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March 17, 2003

Altered Carbon

On a gritty, high-tech future Earth, Takeshi Kovacs must solve a puzzling murder mystery to survive
Altered Carbon
By Richard K. Morgan
Del Rey Books
Trade paperback, March 2003
284 pages
ISBN: 0-345-45768-4
MSRP: $13.95
By D. Douglas Fratz
In mankind's 25th-century galactic empire, death has lost much of its sting. Implanted at birth with miniature recording devices, anyone can be transferred into a new body, or "sleeved." Order in the expanding empire is maintained by elite troops, U.N. Envoys, who are instantaneously "needlecasted" to other planets and sleeved. Criminals are digitally stored, their bodies available to be rented.

Tasheki Kovacs, a former Envoy who has fallen into a life of crime, is killed by police on Harlan's World, and soon after awakened on Earth. He has been contracted by Laurens Bancroft, one of the rich and powerful people called "methuselahs" because they can continuously afford new bodies and live for centuries. He is required to investigate the apparent murder of Bancroft's previous body, which the local police are considering to have been a suicide. If he succeeds, Bancroft will purchase his freedom; if he fails, he faces continued storage, or even "real death."

Kovacs' Envoy training and criminal past make him the perfect investigator. When he meets resistance from the local police, and is nearly kidnapped by highly trained thugs checking into his A.I.-owned hotel, he becomes convinced that Bancroft's temporary death must have been more than a simple suicide. Kovacs' investigation takes him on a tour of a sleazy high-tech world of sleeving services both legal and illegal, houses of prostitution both real and virtual, and fight-to-the-death spectator sports worthy of the most hardcore cyberpunk movies. Amid the fast-paced action, Kovacs slowly puts together what actually happened to Bancroft, and continuously risks his life not only to make sure the bad guys pay, but also to repay some of the victims he has uncovered in his investigation.

Truly superior far-future debut

Richard K. Morgan's first novel, Altered Carbon, shows evidence of few if any of the usual weaknesses we have come to expect from new authors' first novels. His gritty far future is a complex mosaic that is both comprehensively realized and believable. The plot is thriller-paced, with each and every scene playing an essential role in the narrative, while still allowing for thematic investigation of the nature of good and evil in a world where the rules of life an death have so drastically changed. His protagonist is tough but likable, and perfectly matched to the plot, milieu and themes. Even the dozens of supporting characters are well realized.

While Morgan's far-future world mirrors some of the common cliches we've seen in dozens of cyberpunk novels and movies, and the extreme and relentless violence may attenuate the enjoyment of some readers, he has avoided most of the more mindless cliches of the genre. Altered Carbon is more believable, and more mature, than most of the books and movies that have been spawned by the genre. There are no teenage techie savants, and no villains whose only motivation seems to be the desire to be evil. The characters' motivations are logical and understandable, and the sex and violence are integral to the plot and themes. And, given the ability to record and re-embody people, the gritty nature of Morgan's future world and the characters who inhabit it not only makes sense, but seems logically inevitable.

Altered Carbon is an impressive debut for Richard K. Morgan, who promises to become one of the better authors to enter the field in recent years. It's hard to imagine anyone writing a more engaging far-future thriller murder mystery than this.

I understand that Morgan's second novel, a sequel, will be published soon in his native England, with U.S. publication to follow, and that this first book has already been optioned for a movie. One can only hope that the novel isn't given the usual lobotomy during its translation to the silver screen. — Doug