Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon - Richard K. Morgan Altered Carbon is about a convict named Takeshi Kovacs who is released early from a several decades long sentence of personality cold storage. He finds himself on Earth for the first time in his 40 awake years and given an unlimited line of credit and the promise of being sent back to his home planet into a body of his choice if he can find out who killed his new employer.

This book embraces the post-cyberpunk/transhumanist concepts of a complete divorce between body and mind, that the physical flesh is a manufactured tool for the ever evolving mind. I noticed a couple of subtle homages to previous works in the genre; The Finn makes a brief appearance from between discarded stacks of old tech, and Takeshi's love Sara could be the heroine of Walter Jon Williams' Hardwired. I'm sure there's more that I'll pick up in subsequent readings.

Takeshi, in an earlier life, received training as an Envoy. Envoys were a special branch of the military who learned mental disciplines allowing them almost superhuman abilities to function under duress, survive debilitating wounds, intuit human behavior and sort information.

He needs all those skills, and those of the friends he can make during the short time frame allotted to him. The story reads suspiciously like an amalgam of James Bond and Philip Marlowe, but Richard K. Morgan makes it work beautifully. The plot is complex, with enough characters (several of whom change bodies), subplots and plot complications that to be honest I was lost 2/3 of the way through it.

Normally, I would find that off-putting. Not so this book. I loved it. I relished Richard's command of the language and his ability to draw the perfect metaphor. "Sarah was asleep, a loose collection of low frequency sine waves beneath a single sheet". Fans of William Gibson's earlier works will appreciate the lyricism Richard casually drops into every paragraph. The world his characters move in is so vivid, so dimensional that I willingly gave up trying to follow the nuances of the plot and just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

I really like Takeshi. He's an antihero; he's brash, loudmouthed, condescending, cruel and calculating. But underneath his tough exterior, he is fiercely loyal to those he loves. Relationships are a big part of this book; when a person can conceivably live forever through a procession of physical bodies, they way they trust and love each other changes. That's the fundamental question explored by this book.

Richard's characters are all well thought out, I never felt like they had no existence away from the plot. Even the minor characters are drawn with a subtle nuance that brings them to life and makes them unique. Refreshingly, women and people of color are well represented, having positive roles in major characters. The future Richard draws is far from perfect, but there's glimpses of the best parts of humanity juxtaposed against almost unthinkable cruelty and debasement.

The violence is brutal, quick and dirty. The cruelty cuts through bone and and into victim's souls. The sex is by turns hard and fast or soft and tender. The scheming is well done, enough information is presented to keep the plot going and enough was hidden that I was always curious and entertained by what Takeshi would come up with next. The world is complex and multifaceted; Takeshi's experiences over 150 years of objective time frame each scene with a sense of history and opportunity.

This is one of the best books I've read in a long, long time. I can't possibly write a review that does it justice. I will be reading Richard K. Morgan's entire canon. If you only read one scifi book this year, make sure it's this one!