Wednesday, October 26, 2011

2003 Philip K. Dick Award – ALTERED CARBON by Richard Morgan

It’s several hundred years from now and widespread technology allows people to record and transfer their brains onto “cortical stacks” that can be switched between bodies or transmitted interstellar distances.  Takeshi Kovacs is a badass mercenary from a colonized planet called Harlan’s World with special training that has made him into an “envoy” skilled at kicking ass in any body. After he and his girl are hunted down and killed, he wakes up on Earth. He’s been put into a new “sleeve,” or body, by an incredibly old and rich man (called a "Methuselah") named Laurens Bancroft to investigate the apparent suicide of his previous sleeve. As Kovacs delves into seedy, hypocritical Earth society in Bay City (formerly San Francisco) he meets rough characters, multiple dames, hookers with hearts of gold, femmes fatale, crooked cops, less-crooked cops, and pretty much every other hardboiled cliché you can imagine. Working with a female cop, who has an interest in his current sleeve, named Ortega, he uncovers a massive criminal conspiracy.

As an sf fan, I’m very familiar with the battle to get decent respect for genre fiction. There are certain critics in certain venues that aren’t going to give many speculative works a chance, and I do resent that a bit. However, there are works that just grab you by the lapels, knee you in the privates, and yell “I am genre trash! Whatever you do, DO NOT take me seriously.” I’m not saying that Morgan’s book fits that bill…but there are certainly times that it does. It’s a fascinating mixture of old and new. Morgan plays some interesting game with the “altered carbon” technology that allows people to resurrect their minds and switch bodies. He covers a lot of the bases – multiple copies, virtual worlds, and some fairly depraved applications. He’s thought out the implications of his ideas, and scattered the book with hints of a rich futuristic culture (not to mention tantalizing bits about alien ruins on Mars that are never really explored).

And, Morgan’s grafted it all onto a very traditional tough-guy private eye crime story. The book is thick with tropes, and it’s hard to say whether Morgan is playing with them or just leaning on them. I usually felt the latter. Frankly, I could’ve done without many of them, especially the gruesome torture, casual violence, over-sexualized women, and the running updates on Takeshi’s current level of tumescence. Even when Morgan is discussing new tech, it still feels a bit familiar. There are as many familiar cyberpunk tropes as there are noir tropes.

I never quite got a handle on Kovacs.  We’re continually told he’s an amoral killing machine, and he does rack up quite a body count, but they’re all really awful people, and he spends a lot of time helping the helpless and fighting for justice.  I guess this is another noir trope, but it did feel like the characters have very wobbly moralities that seem to fit the needs of the plot at the time more than anything else. There are also some basic existential issues that are barely touched on. Is a copy of your mind surviving the same as your mind surviving? Doesn’t seem like it. We’re told that Catholics resist resleeving because they believe the soul dies with the original body. I would’ve liked a little more discussion in this direction.

So, that’s a lot of complaining, but, I was entertained most of the time. There are some fun characters, interesting mysteries, intriguing speculative concepts, and exciting action scenes. The hardboiled format is oft-imitated because it works, and this is a perfectly fine entry in the genre. It’s the same mix of interesting ideas and super-violence that I complained about/begrudgingly endorsed in the two Verhoeven films I covered.

Grade: B

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