It's a world where human beings have become digital information, swapped between bodies, backed up on computer hard drives and sometimes illegally copied. It's a world where centuries-old rich folk have formed an elite watching over the rest of the human race. It's a world utterly unprepared to deal with a man named Takeshi Kovacs. Welcome to Earth in the 25th Century.
Altered Carbon, first published in 2002, is the debut novel by British SF author Richard Morgan and also the first to feature his antihero Takeshi Kovacs. Since the book was published, two sequels have followed: Broken Angels (2003) and Woken Furies (2005). Morgan has also written two non-Kovacs novels, Market Forces (2004) and the forthcoming Black Man (2007). He has also announced that his next project will be a fantasy trilogy, the first book of which has the interesting title of A Land Fit for Heroes. But it's his debut novel I am concerned with here.
Altered Carbon comes very highly recommended and, for the most part, this can be agreed with. This is a book with serious attitude, with a take-no-prisoners approach as body-hopping ex-Envoy Takeshi Kovacs (think of an entire SAS platoon rolled into one person) is freed from prison (digital storage) in return for investigating the murder of a wealthy 'Meth', one of the long-lived elite who effectively control Earth. Kovacs may be a hardened killer and a one-man army, but he's from the provincial colonies with no clue how life works on the old homeworld and it's this juxtaposition - an experienced warrior in an unfamiliar environment - that gives Morgan a way of feeding us information on this futuristic society. Sometimes he misses the target completely: a very implausible conversation in a diner lets us handily know that an advanced alien civilisation used to exist on Mars and they left behind the locations of many other inhabitable worlds, giving mankind a roadmap to follow in its colonisation of the Galaxy. It's a fascinating idea, but very clunkily handled.
It's a tribute to Morgan's writing that this is just about the only flaw I could find in the book. Otherwise it's a clever, often exceptionally violent trawl through the underworld of a far-future San Francisco, taking in heavy torture and a heavy bodycount along the way. A strong stomach is certainly recommended for some parts of the book. There's a great line in dark humour (Kovacs' sidekick through part of the book is the sentient AI system that runs his hotel) and some very well-realised characters as well.
The SF thriller has undergone something of a renaissance in the last decade. Isaac Asimov arguably first mastered the genre back in the 1950s with his Elijah Bailey novels (The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, plus their much-delayed sequel, The Robots of Dawn) before cyberpunk dipped its toes in the pond, but Peter F. Hamilton's enjoyable Greg Mandel Trilogy brought it back into focus in the early 1990s before Alastar Reynolds' excellent Chasm City was released in 2001. Morgan sits amongst their ranks with ease. Hamilton is a big fan and I'm pretty convinced that some of the body-hopping and rejeuvenating antics in his recent Commonwealth Saga (combined with a futuristic detective subplot) may have been influenced by this book.
I'm now looking forward to picking up and reading the sequel.
Altered Carbon (****) is available from Gollancz in the United Kingdom and Del Rey in the United States.