REVIEW - Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

I recently read this sci-fi/crime novel and it is quite excellent. 5 centuries in the future, humans have spread to many star systems under the rule of the UN. A key technology is the “cortical stack” a small information storage device which records a person’s brain pattern. If the body is killed, the person can be “re-sleeved” in a new (or cloned) body. Only when the cortical stack is destroyed (or infected by a virus) does “real death” occur (except for Catholics who refuse to allow re-sleeving on religious grounds). Interstellar travel is slow and inexpensive but FTL communication is easy. The UN does not maintain big fleets or standing armies. Instead, the UN controls society by sending “Envoys”, specially trained soldier/diplomat/spies whose brain patterns are beamed into trouble spots, to be resleeved into available bodies. However, the training, the combat, the dangerous missions and the constant re-sleeving into new bodies is very taxing on Envoys: many of them turn to crime after they finish their service. Also, on Earth, life-extension technology has allowed the super rich (called Meths, after Methusaleh) to stay alive for centures, amassing ever more wealth and power.

The story revolves around Takeshi Kovacs, a former Envoy gone bad, who is serving a sentence “on stack” (ie in storage on a mainframe in lieu of prison) for “organic damage” (ie killing people’s bodies but not the cortical stack). He is taken out of storage and retained as a private investigator by Laurent Bancroft, a wealthy Meth in the Bay Area. Bancroft has died recently, a real death complete with total destruction of his cortical stack. The only reason Bancroft is still alive is that he is rich enough to have himself backed up every 2 days. But he’s lost 2 days of his life and he doesn’t know why or how he died. The police have written it off as a suicide but Bancroft denies that: he worries that he’s under threat and that the killer may strike again, in such a way that having a back-up won’t matter. Even worse, Bancroft fears the killing was an inside job. Bancroft hires Kovacs to look into things, with an offer of commuting his sentence and freeing Kovac’s lover from stack storage as well.

Kovacs starts poking around, and of course things are not what they seem. There’s corruption inside and outside the operation, rogue cops, plenty of criminals, a vast conspiracy, some hacking fun, plenty of hard boiled dialogue and lots of action, including multiple real-deaths.

I really enjoyed this book: it mixed hard boiled crime fiction with science fiction almost seamlessly and featured some very good writing, along with some great dialogue. An interesting sidelight is that Kovacs is from a world settled by a mix of Japanese and Polish settlers. Kovacs is a “Quellist” a believer in the philosopher/poet Quell who espoused a weird but intriguing mix of anti-authoritarian/anarchist ideas with Zen Buddhism. A couple of the best lines and best scenes in the book are riffs on Quellist philosophy. Also the mix of moments of zen calm with frantic action reminded me of one of my favorite 80s sci-fi books, Voice of the Whirlwind by Walter Jon Williams.

Overall, a Sharpe recommendation, if you like either sci-fi or crime novels. If you like both, this is a must read.


That sounds like a must read for me. Thanks for the mini review!

I hope it’s not too long. I’m not up for another 400 - something pager super small text after just finishing The Diamond Age.

It was a pretty good book. I agree Walter Jon Williams would be the most characteristically similar author, but the book was also reminiscent in some respects of Iain Banks’ science fiction novels, though not so well written. However it was a good first novel (I think it was a first novel, anyway.)

I thought the cloning/resurrection technology was not sufficiently extrapolated to be plausible in the society, but what the heck, there was a need to come up with a situation that caused Meth characters to be like the creepy inbred rich guys from some of the Hammett and Chandler novels. The technology was generally good, anyway, considering that the assumption was that humanity would remain more or less the same. I thought the powers and privileges of Kovacs’ organization seemed a bit odd considering that everyone seems to hate them throughout the planetary governments. The explanation of the Meth character motivations was somewhat weak, I thought, and not all that plausible, but not horribly out of place. There were a couple of places where the action got sort of murky because the narration became unclear, and I’m not sure the plot was really as inevitable as it should have been, but these are all minor flaws.

The backstory on Kovacs’ homeworld is quite good. In fact, I almost preferred it to the main story. I liked the Quellist stuff.

I really liked the main character. His ability to react violently to being pissed off is a refreshing change from typical modern heroes who have a tendency to think twice, although the audacity of his actions is somewhat diminished by his ability to come back from the dead. The direct vengeance on various villains for their misdeeds was something that you usually wouldn’t see in a Hammett or Chandler story, but it was nevertheless satisfying to read. The final resolution of the main character’s fate in the denouement struck me as not having been very well thought out by the author, but I won’t go into it as it would be a spoiler.

This book really suprised me, I shot through it in one day and wished i’d lingered over it a bit longer, really well done and fairly original.

I wondered if anyone else had read it, glad to see a few of you have.

I read this book a while ago, and I also picked up Morgan’s latest one, Broken Angels.

