Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Ex Libris: Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon

I suppose I better 'fess up first that I didn't have high expectations for Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon despite the good reviews and the recommendations by gabe and the dead cities crew.

Maybe it's because I mistakenly thought Morgan's SF debut novel dealt with cloning. After all, when this book first came out, I've been hearing a number of science-fiction books dealing with the subject like David Brin's Kiln People and Michael Marshall Smith's Spares.

Okay, so there is the mention of cloning but still...

In Altered Carbon, Morgan posits a grim and gritty far future milieu where death is not forever. Granted, a person can still die but most of the time, he can escape by having his mind digitalized and downloaded into other bodies.

Of course, like any technological advance, this usually comes with a high price: bodies are so interchangeable that it leads to the question of how much is the Self linked to the Body.

The plot itself involves a cashiered professional assassin for the UN Envoy Corps named Takeshi Kovacs who gets himself into a Catch-22 situation with a multi-billionaire who wants to find out why he committed suicide.

Of course, like any disagreeable protagonist, Kovacs isn't one to mind stepping on a few toes and as his investigation proceeds, the bodies pile up faster than you can say 'Blade Runner.'

Through Kovacs' eyes, Morgan takes the reader in a fast and exhilirating ride into this future wherein bloody violence goes hand-in-hand with futuristic technology. Kovacs himself speaks in a noir voice reminiscent of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

Add in Morgan's world-building skills and you get a believable vision of a dark future in the 25th century. (Unlike other SF-noir books I've read, including William Gibson's award-winning Neuromancer. Likewise, I thought this was definitely grades-better than the Philip K. Dick Award-finalist Carlucci's Edge by Richard Paul Russo.)

I can distinctly cite one scene in the book that totally drew me in. In the passage below, Kovacs is about to check into the AI-run Hendrix Hotel in down-and-out San Francisco City and unfortunately runs into some opposition.

However, the hotel is only willing to help:

Why someone had seen fit to equip the Hendrix's security systems with twenty-millimetre automatic cannon was beyond me, but they did the job with devastating totality. Out of the corner of one eye I glimpsed the twin-mounted autoturret come snaking down from the ceiling just a moment before it channeled a three-second burst of fire through my primary assailant. Enough firepower to bring down a small aircraft. The noise was deafening.

The masked woman ran for the doors, and with the echoes of fire still hammering in my ears I saw the turret swivel to follow. She made about a dozen paces through the gloom before a prism of ruby laser light dappled across her back and a fresh fusillade exploded in the confines of the lobby. I clapped both hands over my ears, still on my knees, and the shells punched through her. She went over in a graceless tangle of limbs.

The firing stopped.

I gotta admit though that I've always been a sucker for automatic cannons.

Anyway, Morgan hits the ground running on the first page and throws in a lot of double-crossing, plot twists, hidden agendas, sexual tension (and outright graphic sex), and excellent action sequences to keep the reader going. It's also a wet dream for guns-and-gadgets freaks as Kovacs deals in weapons of all types, including a ninja-type assassin version of himself.

On the other hand, a lot of the concepts raised by Morgan have been done before, like the rise of filthy rich older generation who live on and on and the benefits and disadvantages of cloning (see the David Brin reference). However, what raises Altered Carbon from the lot is that the SF-nal concepts aren't central to the plot: the action-packed story is.

All in all, I can definitely say the recommendations were justified on this book. To put it succinctly, if one of the books I reviewed earlier, Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends, was a light popcorn movie, Morgan's book is an intelligent action movie in the same vein as John Frankenheimer's Ronin.

And that's not so bad, isn't it?

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