Richard K. Morgan’s dynamic 2003 debut novel, ‘Altered Carbon,’ is an entertaining murder mystery set on far-future Earth

January 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Jan. 29, 2019

Richard K. Morgan’s 2003 debut novel, Altered Carbon, is an immensely entertaining synthesis of two genres: The noir-style hard-boiled detective story and the hardcore cyberpunk science-fiction tale.

The narrator and protagonist of the tale is Takeshi Kovacs. A one-time hoodlum from Harlan’s World, Kovacs endured a rocky experience as a marine for the United Nations’ interplanetary protectorate before becoming a member of a shadowy group called the Envoys, a contingent of planet- and body-hopping warrior monks with the lethality and mission-oriented amorality of James Bond.

Kovacs has bombed out of the Envoys and been placed in punitive deep freeze when he’s summoned back to consciousness on Earth by Laurens Bancroft, an ultra-rich, nigh-immortal centuries-old Methuselah who needs a can-do private investigator to unravel the mystery of his death.

Bancroft’s lifeless body, you see, has been found in a room in his mansion, the victim of a bullet wound fired by a gun normally kept in a safe that only he and his wife, Miriam, can open. The far-future galaxy of Altered Carbon is one in which human personalities, memories and consciousness itself can be digitized, backed up and “re-sleeved” in different bodies. Tycoons like the Bancrofts, unlike most people, can afford to have their brains automatically “backed up” every 48 hours; in the event of an untimely death, those memories are restored in clones of their bodies. Technology allows bodies, cloned or otherwise, to be improved with electronic augmentation, robotic implants and genetic manipulation.

In short, humans on Earth or colonized planets scattered across the galaxy can, using the levers of wealth, violence or other types of influence, exercise godlike powers. Nearly the only immutable physical limitation people face is the speed of light; physical travel between star systems still requires a period of many years. There is a loophole, however: “Needlecasts,” which enable nigh-instantaneous transmission of data — and hence human thought patterns — between worlds.

Bancroft’s death, of course, has already been investigated by police in Bay City, the megalopolis surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area. But while the cops dismiss the case as suicide, the revived Bancroft smells a rat. Since he has no inkling why anyone capable of penetrating his mansion’s elaborate security would want him dead, Bancroft has hired Kovacs.

The off-worlder, whose consciousness has traveled to numerous planets but never Earth, soon finds himself enmeshed in a byzantine set of illegal operations and conspiracies, some of which only peripherally involve the Bancrofts. Altered Carbon features a femme fatale, virtual reality, sophisticated computer hackers (called dippers, annoyingly), a seedy brothel, a San Francisco hotel run entirely by an autonomous artificial intelligence, and a nasty international hit man who inexplicably recognizes and seems to want to kill Kovacs even though our protagonist is operating a body unfamiliar even to its current occupant. It later emerges that Kovacs’s “sleeve” is well known to a variety of Bay City cops and criminals; part of the story involves Kovacs investigating the past of his own physical entity and its original occupant.

The video streaming service Netflix released a 10-episode Altered Carbon series in February, and a second season is on order. The British-born Morgan is the author of two subsequent Kovacs books, two stand-alone science fiction novels and a fantasy trilogy; he’s also contributed to at least two video games and has written a few comic books. I’ve placed a hold on Broken Angels, the second volume in the Kovacs cycle, which is in high demand at the library. But come springtime, I expect to have read more work by this dynamic author.

Author’s note: I usually include an excerpt when I review books; however, my electronic loan of Altered Carbon lapsed before I was able to write this review, and the book won’t be available again for a number of weeks. MEM

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