Altered Carbon: Technology, Morals & Humanity

Altered Carbon hit the shelves in 2002, the first published work by Richard K. Morgan. Making a solid impression as it did so, the book won the 2003 Philip K. Dick award for its US edition. Shortly after this, it was optioned by film producer Joel Silver, of ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Predator’ fame, for $1m. After sitting around in development hell for a decade or so, this has now translated into an adaptation for Netflix, made in the same vein as ‘American Gods’ and ‘The Man in the High Castle’, both produced by competitor Amazon. The adaptation is currently filming and is set to hit our screens in mid to late 2017, with a solid cast and a promise to stay as close to the source material as possible, something often lost during the conversion process to a two-hour script.

Altered Carbon in production from Netflix.

The first part of the Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy, Altered Carbon takes us into a world where the human mind can be digitised, capable of being backed-up, downloaded and transferred as simply as if it were a simple file. Physical bodies have become almost disposable, tailored like clothes to suits individual tastes, fashions, and needs. Want blonde hair, long legs, and green eyes? Fine. Broad shoulders, athletic muscles, and perfect teeth? No problem. Dark and handsome, dusky and mysterious, or pale and interesting? Pick one; the choice is yours. And what about disease, disability or fatal injuries? Each a worry of the past. If you have the money, you can always afford a new sleeve.

To those familiar with cyberpunk or science fiction in general, a lot of this won’t read as new. After all, Gibson gave us the man-machine interface and tamed biological science years ago, and The Matrix threw up some very similar ideas back in 1999. However, any similarities to these forerunners are clearly presented as elements of inspiration rather than simply as items to be copied, with there being certain building blocks that will always be in this genre regardless of author. What Morgan does with these basic elements, in contrast to other works, is raise a lot of questions. We are repeatedly presented with aspects of the world within that we simply have to stop and think about. Human morality, and the lack of it, along with stark basic amorality feature a lot. Commissioning your own line of hot replacement bodies and living to 300 is all well and good, a triumph of science and human endeavor, but what if this wonder is used against you? Criminals are punished by being put in storage, taken from their body and their minds put on a disk for however long the judge decides. What happens to that body? Maybe someone sees it in some catalogue and decides they’ll rent it for a few weeks to give it a try, and if it’s all good then take it off the market. Maybe someone else’s sentence is up and your old sleeve just happens to be top of the pile, so a murderer or a rapist walks out of jail with your face. Or maybe, just maybe, someone really needs that liver of yours and, hey, if you’ve taken one organ then why not go for the lot; it’s a competitive market out there. And, on top of all else, even your mind, isn’t completely safe. All that remains of you reduced to data; what happens if it gets corrupted? What happens if you get a computer virus, one that will shut you down one piece at a time unless you deposit x dollars in a bank account within 24 hours. Well, such is life, according to Morgan here at least.

Altered Carbon Cover

Alongside being a solid and thought provoking piece of cyberpunk and general speculative fiction, Altered Carbon also blends in all the elements of an old-fashioned and gritty detective noir, in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett at their best. This pairing serves as the framing device for the whole book; it’s a detective story in a cyberpunk world and, as Blade Runner showed us, this is a combination that can work very well indeed. While fans of this type of mash-up will know that tough guys and hardened criminals going to bloody war is a familiar trope in this arena, this is still not a story for the faint of heart. Those who are easily offended by bad language, sexual content, drug use and strong violence may want to skip on, and likewise those who might be triggered by such themes. This is humanity off the leash, with the dogs amongst the sheep. Cruelty, sadism and general all around unpleasantness abound in varying degrees, with Morgan’s aforementioned descriptive talents pointing us in the right general direct but leaving the details of the scenery to us. It gets little vivid at times.

Morgan’s characterisation is solid and well accomplished throughout. As a protagonist, Kovacs is a complicated man, dangerous to the extreme but with a strange yet strong moral compass. His actions are mercenary and occasionally without any hint of compassion or pity, but avoiding collateral damage, depending on who he considers being collateral at the time. You are left pretty sure that he’d have no problem at all in killing a man as soon as look at him, but then make sure his dog went to a good home afterward.

Poster from the blog ‘the view from the terrace‘.

The experience of Kovacs’ story is told through his senses, thoughts, and emotions, narrated in classic first-person past-tense style. It’s a cold opening, no prologue or maps, etc., just a straight jump into the action. Our subsequent knowledge comes in small, potent drops delivered throughout. No description comes to the readers unless it’s relevant to his environment or experiences, no detail comes unless he notices. Kovacs’ personality also acts as a filter and everything is cast in the light of his assessments and appraisals, and prejudices from time to time. It becomes most apparent when encountering other characters. The chosen style of perspective gives no indication whatsoever of what is going on in their heads, their motivations and intentions are laid out for us only through Kovacs view and interpretation.

They are for the most part also well realised, although there are occasional elements of the one-dimensional that creep into view: the femme fatale, the woman done wrong, the dependable sidekick, and the irredeemable villain. Overall, we can excuse this with the acknowledgment of the overall detective theme where these things are common, but sometimes they seem to be leaned on a bit too much. This is made up for though by one or two more interesting players with my personal favourite being a super friendly, yet sometimes slightly pouty, AI that runs a hotel. A hotel complete with a bar, pool, tower suite and a 50 caliber turret in the lobby, just in case someone bothers a guest. That makes for an interesting side-kick.

Altered Carbon Cover

Now, to be more critical. Cyberpunk often pairs with a particular shade of dystopia, heavy on politics and social commentary; the corruption of power and abuse of wealth, unequal society and ineffective justice, conservatism and social repression are all commonplace. However, while these themes are therefore perfectly in keeping with the subject matter, it’s sometimes hard not to feel slightly concussed from being hit over the head with them so much. There’s a hint of the manifesto about it all, and you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole book was written purely as a vehicle for presenting Morgan’s personal politics.

Small gripes accepted, overall I love this book. A study of the human condition both light and dark, it throws up plenty of difficult questions, some of which are even given answers, although they may not be the correct ones. While paying homage to previous and notable works, it avoids falling into the trap of being derivative, while remaining analogous to the genre to keep the interest of die-hard fans. It’s a stylish and solid piece of contemporary cyberpunk, brought out at the right time and talking about the right things, capturing both the excitement post-Y2K world and the fear of the world post 9/11; high-tech and very low-life.

Altered Carbon – 9/10

You can get a copy of Altered Carbon here, and read up on the story and dissect the differences once the Netflix series comes out!

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Chris Taylor is a writer and gamer from Oxford, UK. Interests. and excesses. revolve around Japan, New York, Cyberpunk, Dystopia, Spec-Fi & New Weird
1 Comment
  1. Netflix is getting better and better in its choice of material to produce I see!
    We are already witnessing the silent rise of memory devices as presented in one of the episodes of Black Mirror, “Be right back”, where the dead boyfriend returns as an AI. First, only as a messenger app, later as a kind of replicant. If an electronic device knows how you behave and talk and can even mimic your voice, why shouldn’t it be used by criminals against you? Anyway, the ethics perspective of this story sounds very interesting and ethics should be more present in the real world tech industry I guess.


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