Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
Originally posted 25 June 2008. Apologies to those who left comments, which have been lost.
So, yesterday I finished Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan’s first novel.
Altered Carbon is, at its heart, a work of hardboiled fiction in the vein of the holy trinity of hardboiled (Chandler, Hammet, Spillane). In particular, it employs a number of stock scenes from writers such as Chandler and Hammet, although neatly updated and without at any point descending into pastiche. Prosewise and in terms of the nature of its protagonist, one Takeshi Kovacs, it’s closer to Spillane’s Mike Hammer with all the brutality which that implies.
It is, however, not a crime novel in strict genre terms. It’s science fiction. It’s set in the 26th Century, and posits a technology in which every human has implanted in them shortly after birth a device which records their thoughts and memories and which on death can be transplanted into a new body (usually either the body of a convicted criminal or an artificially grown one). Accordingly, in this brave new world nobody need ever die. An individual’s mind can be recorded, stored, copied, backed up and as such mortality can be remedied.
As a piece of SF worldbuilding, this is used well and Morgan really thinks through the implications of the technology and its effects on society. That is classic SF, positing a what if and then thinking through the consequences.
It is as a device for hardboiled fiction though that it really shines. In Morgan’s future backups and new bodies are expensive things. Although potentially everyone could live forever, although the technology to abolish death exists, in practice most people live out an entire life into old age saving up the money for a second life, and then by the time they’ve lived that are so exhausted by a second bout of old age and so impoverished in paying for it that they literally cannot afford to buy another body and yet more life. Most people in Morgan’s world die not because death is inevitable, but because they cannot afford the technology that would keep them alive.
So, in many ways Morgan’s world is deeply familiar. The ultra rich live longer lives, literally centuries, while the poor die for lack of treatment. It’s hard not to see this as a commentary upon the logic of our own world. The technology however brings this injustice into sharp relief. In real life, poverty affects life prospects and indeed health and longevity, but it does so statistically – looking at populations it can be seen that there is a link between wealth and longevity but it is difficult with any given individual to see precisely the impact it had on them. In Morgan’s world this link is made very explict, and so more comprehensible at the personal level and the consequences of income disparity are made very plain. The rich, in this world, are personally guaranteed longer lives than the poor.
The other effect of the technology on the novel is to make death when it does occur more shocking. Early on in the novel it is established that nobody needs die, so when the protagonist kills someone then stops to destroy the internal machine on which their mind is stored, making a restoration to a new body impossible, it makes the act of killing particularly significant. In this world, a person who dies can be restored to a new body if the implanted device is recovered, but Takeshi Kovacs on several occasions stops to ensure it is destroyed so that death is irrevocable. Of course, in most hardboiled fiction death is irrevocable because this technology is not in most novels, but the effect of it here is to underline the finality of killing – by creating a real choice about whether death needs to be final at all.
For example, in one relatively early scene, Takeshi Kovacs breaks into a brothel to find out who killed a young girl forced into prostitution (a classic hardboiled motif incidentally). Kovacs ends up shooting several people, and in one particularly shocking scene stops to destroy one’s implant in order to show that he means business. In a classic hardboiled novel, the fight itself would have led to men dying, here it has not as they can all be restored. And so, the choice by Kovacs to kill what is ultimately merely a bouncer doing his job is shown for the terrible act it is, by making it a two stage process (shooting him and then destroying the implant) the reader is forced to face the nature of what Kovacs has just done. The technology means that a decision to kill is a much more purposive, a much more deliberative, thing.
The technology is also used to comment on the ways in which our bodies affect our minds, and the question of what makes us us. Takeshi Kovacs is housed in the body of a convicted criminal, a (possibly) corrupt police officer named Elias Ryker. Kovacs is forced to work with another police officer, Kristin Ortega, who used to be Ryker’s lover. While in Ryker’s body, Kovacs finds himself increasingly drawn to Ortega and she to him, as their bodies react to each other at a chemical level causing them to fall in love even though the mind in Ryker’s body is not his own. Later, when Kovacs is housed in a different body for a period, his feelings for Ortega are largely lost, the feelings were generated by their bodies, not their minds. This raises interesting questions about the nature of self, about what makes us who we are and the extent to which mind and body really can be meaningfully separated.
In terms of plot the book clearly owes a great deal to early hardboiled writers, as mentioned above. We are in San Francisco (renamed at some point in the intervening 600 years as Bay City, but the Golden Gate Bridge is still there). Kovacs is manipulated by a wealthy and powerful old man into finding out who killed him (the old man was restored from backup post-mortem). The old man has a family at least one of whom is in psychiatric care, and is found during the course of the novel to have a taste for particularly degrading and upleasant sexual practices. The plot is convoluted, with powerful and rich figures manipulating those around them and using other people without compunction. Nobody is clean, nobody is a good guy, the most guilty are protected by money and political connections. Other than the restoration from backup all of the above could have been found in any classic hardboiled novel.
Kovacs himself is something of a monster, but a monster with a personal code. He keeps to his word, he helps out the only seemingly genuinely innocent people he encounters (who are themselves criminals for all that), he is not a moral figure but he is a consistent one. In this he is again in the classic mould of the hardboiled hero, who typically is motivated either by a sense of morality that others lack or by an idiosyncratic sense of personal honour. He is closest to Mike Hammer, Mickey Spillane’s protagonist, in being a man of savage violence prone to horrific acts of vengeance who is motivated in large part by a personal code from which he does not deviate, regardless of the cost.
So, we have a hardboiled protagonist, a plot involving the rich, powerful and decadent, San Francisco as a setting. It’s very faithful to its genre roots, while at the same time managing the difficult task of working as good science fiction with a well realised and internally consistent future.
It is also a violent novel. It’s not so much that there’s a lot of violence in it. But when there is violence, and equally when there is sex, it is described in intimate and explicit detail. This makes the scenes of violence particularly powerful, and gives the impression of a novel in which there is more violence than is actually present. The visceral in this novel is never glossed over. Interestingly, in a novel in which the mind/body problem has been conclusively answered and in which the mind is easily separable from the body, the needs of the body and the fragility of it are frequently given close attention – even when we seem to be able to leave the body behind, it still tethers us in bonds of sex and mortality.
Overall, I thought this an excellent novel. A great piece of hardboiled fiction, a great piece of science fiction and a novel with a great deal to say about society, justice, mind/body duality and (like all good hardboiled fiction) how to live in a world where god is if not dead at the very least on an extended holiday.
Hardboiled fiction is fiction born of existentialism, and Altered Carbon uses its posited technology as a tool to really explore the issues which existentialism raises and what it means to live in a world in which all there is, is us. Richard Morgan is a Glaswegian writer, and it is interesting to note how once again the interesting writing in contemporary science fiction appears to be coming predominantly out of Scotland, which in recent years has seen a renaissance in this area. I have some thoughts on why that should be, but those will have to wait for another post.