- Chuck Gray
I'd put off reading Altered Carbon for a few years, always reading something newer. Shame on me. This Philip K. Dick Award-winner is a brilliantly dark and gritty mixture of hardboiled detective fiction and cyberpunk that anyone looking for a story with a razor-sharp edge will love.
Altered Carbon's anti-hero is an ex-soldier named Takeshi Kovacs, and the universe he lives in is a brand of strange you've not encountered before. Forget Blade Runner. Forget Neuromancer and Snow Crash. You've never read about a future quite like this one. Humanity has, predictably in a sci-fi novel, spread across several planets, and Earth is a has-been among all the new worlds. From birth, people everywhere are fitted with a "cortical stack" a device that records their memories and consciousness. This has had a number of consequences. Mortality is now an antiquated concept . . . for those that can afford new bodies or "sleeves" as they are referred to in this future. For those less fortunate, they may be able to afford a new sleeve, but it could be artificial or it could belong to someone else: convicts are no longer incarcerated, rather they are placed "on stack," their consciousness uploaded into storage and their bodies are loaned out for others to use.
Kovacs is an ex-Envoy, one of a group of elite soldiers dispatched by the United Nations Protectorate when things go wrong on the planets they oversee. As an Envoy, Kovacs received special training that augments his senses, observation abilities, and intuition in addition to allowing him to completely control his thoughts and emotions. Nothing escapes his notice, and no one escapes his capacity for violence. It is unfortunate then that as an ex-Envoy he is legally barred from doing anything productive with his life outside of being a soldier-for-hire or a criminal. And it is in this latter role that he is shot and killed in the book’s prologue, only to be resleeved a few years later in an incarcerated ex-cop’s nicotine-addicted body on Earth, a long way from his native planet called Harlan’s World.
Laurens Bancroft, an Earth-based magnate, has hired Kovacs to figure out who killed him. Bancroft is a Meth, a class of person which takes the nick-name from the biblical figure Methuselah; they have lives spanning multiple generations of resleeving fueled by their extreme wealth. Bancroft has been recently re-sleeved after having been, according to him, murdered. The only problem is, he doesn't know who murdered him because the last available backup of his consciousness excludes the memories of his demise. The police have officially ruled the death a suicide, but Bancroft has hired, or perhaps more accurately, indentured Kovacs to find the truth in return for a new sleeve and a clean record.
I won't reveal more except to say that Altered Carbon is the second-darkest novel I have ever read, trumped only by its sequel, Broken Angels. The language and the story are extremely engaging, but brutally so. This is a book that will leave your soul feeling raw. If you can't watch the end of the Godfather movies without hitting fast-forward, this book won't be for you. But if you like stories with bite and a whole new world of characters, politics, and technologies to learn about and ponder, you will thoroughly enjoy Altered Carbon.
Altered Carbon is now a dystopian science fiction cyberpunk web television series on Netflix. The first season premiered on February 2, 2018.