Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2002, 404 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07322-5

Science fiction and hard-boiled pulp fiction have always shared a lot of similarities, from the steadfast admiration of dedicated fans to the usual unwarranted dismissal by guardians of literary merit. What began as a union of understanding between the two was further formalized when cyberpunk took off, as it combined the grittiness and style of noir fiction with the ideas and ethos of SF. Altered Carbon is a grown-up follow-up to the cyberpunk movement, a hard-edged future crime novel in which the action and the ideas take equal billing.

It starts with the death of its narrator and his resurrection on another planet. You see, in Morgan’s imagined 26th century, technology has perfected immortality: as long as a “cortical stack” at the back of your skull keeps on recording your memories, you can be revived afterward. Usually in someone else’s body (a process delicately termed “resleeving” ), but when it’s so bloody expensive to be resurrected, why complain? Naturally, the richer you are, the more options you get: custom-made bodies, automatic memory backups, etc.

So when our narrator finds himself hired by a very rich man to investigate the mysterious death of this very same rich man, he doesn’t bat an eye. The man simply wants to know why he died. Was it a suicide, as the police suggests, or was it a spectacularly stupid murder given his guaranteed resurrection? Let the intrigue begin…

In the best tradition of hard-boiled fiction, a lot of action ensues. Our protagonist can’t peek outside of his hotel room without smashing someone’s body parts, being threatened with Real Death, dealing with dangerously uncooperative witnesses or himself being kidnapped. Things aren’t any less exciting in his hotel room, where he can’t seem to avoid having sex with beautiful women. Tough life, being a tough guy…

Even jaded readers should note at this point that Altered Carbon is not a novel for sissies; the violence is described as carefully as the sex scenes, and there are scenes of rare gruesomeness strung through the entire story. The virtual torture scene alone (where someone can be tortured to death… over and over again) is wince-inducing to a degree seldom seen. Compared to that, the harsh language used throughout the novel seems almost charming. Overly squeamish readers beware.

But foregoing Altered Carbon on graphic content would be a disservice to anyone looking at the current state of the art in Science Fiction: The Fresh Ideas Quotient here is astonishingly high, what with the issues inherent in body-switching. There are a fair number of scenes in this novel where even jaded readers are likely to find something new and fresh.

You won’t be able to let the book slip from your hands: Stylishly written (in a hardboiled mode, of course) at a hundred miles per hour, crammed with revealing details (Hey, how ’bout those Martians?), great characters and a steady stream of ideas, Altered Carbon is the real stuff, the kind of story SF was invented for. Don’t settle for run-of-the-mill watered-down derivatives. Get the stuff straight from the source. Grab a copy of Altered Carbon as soon as possible.

(Sequel: Broken Angels)

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