Takeshi Kovacs just got his head blown off.
This is hardly an unexpected turn of events. When your live is largely comprised of performing illegal acts for the benefit of terrible people (and often ruining the lives of other, hopefully-worse people), a point-blank execution at the shaking hands of the local law enforcement isn’t exactly a twist ending.
Some time later, Kovacs wakes up in an unfamiliar body, emerging from a stasis tank with a head of broken glass and a smoker’s cough. It turns out that somebody needs him for something, and he just so happened to be on hand at the time- at least, the digital chip known as a ‘stack’ that contains his consciousness. He is simply plugged into a convenient body, blackmailed into a comfortably malleable position, and the next thing he knows he’s back on the streets.
This is the kind of world that Altered Carbon, the first in Richard Morgan’s ‘Takeshi Kovacs’ books, exists in. Death has become as cheap as the black, hard, rough streets that line the twisted dystopia that remains of Earth. Black-market trade is booming, organ harvesting as popular as ever; prostitution has only become more prevalent as advances are made in the field of artificial body modification; and torturing a forced truth out of innocent lips only gets easier as death becomes cheap enough that the subject can be tortured to death, crammed into a new body, and have the process start all over again.
Richard Morgan does a fantastic job of making Kovacs’ world teem with seedy, desperate people in broken remnants of human civilization, whether it’s the diseased and gangrenous underworld or the upper-class ‘Meths’ that find themselves elevated above the unwashed masses. Everyone in the story has some echo of hopelessness and despair, and through it all Morgan guides the reader through a parade of violence, sex, and jaw-gritting injustice to tell a genuinely provocative and interesting story. He uses the world brilliantly, really showcasing himself as a master storyteller with a tongue-in-cheek tone.
Kovacs is a brilliant protagonist. He performs questionable acts with an impenetrable sense of gallows humor, and somehow manages to keep himself in the reader’s heart despite this. He is an aged soul (the age of one’s body no longer matters much, one can live several lifetimes and end up back in the body of a young woman) with a lot of experience with death, and as the world has changed, he has adapted- you can’t blame Kovacs for the darkness and blood in his eyes any more than you can blame the sky for being thick with pollution.
Then again, perhaps everybody in the world of Altered Carbon is that way, and we only see Kovacs’ provocative side due him being the narrator? Morgan certainly seems to keep his world teeming with life and colour, even if said colour is all in shiny grayscale.
Final verdict: Altered Carbon is good dystopian sci-fi with a fascinating set of characters and a protagonist that can hardly be called so virtuous as an anti-hero, and yet still comes across as a charmer. The world is rich with sickly-sweet detail and the action is fast-paced and tense, and the narrative filter that it is all presented through drips with dark humour. Sort of like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in the world of Blade Runner, only with more explosions and blood, this is a fantastic read from one of the more talented authors of our time- if you like a darker edge to your science-fiction, definitely give Altered Carbon a chance.