Friday, April 25, 2008

Review: Altered Carbon

One of the unforeseen consequences of having a Kindle as my reading instrument is that I end up finding new authors that I some how missed over the last few years just because I stumble over them in the Kindle store.

There are easy ways to describe Richard K. Morgan's first novel (kindle edition). A blithe and sound-bite description would be Raymond Chandler for the Grand-Theft Auto crowd. But that's probably quite unfair --- while there is sex and violence galore in this novel, it also manages to deal with interesting issues: what if we could separate mind from body? What if we could treat bodies just the way we treat clothing, considering them sleeves. What does that do to the human condition?

For one thing, wealthy people would never die --- they would always find a new body to inhabit. For another, if your mind could easily wear another body just by being downloaded into it, you could split yourself into copies and be in two places at once. That sounds kinda confusing and possibly illegal, and in Morgan's world, it is.

Morgan's protagonist Takeshi Kovacs is an Envoy, a super-soldier, trained as the ultimate guerrilla fighter, capable of downloading into a new body without repurcussions, and capable of assimilating into the local population, picking up nuances, blending in, and learning his way about. That makes him an ideal detective or commando. After being blown to bits in the opening sequence of the novel, Kovacs is brought back into a new body by a wealthy man to investigate his own murder --- done under strange circumstances and written off by the police as suicide.

Unknown to Kovacs (at least at the beginning) is that his body comes with a few surprises, and he is soon pursued by assassins, beautiful women, the police, and alternatively threatened, kidnapped, and beaten like just like any Chandler protagonist. Morgan has at least taken Chandler's advice to heart: If in doubt, have a man walk through the door with a gun. On the other hand, Kovacs isn't Chandler's hero either --- he definitely isn't a good enough man for every world, and is in fact, more than a little mean. By almost any definition he is in fact psychopathic --- this novel isn't for the weak of stomach (though perhaps, it's less objectionable than Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory).

The plot is big, complicated, and convoluted. Nearly everyone commits criminal acts, and Kovacs definitely thinks that the ends justifies the means, and near the end the hero's armor isn't just tarnished, it's positively rusted out. But lest you think that this book is one big James Bond explosion-filled blockbuster (which I'm sure the movie version would be), there are lots of little tidbits scattered throughout that mark this as more than just a slaughter-fest. For example:
As a child I'd believed there was an essential person, a sort of core personality around which the surface factors could evolve and change without damaging the integrity of who you were. Later, I started to see that this was an error of perception caused by the metaphors we were used to framing ourselves in. What we thought of as personality was no more than the passing shape of one of the waves in front of me.

All in all, this book occupied me for several days, reading breathlessly, yet at times exhausted by a long section that seemed merciless. Yet even at the end of it all, with the loose ends tied up and the anti-hero relinquished, I find myself wanting to run to the Kindle store and buy the next Takeshi Kovacs novel (or rather, the kindle edition). Recommended for those with the stomachs to handle it.
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