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Altered Carbon

Richard Morgan

Victor Gollancz

UK Hardcover First (signed)

ISBN 0-575-7-321-7

404 Pages; £17.99

Date Reviewed: 04-15-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2002



Science Fiction, Mystery, Horror

03-21-02, 04-15-02, 04-29-02, 01-07-03, 01-27-03, 02-25-03,01-02-04

In his first novel, Richard Morgan combines mystery and science fiction in very equal portions with compelling results. 'Altered Carbon' is set in a 26th century San Francisco that seems every bit as gritty as any evocation of the city in either genre. There's some very ingenious technological invention here, but it's matched at every stop with classic human motives and clever plotting. By the end of the novel it's clear that we're going to be seeing more of Envoy Takeshi Kovacs, and readers will be very glad. Though the book has the heavy hand of science fiction hanging over it, it reads like a fast-paced American-based mystery. The characters are as complex as their machinations. The novel is bloody, violent, strewn with bits of gristle and gore. If someone puts a gun to your head, you might be able to put down the book.

The shootout that begins 'Altered Carbon' could come from any mystery novel written in the last half century. It's a great, compelling entry into a character and his world that is pretty far in the future. It's also a nice touch to have the main character killed in the first scene of the novel. In Morgan's universe, humans are stored digitally (DHF) with the altered carbon of the title being the storage medium. As long as the Cortical Stack is not destroyed, humans can simply be refitted into another 'sleeve', that is a human body. Having been killed in the first scene, Envoy Takeshi Kovacs awakens on Earth ('the most ancient of civilized worlds'), re-sleeved and recipient of an offer he cannot refuse. One of Earth's oldest and richest men, a true Methuselah (a 'meth') has committed suicide. Of course he's immediately resurrected, but his backup was made two days before the suicide. The resurrected Laurens J. Bancroft doesn't believe for a minute that his predecessor committed suicide. The police in the form of the Organic Damage Squad's beautiful Lieutenant Ortega aren't that interested in the case. Takeshi has to find the truth.

From the gritty opening scene, Morgan drags the reader into the narrative with power and precision. His future is familiar enough so that the reader can understand what's going on while being immersed in a future which has yielded some expected and unexpected changes. The technology is fascinating and well-developed, but again and again the human side of the equation is bolstered by attention to detail, great characterization and a powerfully skilled usage of classic mystery writing techniques. One of the joys of reading this novel is surely the fun of seeing Morgan juggle mystery and science fiction genres so adroitly. His integration of the two is really impressive and enjoyable. Every intriguing new bit of technology is matched by a bit of witty character-driven plotting.

Some readers may find that his future is not quite so advanced as one might expect after 400 plus years, but once he sets the mark -- at the beginning of the novel -- he never strays. Morgan also drops a few very intriguing hints about the science fiction side of the equation that aren't followed up in 'Altered Carbon'. While some readers may feel a bit cheated, it seems that Morgan has many more than one novel planned for this character and universe. At least, one hopes so. There are a certain class of books that really are direct competitors with movies, and this is one of them. It unfolds in your mind as fast as you can read it and that's as fast as you can read. Clear the deck, or 'Altered Carbon' will do it for you.