Altered Carbon is a technically great book that I liked, but didn’t completely click for me in a way that I expected it to. Its premise drew me in, and the stylistic excellence of Richard K. Morgan’s prose lends itself equally well to technobabble, gritty noir dialogue, and surrealism. He’s also created a compelling, hyper-competent lead character in Takeshi Kovacs, who plays up the strong and silent thing to great effect but also employs cutting, dark humor with aplomb.
The idea is this: in the future, the essense of individual humanity — the soul — is able to be digitally stored on a biomechanical device embedded at the base of the skull. The immediate and obvious consequence of this is that bodies , or “sleeves”, are more disposable than ever before, as the device is transferable between them and the person in question can be uploaded to the cloud in the interim. Furthermore, space travel and off-Earth living is a thing, but with the digitalization of the personality, time paradoxes like relativity can be avoided: the body does not need to travel through space; the soul only needs to undergo a rapid digital transfer from one place to the next, lightyears away. Morgan deftly balances the social and moral issues that arise when the self is digitized with a solid story. The mystery at hand prompts philosophical musings between characters on the subject without being heavy handed or treacly.
Takeshi Kovacs is, personally, a former Envoy — think black OPS with additional conditioning to drive out human empathy and form other neurological connections advantageous in interrogation, investigation, and combat — and he finds himself awake one day on Earth, far from his home, after being unconsciously stored in digital prison on a several hundred year sentence. He is tasked with solving a murder, and this one is unusual because it happened to a man who should have had the influence and security to prevent such a thing. Funny thing is, he’s still alive, because as a wealthy man, he has his consciousness backed up remotely, so upon downloading into a new sleeve he was able to commission Kovacs himself.
So what went wrong? Well, I was initially SO STOKED to see that nearly all of the main players in the book other than Kovacs and his client/employer are women. Kovacs works alone, but when he does require a partner, he works with any of three different women. The big bads are also women. It’s kind of awesome! It really jumped out at me how women really filled out the scenes in this sci-fi novel, when so many classics of the genre forgot we even exist as variable human lifeforms. That said, each of these secondary players are kind of one-note. It’s not a capital offense, since Altered Carbon is written in the first person and Kovacs’ perspective supercedes any kind of omniscient insight we might have gotten from a different narrative construct, but it just had to go the total, textbook noir/Bond route and have Kovacs first fall into bed with the femme fatale, and then later with the complicated but still morally righteous ally. He’s also able to SPOILERwin over the allegiance of the mercenary character against her employer at a critical juncture, for seemingly no other reason than he’s the hero and it’s a cool “GOTCHA!” moment when someone switches sides (or finally picks the “good” one.)/SPOILER In other words, it rather comes off a bit like Kovacs is this irresistable male, sexually and professionally, and he commands a legion of highly competent women who would be powerful in their own right if it weren’t for this superior man around to show them how it’s done. Just call him Charlie!
Even the eventuality of him taking down the female Big Bad is bittersweet, because she’s a leveled up boss and everyone else in the galaxy system, including Kovacs, is in some combination of awe and terror of her. And yet, she must be defeated, because that’s what happens in mystery stories, even ones with anti-heroes. Does it help that he couldn’t have done it without three other women helping him? Sure. But it’s still Kovacs who makes it to the finish line.
But I still can’t help but feel like that is a harsh criticism, because like I said at the beginning, the veritable cornucopia of different female characters indicates to me that Morgan at least thought about it. It would have been so easy to make everyone except Kovacs’ literal bedmates male, so credit where it’s due. And if that were my only criticism, I’d still have rated Altered Carbon higher than I did. Unfortunately, I think a lot of my disengagement comes down to the fact that while the sci-fi aspect of digital consciousness hugely informed the world-building, motivations, and actions of the characters, all of that fancy packaging just wraps around a standard detective/mystery story, and, well, I didn’t care that much about the mystery. Sure, the case that Kovacs has been tasked to solve ends up dovetailing with the case that plagues him personally, but it got very — I felt — bogged down in detail and wrapped around extraordinarily minor characters whose names were mentioned once or twice in passing. It’s a neat trick to demonstrate that Kovacs’ Envoy conditioning grants him excellent recall, so he can piece together new information with trivia that anyone else would have rightly forgotten. But as a reader, I am sorry to report, I did forget. So moments that should have been a revelation landed with a thud and a “Who?”
I read recently that Netflix is adapting the Takeshi Kovacs books to an original series. I’m definitely interested in watching. As for continuing with the series, I’ll have to pay closer attention to the story. I’m just more interested in character-driven and situational sci-fi drama than whodunits.