Book Review: Altered Carbon is Cyberpunk Meets Film Noir

Altered CarbonIn less than a week, Netflix will debut its new sci-fi/action series Altered Carbon. Writing up articles about the show got my interest piqued, so I decided to go to the source material, the original novel by Richard K. Morgan, and listen to it. The narration was done by Todd McLaren.

The overall premise of the book is what got my attention. It's a future world where humans have colonized other planets and have moved well past Earth. Technology has advanced in a lot of ways, but the biggest is that your essence, who you are, can now be kept on the equivalent of a thumb drive (called a stack) and moved from body to body (called a sleeve). As long as your stack isn't destroyed and you have the money for a new sleeve, you can basically live forever. And with that technology, there are some folks called Meths (short for Methuselah) who have lived for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. There are also a group of special soldiers, called Envoys, that are almost the ultimate police force/detectives/soldiers and have a somewhat legendary status.

The story focuses on the apparent suicide of Laurens Bancroft, a very rich and powerful Meth who had his stack backed up every 48 hours. This means that upon his death, his backup would be loaded into a new sleeve and he'd be alive again, just missing the memory of what happened to make him kill himself. He refuses to believe he would kill himself, but the police say it's a clear suicide.

Bancroft uses his influence to bring a form Envoy-turned-criminal, Takeshi Kovacs, to Earth and sleeved in a body to figure out Bancroft's murder. Kovacs has been on the stacks — their version of prison but without bodies — for years and had never been to Earth in his life. He's given the opportunity for money and a new life in exchange for taking the case. This leads to a very twisted, cyberpunk trip into the seediest areas of this world filled with depravity and injustice. Kovacs is at an immediate disadvantage with just about everyone because of his lack of knowledge about Earth and the sleeve Bancroft put him in.

Kovacs is an interesting narrator for the story. He is as lost as we are in this new world, though he has his envoy training and instincts to guide him. He's your classic noir detective type that tends to say the wrong thing just to irritate people. He clashes with authority and tends to do the right thing even though he knows the safe bet is to run or play along.

The story weaves back and forth between the case, his own past and the past life of the sleeve he's in, bringing trouble from each. All along, author Morgan drops clues like bread crumbs, and once it seems like we're totally lost, we follow those crumbs back to an interesting and satisfying conclusion. Things that seem like minor mood or world-building moments later turn out to be important.

Altered Carbon is the first of three novels written by Morgan that feature Kovacs as the lead. Broken Angels and Woken Furies follow. They were all published between 2002 and 2005.

About Dan Wickline

Has quietly been working at Bleeding Cool for over three years. He has written comics for Image, Top Cow, Shadowline, Avatar, IDW, Dynamite, Moonstone, Humanoids and Zenescope. He is the author of the Lucius Fogg series of novels and a published photographer.