Altered Carbon review, the book

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, Audio version

I finished this book three days ago. The scenes, the characters and the technology are still coming back to me at moments of pondering. Good, bad or ugly, this gritty cyberpunk thriller certainly leaves an impression. The central technology of Altered Carbon is that at birth everyone no matter how poor is outfitted with a stack, a hard drive for the mind. Unless the stack is destroyed a person isn’t considered dead, they can be resleeved into a new body. This is of course expensive, prices are calibrated so that middle class peoples generally can afford to resleeve once they meet the end of their natural life times but normal people generally only do it once. If something violent happens, it’s a real burden on their families to resleeve a murdered family member. Of course, this plot doesn’t really deal with normal people.

Our Protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is a former envoy, a military commando trained to change bodies as a surgeon changes gloves, and we see the story exclusively through his eyes. He’s cynical, philosophical and prone to maddening descriptions of room decoration before he even mentions that his archenemy is sitting behind the desk.  In terms of the genre, he’s not anything new, but he is a very effective narrator and sweeps you along as he introduces you to the ghosts of his past.

The plot is important, convoluted and has a satisfying, if not entirely happy ending.  You’ll want to pay very close attention to all the names Kovacs tosses around in his remembrances. It’s easy to miss important details in them. One of the book’s pivotal revelations was entirely lost on me because I’m like, “What? Who?”

Really the star of the book is technology and the society it has shaped. There is a cop, Kirsten Ortegia, who Kovacs find himself irresistibly attracted to. It turns out that as a mean-spirited joke, Kovacs’ employer puts him into the body of her lover after his own stack had been put away.  Their relationship forms a key point to meditate about how much of someone is the body and what precisely the stacks cannot preserve.  Also the nature of love and attraction. I have a fondness for such musings.

Beyond the social dynamics of immortality, Kovacs dwells in the world that’s a shithole from top to bottom. Immortality has cheapened life, leading to increased violence and sexual predation. The victimization of women (and himself) is what drives Takeshi more than anything else. If you’ve got a trigger for this stuff, consider yourself warned.

In the end, Alter Carbon is a compelling work of cyberpunk that will keep you going to see more of what it offers.  The plot keeps things moving (and exploding) and while the narrative and motivations can get a little rocky, taken as a whole the work is truly satisfying.