I went back and forth on whether to use this as “The Book Was Better” because while Netflix did turn it into a series I hadn’t watched it. Then, while it was dumping rain over the long weekend, I actually watched the series, so that assuaged my guilt and now I can write this review with a clear conscience.
So. Altered Carbon. I gave this book three stars, but I honestly went back and forth on that for a while. I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt, because academically it is a good book. It didn’t totally resonate for ME, but it is a good, well written book. This book is also testosterone in paper format. That isn’t totally why it didn’t hit the full mark for me, I like a gritty man’s man from time to time, but it is very much there, so I’m putting it out there from the get go.
I’ll start with what I did like. Morgan can craft himself a plot, I will give him that. The story itself is great, it starts as a basic locked door mystery that seeps effortlessly into something way bigger and the ride is a lot of fun. Kovacs was part of an elite military force trained to be perfect mercenaries. Once the group gets disbanded he ends up back on his home planet (planet colonization is well established at this point) trying to make ends meet as a hired gun. This, as is often the case, lands him in jail, with a sentence in the hundreds of years. At some point he is ‘sponsored’ out of the stacks and brought to Earth by a ridiculously wealthy 300-year-old businessman to solve the businessman’s own murder. It seems like a sweetheart deal, and, as one expects from sweetheart deals, it was pretty much a trap and if Kovacs wants anything resembling a life back he needs to find his way out of it.
The future world of Bay City (the SF Bay Area is all merged into a giant metropolis in this world, which is very logical) is well thought out and I liked a lot of how he saw technology and society as a whole progressing. This isn’t a dystopia or a utopia, there is good and bad, just like every other time in history. I liked that a lot. Yeah, there is a ruling elite and they get away with murder, sometimes literally, and there is the lowest class who get used and exploited at the whims of this elite, and that sucks. At the same time, though, for the vast majority of people, they are somewhere in the middle. Life is OK, you do your thing, go day by day and are probably just as content as most of us are here today, just with your phone implanted in your head and a holographic TV. If you want you can stay in an AI hotel that is totally virtual. There are things that piss you off, and maybe you try to fix what you can, but there are also things that make you happy and overall, it’s OK.
I also like that San Francisco and Oakland were very recognizable without a bunch of name dropping or even with names changed, you still know where he is if you know the Bay Area. I’m sure everyone has this with reading books that take place where they live, but it gets annoying if an author completely disregards the geography, but also annoying if they get too turn-by-turn directions on you. But the seedy, kinda dirty part of town where the underground fighting rings and sex clubs are is pretty clearly the Dogpatch, and the Bancrofts (the rich folks who hired him) are definitely in Marin. The AI Hotel he stays in (The Hendrix, and I loved that it really was a character in and of itself, something the series writers ran with in a fabulous way), I’m pretty sure is in Northern SOMA. So I felt well oriented without it being eye-rolly.
I also liked that, given that the main pretext of this world is that a person’s entire consciousness is kept in a chip implanted in a body, which is referred to as a sleeve, Morgan really played with how that would work when it came to things like age, gender and race. What do those things mean when the body you’re in is more like a suit you put on? What does that do psychologically to wake up in a face you don’t recognize in the mirror? How does that enforce or reduce various social lines and barriers? Does race or appearance matter when it really is something a person can choose to change more or less at any time? Or can be changed for you if you end up in the care of the state for some reason? What if you don’t WANT to be a chip in a sleeve, but a person with one body? Of course money does play into this as well, so it isn’t like running down to Forever 21 to get a new dress for a party, but I like that he asked these questions, even if he doesn’t always have perfect answers. I will say, the series spends a little more time on these questions, especially by allowing side characters to play a larger role in the plot and I think it benefited from that.
Now, what I wasn’t so thrilled with. Every woman is first described using sexual language to describe her physicality. The two male officers are “thugs in suits” the female sergeant has “her long legs draped over the chair.” That kind of thing. It made sense in certain situations, like, say a sex club, but it was really a bit much when applied to EVERY woman. That said, I liked a lot of the female characters the once he got passed the physical descriptions. There are some overall smart, complex women in these books, even if the first thing we learn about each of them is whether or not the main character wants to bang them. There is definitely a bit of a bias towards “tough chicks” being the ideal kind of woman as opposed to clingy harpies or weak victims which are kind of the three ‘types’ you get in this book, but as this is told in Kovacs’s first person perspective it almost makes sense given his history. Even so, eh, kind of tired of that.
There is also a huge “might makes right” through line in this book. And I get it, this is essentially a futuristic noir, but even so, simply being able to kill everyone in the room doesn’t make you the best, or right, it just makes you the only person left in the room.
So, yeah, basically this is a great story in a very macho package. That isn’t a horrible thing, but it is really definitely a thing.
For the record, while I did like both of them about equal, I think the series gets extra points for having fun with the world without changing it from the book and exploring the side characters, including the Hotel, to help fill it out. So, game point to the series.
This is my The Book Was Better? square on my CBR Bingo sheet.