Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Altered Carbon

A couple of years ago, a friend recommended this book as one he thought I might enjoy. Only after he reminded me of this recommendation a few months ago, however, did I take the time to copy it to my Wish List (it wasn't at my library), where it sat until Kathy got it for me for Christmas.

Authors generally have two main challenges -- to make the reader believe the characters, and to make her or him believe the plot. Science fiction adds a third challenge to the mix -- to make the reader believe the setting, a particularly difficult task when the setting is an alien world, or the distant future. Of course all authors must do this, but mainstream fiction does not demand as much out of the author's setting -- the author can assume its readership understands certain details of our common planet, and of the era in which the story is set. While not limited by the constraints of reality, the SF setting must create something out of whole cloth -- when the details are painted too broadly, the author risks coming across as cartoonish. Given the enormity of constructing a setting, much of science fiction consists of impressive constructs of setting, while the characters and plot get second-class status. When an author can present all three at high levels, those are the ones that keep me.

In Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan has constructed a universe set 500 years from now, rich with detail -- the detail of future technology and of the ethical issues that go with them. Imagine a world where a person's mind is stored (backed up?) in a piece of hardware ("stack") that's inserted just below the brain, and where one's stored mind can be placed in another body, cloned or synthetic, or run on a computer. One can even end up in someone else's body, if that other person isn't using it, for example, because s/he's serving a criminal sentence. Such is the case for Takeshi Kovacs, the narrator. He himself is a criminal from a distant planet, who's serving a 100-year sentence, but who has been hired by a wealthy 300-year-old from Earth to investigate tycoon's apparent suicide. The suicide (murder?) blew off the head, but the wealthy also back up their minds off-site, so the tycoon has been restored, but has no memory of the events subsequent to the backup. Got it so far?

Kovacs isn't just another criminal -- he's a former U.N. "envoy," someone capable of serving as a one-man army. "Former" because the U.N. had no more use for such individuals, and a criminal in part because there aren't many career options left open to former envoys. The premise evokes Escape from New York -- Kovacs will resume his sentence if he fails to solve the crime. In the course of the investigation, there are dozens of plot twists, examination of the social and ethical issues such a society faces (e.g., should Catholics, who oppose the use of the stacks to "resurrect" the dead, be brought back against their will in the course of a criminal investigation?), thoughtful discussions on the nature of power, and the musings of a revolutionary in the narrator's past. Kovacs also muses on his past as an envoy, regularly talking to his subconscious in the guise of a deceased envoy.

Given these elements to the story, I expected violence, but I have to say, I was somewhat surprised at just how violent it was (the ample amount of sex, however, didn't faze me as much). As I said above, the story is rich with detail; unfortunately, while Kovacs has a perfect memory, I don't, and there were a couple of times I drew a blank when an individual or seemingly minor event from 100+ pages earlier was referenced.

Still, I found myself fascinated with the depth of the setting -- Morgan has created a thoroughly captivating environment with an interesting narrator and other characters. I got a second Morgan book for Christmas, also centered on Kovacs, and I look forward to reading it soon.

Rating: 8/10.