Four hundred years from now mankind is strung out across a region of interstellar space inherited from an ancient civilization discovered on Mars. The colonies are linked together by the occasional sublight colony ship voyages and hyperspatial data-casting. Human consciousness is digitally freighted between the stars and downloaded into bodies as a matter of course.
But some things never change. So when ex-envoy, now-convict Takeshi Kovacs has his consciousness and skills downloaded into the body of a nicotine-addicted ex-thug and presented with a catch-22 offer, he really shouldn’t be surprised. Contracted by a billionaire to discover who murdered his last body, Kovacs is drawn into a terrifying conspiracy that stretches across known space and to the very top of society.
Altered Carbon is an action-packed futuristic sci-fi novel that really should’ve been a Michael Bay movie. I’m not surprised Netflix is turning it into a series. I was surprised that something with this much testosterone and so little character development had the patience to be a book.
The concept is really cool. Several hundred years from now, human consciousness can be downloaded into any human body, both real and synthetic. So basically, nobody dies. It’s called “sleeving,” with bodies considered nothing more than sleeves for the human consciousness. The super-rich live for hundreds of years, jumping from body to body, while those who can’t afford that are stuck in storage for all eternity after death, their souls chilling on a USB drive.
The world-building here is great, especially when we get into the personal dynamics with sleeving. Some people get re-sleeved so much it’s rarely a big deal, but for others it’s huge. Especially when you consider the fact that while you’re running around in a stranger’s body, another stranger is running around in your body.
Takeshi Kovacs, our star, is an Envoy. Essentially, he is a supersoldier + detective who was born a couple centuries ago, but thanks to being in storage for so long he’s only truly lived for about thirty years. He’s hired (well, okay, blackmailed) to find the cause of a rich man’s “suicide,” which is all kinds of weird and cool because the guy is alive and well, he just doesn’t remember the two days leading up to his most recent “death.” The whole book is a murder mystery wrapped in fistfights, shootouts, and explosions.
So naturally there’s a ton of gore, explicit sex scenes, glorification of drugs and alcohol, promotion of police brutality, and a whole chapter dedicated to torture.
One of my biggest (and most usual) complaints about this book is the portrayal of women. Altered Carbon has it all: the shady wife of the client who seduces Kovacs to try to get him to stop investigating, a female villain who’s so much worse than all the other bad guys, the Strong Female Character who’s mostly there for unnecessary romantic tension, and a couple of damsels in distress.
It’s those last two that really get to me. Our SFC is Kirstin Ortega, a police officer who initially butts heads (and then later butts genitals) with Kovacs over the suicide case, which she had declared open and shut, in part because of her prejudice against rich people. She showed a lot of promise: smart, complex motives, flawed, she seemed really cool. But ultimately she’s defined by her relationship to Kovacs and her previous boyfriend, which was incredibly disappointing. The romantic subplot was unnecessary. Others may disagree, because she had a strong emotional connection to Kovacs’ current “sleeve,” but that didn’t have to be romantic. It could just as easily have been a family member, say, a brother.
And of course, she doubles as one of the DIDs. Because while she’s tough and smart and gritty and “don’t need no man” (except when she does), she’s no match for the big bad guy and needs a dashing (male) protagonist to heroically sacrifice himself so she may live. (Uh, spoiler alert? Does it count if you see it coming a mile away?)
The other DID is a woman we only ever see in the prologue: Kovacs’ friend, Sarah, who’s killed, put in storage, and then later held hostage while in storage. Other than the fact that she’s a good friend of Kovacs’ and has some martial background, we know nothing about her. She never physically shows up after the prologue. And that’s yet another wasted opportunity because, like Ortega, she showed a lot of promise. I want to know more about her.
Come to think of it, I also want to know more about Kovacs. We know very little about him, which is unusual in a main character. We’re told he had a crappy relationship with his dad, he’s from another planet, and he somehow went from street gangs to soldier to Envoy.
And...that’s it. We don’t know about his mother or if he had any siblings. We don’t know why he decided to enlist as a soldier, or, for that matter, as an Envoy, which is weird because he doesn’t seem to like his job very much. It’s hard to be certain because, like most male action heroes, he shows very little emotion. We get anger, curiosity, and occasional smug satisfaction with a little bit of quickly-suppressed guilt. As a result, I was not emotionally invested in Kovacs at all, not until the very end. If the mystery plot hadn’t been so intriguing I never would’ve made it twenty pages.
The only other character I was emotionally invested in also appeared at the very end: Mrs. Elliott. I liked her because, while she was in the story very briefly and for a minor role in Kovacs’ Let’s-Take-Down-The-Villain-In-A-Last-Minute-Crazy-Scheme deal, she had very clear motives, heart-wrenching emotions, and a backstory. In a sense, she had all the promise of Ortega reduced to a very minor role. So forget Kovacs. I want more Sarah and Mrs. Elliott.
My final major issue with this book was the treatment of Catholics. Richard Morgan does not like them. They’re treated as crazy, backwards fanatics trying to pull the plug on progress. Which, yeah, they do have that reputation. As does every other religion on the planet. I get that Morgan needed a large religious/political group to serve an important role in the greater plot, but it didn’t have to be a real religious/political group. This story takes place hundreds of years in the future and includes a dozen colonial planets. He couldn’t make something up? All this did was promote unnecessary hate.
None of this is to say that Altered Carbon is a bad book. I don’t regret reading it. But I can say with confidence that I will not be picking it up again.
Have you read Altered Carbon or other books written by Richard K. Morgan? What did you think?
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!