The best book I read in 2016, which is about to be adapted into a Netflix series, Altered Carbon is for any fan of sci-fi like Ghost in the Shell or hard-boiled 1st-person narratives like the Dresden Files. Being a week away from publishing my next science fiction book, I think a review for another great scif-fi book is necessary to pad out the posts between the cover launch and book launch of the Back in the Game next week. And what better book to review than the best sci-fi book I’ve read since Old Man’s War? Altered Carbon is a sci-fi mystery novel that takes classic sci-fi tropes and uses them in an entirely new light.
The novel follows Takashi Kovacs, a badass ex-envoy (elite soldier), who is unfrozen from hibernation into a new body to solve the mysterious death of a Meth (someone who jumps from body to body to live longer) who was uploaded into another body and wants to know who made the attempt on his life. Kovacs teams up with Ortega, a police officer who was the lover of the original owner of the body Kovacs is now inhabiting, and together the two find clues to who killed the Meth and the dark reasons as to why. On their investigation they come across the seedy underbelly this new technology created between the rich and poor as well the corrupt paradise that earth has become.
The thing that really stands out and makes the book great is Kovacs’ first person narration and how the sci-fi elements and viewpoints are described, no matter how odd and strange they may be. The way these elements are explained in his ‘voice’ are interesting and understandable and including Kovacs’ backstory in relation to them was a really neat way of both world building and character building simultaneously. However, the points where the exposition takes over the character development entirely can be a bit dry and sometimes requires the reader to shut off their brain just to get to the next bit of action.
Speaking of action, there is a lot of it. Something I hadn’t seen for a long time in a book is an author’s attempt to hold off on the whole-sale slaughter from a deadly character until it is justified. In this way, Kovacs seems at risk for most of the story until his envoy training kicks in and he, in turn, kicks some ass, or in some cases, gets his ass kicked. Like many many hard-boiled noir characters it’s shocking not just the damage that someone like Kovacs can take, but also what they’re willing to dish out, both psychically and emotionally. This point is even more poignant when faced with very real aspect of body swapping and its affect on those who have to see their loved ones possessed by a different mind.
I think the pacing is another big problem for the story. It feels like the book could have been cut by at least a third, but that fact that it was so large shows the amount of the ground work Richard K. Morgan had to lay out for the series he was planning. With a multiple part Netflix series coming, it only makes sense why they would want to make the world as realistic and as thought out as possible. Once again the closest thing I can compare it to is Ghost in the Shell or The Matrix, but it takes the class issue a step further by showing how the people and law of a place could be affected to exploit those of lesser means. As Kovacs puts it: “The political is personal.”
In the end, Altered Carbon is great book, if a little long. I would recommend it to any science fiction fan or anyone who just likes a good hard-boiled first person voice. With great elements, great action and commentary that helps with the emotional moments in the books, the only thing I can really fault it with is the pacing and the fact that the sex scenes read like something out of an erotica novel. Other than that, if you don’t want to read it you can look forward to watching the series when it comes out. I know I will.
Total Rank: 8.5