I’m not a fan of crime fiction, but happily Altered Carbon was mostly an sf novel. The pot-boiler aspects made me think Morgan merely namechecked Chandlerian styles in an effort to more closely mimic William Gibson. Like crime novels, however, most of the sympathetic female charactere were impossibly beautiful and/or tough femme fatales with whom Kovacs had floridly detailed sex. The violence was somewhat ridiculous after a while, although Morgan did manage to make most of it fit into the plot structure and/or world-building flavour, like the hotel lobby scene. Kovacs was set up as a classic teenage boy wish fulfilment character - irresistable to women, magically skilled in combat, well experienced in hard drug usage, and even has mind control powers - which is a rather distasteful habit amongst right-leaning sf writers like Heinlein. Morgan’s world was cobbled together from building blocks made by his elders and betters. It is firmly in the cyberpunk genre tradition, but Morgan does not do enough to challenge the norms of that world to rise Altered Carbon far above the pack.

Broken Angels is a military sf novel, introducing more of the usual tropes (jump gates, space combat, Big Dumb Object) to the same universe as Altered Combat. The Martians turn out to have wings, which is either lazy world-building or an in-joke, I don’t know. Like Alien2, the middle part of the book relies on the dramatic possibilities of a combat squad being gradually killed off. The denouement is slightly unsettling, as Morgan spends a lot of time and energy describing Kovacs turning into the Ultimate Killing Machine as the body count piles up higher than a Rambo movie, while the moral implications of his actions are given short shrift. Again, Kovacs has glorious techno-sex with every available female, downs a lot of drugs, and generally acts like a schoolboy’s fantasy role model. But I bought the second book, so I guess I’m the sucker.

I can’t say I blame them, really. As described, the technology only produces a facsimile that may not even be a perfect copy. And even then, it would still be a copy and not you.

Sure, your clones get all your stuff, but you’re still very much dead, regardless of whether or not you believe in a “soul”. Part of the reason I wouldn’t step in a transporter, either.

I feel a little out of place because everyone else liked this book, but I thought it was pretty badly written, and couldn’t get past that. It was just too amateur for me, but I guess I should note that although detective fiction is one of my fav genres, I have little interest in sci-fi.

I was surprised too because Sharpe’s review made it sound so promising.

I think this is primarily a sci-fi novel first and a pseudo-crime novel second. (That’s why I described it as sci-fi/crime instead of the other way around). By the standards of top notch crime fiction writers like Michael Connelly or Robert Crais, this book IS somewhat amateurish. However, when compared to a lot of current sci-fi its damn good :). As always, YMMV.


Well since Telefrog linked this thread in his thread about the new TV adaptation, I’ll resurrect this thread.

Since 2003 Morgan finished the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy and honestly I thought each book was better than the last.

Altered Carbon: see my 2003 review above.

Broken Angels: as the first book was a mix of sci-fi and crime novel, this second book is a mix of sci-fi and military sci-fi. The second book provides some context and also takes Kovacs into some truly F’ed up territory.

Woken Furies: It’s been nearly 10 years since I read this but I recall it blowing me away, even after I enjoyed the first two books. I may have to re-read the series to see if it stands the test of time.

My opinions:

Altered Carbon: Great ideas, great style as a hardboiled noir crime fiction, somewhat trashy with the over-the-top sex and violence, but good fun if you’re into that.

Broken Angels: leaves behind the noir for an archeological thriller in a war-torn third world country (planet) ala Clive Cussler or something. It was merely ok, but did have some nice expansion/exploration of the ideas behind the cortical stack tech.

Woken Furies: Logical endpoint of the series- dial it all up to 11. Kovaks fights his most dangerous enemy yet- himself!!! He gets to bang his warrior-poet idol/mentor!! He’s the baddest-ass of all bad-asses!!. I liked it regardless of all that, mostly for the exploration of the Quellchrist Falconer character and her philosophy, which cropped up regularly in the earlier books.

Don_Quixote mirrors most of my thoughts.

I really liked the first one. Great world building. Yeah, Kovacs is a big Mary Sue, but at least there is some reason behind it. Secondary characters are alright, but could use more development. I enjoyed the mystery structure a lot.

As others have said, the second one veers away from crime and instead is more of an Indiana Jones in space type story (with a dash of Aliens style squad). I enjoyed the deeper dive into the Martians and inter-planetary politics. However, it was too long. I thought it was over when Kovacs and crew were saved from the gate, but realized there was a whole lot of book left. Then the rampage happened and I really did not buy it.

Third one explores his home world which was pretty interesting, but I definitely found myself losing interest towards the end.

Overall, very solid series and I’m glad I finished it, but found the first to be the strongest by a long shot. Maybe just because the ideas were newest in it, but I also found it to be a little more grounded. Told a very contained human story while the others maybe bit off more than they could chew. Oh and the sex scenes are across the board terrible, basically read like they’re written by a 14-year-old. Like I definitely felt embarrassed while reading them.

Didn’t really care for altered carbon, personally. I like the way Augmented Reality is used, but not a big fan of the darkity darkness of it all. But if the thought of heavy/dark cyberpunkish stuff is appealing, look no further.