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Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

In the twenty-fifth century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Now, assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person’s consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or “sleeve”) making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen.

Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched one hundred eighty light-years from home, re-sleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats “existence” as something that can be bought and sold.

I’m always happy when I hear that a genre novel is being adapted for the screen. It doesn’t matter if it is a movie or television, the prospect of seeing an author’s vision reinterpreted makes me happy. The growth of streaming services like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix means that there is a significantly better chance of exactly this happening, which can only bode well for us genre geeks. The latest book to receive this treatment is the debut novel from Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon.  With the imminent release of the series, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to revisit the source material.

In the future, if you are wealthy enough, you can enjoy the benefits of technology to ensure you are essentially immortal. The long-lived super-rich are known as ‘Meths’, a reference to Methuselah, and their opinions regarding life and the rest of humanity are controversial at best. The Bancrofts are one such couple and they live all but divorced from the rest of society. They have been around for multiple lifetimes, and they view others with an emotion that sits between cynical amusement and minor contempt. Laurens Bancroft has been killed, significantly less inconvenient in the future than the present, as he just gets digitally downloaded into a replacement body. The question Laurens wants answered is was this death self-inflicted, or was it murder. As money is no object to a Meth, he hires an off-worlder, called Takeshi Kovacs, to uncover the truth.

I think I have always viewed Kovacs as the quintessential anti-hero. Yes, he has a tenacious streak that drives him relentlessly towards his goal, and he is fully committed to uncovering the truth, but there is little subtlety surrounding his methods. Kovacs is a blunt instrument, highly skilled perhaps but a blunt instrument none the less. You can’t help but root for him though. As soon as he sets foot on Earth all manner of forces are conspiring against him. Kovacs gets beaten up, tortured, used and abused. It ain’t pretty but every time he gets knocked down he gets up, dust himself down and gets ready for more. It occurred to me that in some respects, I think Kovacs is as much an outsider as the Bancrofts. He spends large chunks of his existence stored away from humanity and sometimes this shows. His Envoy (think special ops soldier) conditioning does make him an ideal choice as a detective however. Kovacs has been taught to fully assimilate into the societies he finds himself in. He adapts quickly and reacts even faster.

Morgan does a great job of bringing his vision of the future to life, the descriptions of the city feel like a neon fever dream. All manner of diversions and delights are available if you know where to look. Blending together every futuristic metropolis you can think of creates a place that manages to be both enticing and a little loathsome in a single breath. Kovacs has a nose for trouble and his journey through the dark underbelly of humanity is captivating.

There is little denying that Altered Carbon has some brutal moments. Kovacs is a trained killing machine after all and he is not averse to using his whatever methods he deems appropriate. During the course of his investigation Kovacs manages to cut a bloody swathe through the Bay area of old San Francisco. In fairness the majority of those he turns his attentions toward are genuinely worthy of getting wasted in the most visceral fashion imaginable. Morgan doesn’t hold back when it comes to these scenes. They are often stark and extremely graphic. There is one torture scene that is particularly harrowing, made even more so by the fact that at the time Kovacs is sleeved in a female body.  In fact, I’ve read that this moment hasn’t made it into the television adaptation. I’m not massively surprised, it’s not something I think I could watch.

I do hope Altered Carbon does well for Netflix, I’d love to see Broken Angels and Woken Furies also get adapted. The premise would easily allow for different actors of different ethnicities to play Kovacs over the course of multiple seasons. This would be entirely in-keeping with the narrative of the books. That could be all kinds of awesome.

At its heart I think Altered Carbon is really an old-school detective noir wrapped up in a shiny futuristic coating. Kovacs is the perfect, down at heel, morally ambiguous gumshoe. There are violent gangsters, beautiful dames and all the suspects are suitably shady. It is the plot that really keeps the reader on their toes. The crime in question is far more complex than it appears at first glance. The blending the detective and science fiction genres works incredibly well. Altered Carbon is gritty, enthralling adult entertainment of the highest calibre. If you haven’t done so already I would highly recommend checking it, and its sequels, out.

Sadly, I’ve not managed to hear the small screen soundtrack for Altered Carbon as yet, so I can neither confirm nor deny if it works as a partner to the novel. I strongly suspect that it will* but as an interim measure I listened to the soundtrack for Blade Runner 2049. It turned out to a good fit. Future detectives, with a bit of Hans Zimmer and Frank Sinatra thrown in for good measure. What’s not to love?

Altered Carbon is published by Gollancz and is available now. Those of you who have a Netflix account can go and watch the television adaptation of this very book tomorrow should you wish. Isn’t living in the future grand?

*The composer is Jeff Russo. You’ll be familiar with his work if you have ever watched Star Trek Discovery, Legion, The Night Of or Fargo.

Altered Carbon: Netflix Altered Carbon book 1 (GOLLANCZ S.F.)

New From: £5.14 GBP In Stock
Release date February 1, 2018.

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