Richard Morgan's ALTERED CARBON (novel)
Review by Dennis D. McDonald
I've updated this review in anticipation of reviewing the Netflix ALTERED CARBON Series.
This debut novel is extremely well written, exciting, intriguing, brutal, densely plotted, and ultimately, disappointing. But the trip is fun and very much worth a read.
The sci-fi and non-sci-fi elements are all familiar. Overcoming death by reinserting digitally stored (and regularly backed up) “personalities” was surprisingly well explored in the movie The Sixth Day. Noir-ish future-society detective work was explored in Blade Runner and Minority Report.
Unlike some other reviewers of this novel, I don’t see the precursors to Altered Carbon as being Neuromancer or Snow Crash. Precursors I see as being much older (and in some ways, superior) novels such as Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man.
The allusions to other novels and movies (there are even giant airships and aircraft carriers in the novel) are almost overcome by the sheer quality of Morgan’s writing. Conversations, violence, and rumination on the nature of love, memory, and personality in an age of “temporary death” are fascinating to read.
I say “almost” since, ultimately, I didn’t really like this book. No, I’m not looking to experience something uplifting or “warm and fuzzy” whenever I read a novel, but I was disappointed that I’d already read and seen so much of this before, notwithstanding the quality of the writing.
A central problem was that the story itself is basically a murder mystery and the personality of the main character - the detective - is ultimately that of a thuggish psychopath who occasionally lapses into “doing the right thing” - while at the same time leaving behind a trail of burned, mangled, and destroyed corpses. Laying that on top of familiar elements like being hired by a filthy-rich industrialist to investigate his own murder in the midst of a power struggle with yakuza-like organized crime gangs sort of makes it feel more like Chinatown than science fiction.
But I didn’t write the book. It’s a good read. I am just hoping that in the future this author applies his considerable talents to something more original.
Review copyright (c) 2004 by Dennis D. McDonald. Revised and updated February 2018.