In a violent cyberpunk future in which your consciousness can be downloaded into a machine in your neck and bodies have become interchangeable, Takeshi Kovacs wakes up in prison on Earth, far away from his home on Harlan’s World, sleeved in a new body. He is released to solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft, a man rich enough to have survived his own death.
In my review of Netflix’ adaptation of this book, I admitted to the sin of (accidentally) having watched it before I read the book. It’s a thing I seldom do, and it makes for an interesting perspective. I have updated my review of the series with a few lines to reflect how my opinion has changed after finally having read the book as well.
Moving on to the book proper, I must first of all repeat that Altered Carbon has a really interesting premise: in the not too distant future, humanity has figured out a way to convert the human mind into data, which is stored in a little device in the neck. Upon the death of one’s body, the machine, or stack, can be retrieved and the mind reinserted into a new body (called a ‘sleeve’). Morgan uses this relatively simple innovation to great effect: Not only has he created a biotech-Cyberpunk setting that feels surprisingly fresh despite leaning (heavily) into some of the genre’s clichés, he also makes the premise a pivotal part of the novel’s plot and the background of each of the characters you meet, making you consider what such a (bio)technological development could mean for people from all walks of life.
Beyond the intriguing setting, the book is actually a classic whodunnit, with an anti-hero detective who teams up with sharp edged policewoman to solve the murder of one of the world’s richest men. Here, too, the book does not shy away from using the classic tropes to populate the pages, harkening back to the likes of noir detective stories. Dissected like this, the book appears to lose some of its shine – but I do want to stress that the cyberpunk setting and detective story mash together really well.
I think Altered Carbon is definitely worth a read. I’m not rating the book higher than I do, because while I realise that he is supposed to be really badass, the main character never quite clicked for me. Perhaps he’s just a bit unoriginal, perhaps the drinking, smoking, somewhat nihilist remorseless killer is just not quite my type of guy. Perhaps it is just that I have never felt particularly attracted to crime or gangster stories. Spending as much time with him as you do, I felt Takeshi Kovacs started to grate on me a little by the end of the book.
Overall though, the setting really makes this book shine. Even if the plot (or even the characters) were not my favourite, I really enjoyed the way in which Morgan keeps throwing well thought-out curveballs at you on the basis of his excellent premise. If you’re interested in original cyberpunk settings, detective stories, or biotech sci-fi (and you don’t mind blood splattering off the pages), I’m sure you’ll enjoy Altered Carbon.
A final note to those who’ve already watched the show: should you read the book? Honestly, you’ve seen most of it; there’s some discrepancies, but the setting is well converted, and most of the main plot beats are the same. You did miss out on my favourite character from the book though: if you do pick it up, look out for Trepp!