausible. And, while not wishing to spoil the ending, the exhilarating climax leaves the door open for several sequels (which the book's publicity promises).

For readers who enjoy their heroes nihilistic and their action raw, Altered Carbon is the must-read book of the year. This is post-millennial storytelling of the highest order: one that raises the bar for future cyberpunk writers.


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