Altered Carbon


Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon is set five centuries in the future, when humanity has spread across several planets and people have “stacks,” storage devices embedded in their spinal column that contain their memories and personalities on backup disk.

Being able to back yourself up and transmit people digitally has transformed society; interstellar travel is done digitally and virtual immortality is available for those who can afford it. Instead of jail, criminals are put in storage and their bodies are rented out as “sleeves” for those who are themselves stored. People keep deceased relatives backed up or in “virtual condos” and bring them out for special occasions. The wealthy rent young and beautiful sleeves and grow multiple clones to reduce wear and tear, as well as to make travel more convenient, downloading into a remote body rather than traversing the distance physically.

Due to these new realities, homicide is rarely fatal and legally categorized as “organic damage,” although naturally killing someone completely by destroying their stack is still possible, and is now called Real Death.

Our protagonist is Takeshi Kovacs, an offworlder from a colony planet called Harlan’s World. An ex-Envoy (think Special Forces with biological modifications), he is sent to Earth to solve a crime in a San Francisco that is now a conurbation called Bay City, spread over the city and outlying areas.

Some things remain the same. Union Square is still part of the shopping district, the Polk Gulch area is still seedy, and the fog still rolls in even during Summer. Potrero Hill appears to have gone a bit downhill but Oakland is still a grittier neighbor, although it now has a massive shipwreck called the Free Trade Enforcer beached on its shores, serving as a rundown tourist attraction.

The crime under investigation is the “murder” of a wealthy old immortal, who can afford nightly remote backups, meaning that after having his stack destroyed he wakes up the next day missing 24 hours and disbelieving the conclusion of the police (referred to as “the Sia”) that it was suicide. Those who can afford to live forever through clones and backups are not particularly popular but they are immensely powerful, so the investigation leads through a world of intrigues and conflicts of interest.

The action ranges across several levels of local culture: prostitutes, criminals and hired killers, the now-fringe quasi-cult known as Catholicism, whose members believe the soul passes on to the afterlife at death and cannot be passed on to another body, local law enforcement which is corrupt, overwhelmed and sincere in its attempts to do its job all at the same time, depending on the individual and the circumstances; and at the highest and most removed levels, the ultra-wealthy “Meths” (for Methuselah) and members of the future government, called the United Nations Protectorate.

It’s a hardboiled world in which violence and corruption abound and everyone has a grudge against someone or something, but there’s some intriguing world building, and Morgan presumably thinks so too, since the book is the first in a trilogy.

The action is well written, although the sense of place is not established well enough for my taste. There are some good moments were you can see the connection between the San Francisco of the past and this new Bay City, but it seems likely that Morgan chose the setting more for its detective fiction connections than anything else. My favorite bit is when Kovacs asks someone to meet him later “at the red bridge” if they know where that is, provoking an amused response.

The main nod to the geographical location appears to be an AI hotel called the Hendrix, located downtown. It would make more sense if the action took place in Monterey, or if the hotel was called the Jefferson Airplane. But the concept is clever: the AI that runs the hotel is emancipated but subject to its programming and therefore hardwired to desire guests, but for various reasons people don’t stay in them anymore and the hotel is deserted and eager to please.

A cyberpunk soul over a post-human armature, Altered Carbon mostly works pretty well. The book is a little long, with several overlying plot lines that get a little tedious towards the end. The story is longer than it needs to be, and loses the murder mystery momentum that guides the first half. Cutting some of the sex and violence probably wouldn’t hurt either. But the characters and world building are intriguing and Takeshi Kovacs has a past that invites more exploring.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #67, June 2008