Book Review: Altered Carbon

Despite felling like I haven’t had any time to do anything lately, I somehow managed to finish the Sword & Laser Book Club March book pick – Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan.

Altered Carbon is a futuristic science fiction noir-ish detective novel.  It follows Takeshi Kovacs, an off-world criminal/detective with militaristic Envoy training, as he attempts to solve the “murder” of one of Earth’s oldest and wealthiest citizens.  Kovacs lives in a future where a person’s identity can be downloaded, backed up, and re-sleeved in different bodies to allow them a perpetual existence, if they can afford the cost.  The wealthiest have multiple cloned sleeves, and automatic mental back-ups at regular intervals.  The poorest can sometimes afford a new synthetic sleeve, but more often spend time on stack – a virtual holding ground for those without physical bodies.  In a world where one can live forever, “real death” is hard to come by, though some choose it for religious reasons.  Murder is more of an inconvenience than a finality – memory between the last backup and time of death is lost, but as long as the virtual memory center is intact, revival is a straightforward option.

There are a lot of fascinating ideas and themes presented in this book.  The concept of re-sleeving allows one to ponder what it would be like to adjust to and live in another person’s body.  How much does the physical body have to do with relationships, and how much of it is based on the personality?  The idea that we choose our friends and partners based on personality is  nice notion, but biochemistry plays a large part as well, and this book looks at that in an interesting roundabout way.  Also, having recently read Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow, it was interesting to see several of the same themes and ideas presented in slightly different ways.  I feel like Altered Carbon has the more realistic presentation – with economics playing a larger factor – and that the presentation of the themes were a bit more subtle and woven into the story.  The themes were a bit more obvious in Down and Out, but I also feel that in some instances they were a bit more flushed out as well.

The story itself was entertaining, though the “detective” parts of the story did seem to take large logical leaps at times.  I was never board, and at times fully engrossed while reading this book.  There was perhaps a bit more sex and violence than I would normally read, though I do admit they were important plot points in the story, so it wasn’t entirely gratuitous.  I liked it more than I expected I would, and thought the writing itself was pretty good.  It isn’t the typical type of story I tend to read (I usually go more for epic fantasy and space operas), but I found myself really enjoying the world this book creates nonetheless.  I also like that the author has set up his world so that his main character can easily go anywhere (through digital mental transfers) and become anybody (with re-sleeving).  It gives a Quantum Leap type ability to tell the story from different perspectives that I find very fun.  It also means that, although this is a series, it would be very easy to set up each of the sequels to be entirely different from the story presented in the first novel.  The book felt very self-contained.  I could see myself reading the sequel novels in the future, but I don’t feel like I need to read them immediately, because I feel like I have already read a complete story.  It is a nice change of pace from a lot of the other books I have been reading lately.  I mean, I love a good series, but sometimes it is nice to not have to read several thousand pages to get a sense of completion satisfaction.

Overall I have to say I really enjoyed this book.  It was a fun story with some interesting ideas.  Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but definitely worth the read for fans of science fiction or detective stories.

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