Filler content in new sleeve

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #30:-

ALTERED CARBON
Richard Morgan
Gollancz pb, 404pp, £10.99

It’s the 26th century and mankind has spread throughout the galaxy, with peace maintained on the new worlds by a UN Protectorate and its elite shock troops, the Envoy Corps. Consciousness is stored in cortical stacks, so that nobody need ever die, merely have the stack implanted in a fresh sleeve (clone, synthetic or the body of a criminal), though for this you need financial wherewithal. Real Death takes place only when the cortical stack is destroyed.

Ex-UN Envoy Takeshi Kovacs is brought to San Francisco on Old Earth, put in a new sleeve and made an offer he can’t refuse by the wealthy and powerful Laurens Bancroft. Bancroft was killed, a pointless exercise as his stack is duplicated in a secure environment and updated daily. Only recent memories were lost. The police believe it was a failed suicide bid, but Bancroft can’t accept that. He hires Kovacs to find out who killed him. From the start Kovacs senses something fishy about the whole set-up, a feeling that grows as he delves into the sleazy underbelly of society where men like Bancroft go for their pleasure, hampered in his enquiries by the interest other parties, such as the police, show in the body in which Bancroft’s had him sleeved.

Morgan’s novel has no hi-tech concept at its heart, no big idea, being first and foremost a tautly plotted slice of noir, dressed up in its SF Sunday best. Of recent books the one that springs most readily to mind by way of comparison is Neal Asher’s Gridlinked, but where Asher’s hero has something of James Bond about him Kovacs is your typical tough guy and loner, Philip Marlowe in a spacesuit and set to walk down streets meaner than any envisaged by Chandler. Sad and world weary, basically honest but ruthless to the bone when circumstances require, Kovacs is an engaging character, one of many in a book that seems to bus them in from out of state. Add to that razor sharp prose and a fast paced plot, political and personal motivations for what takes place, plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, and an ending that’s deeply satisfying by virtue of being both unexpected and totally convincing in terms of the technology available.

All this is to the good. What makes the book special though, again as with the Asher, is the wealth of incidental detail, the depth and gritty realism of its milieu. Morgan gives us more than enough throwaway ideas for half a dozen novels. A world where people change bodies as regularly as we change clothes, where the hotels are self-determining AIs and sexual lubricants come imbued with an empathic quality, where identity can be split in two and VR torture can endure a lifetime in only a few minutes, to name just a few. Plot and character are the solid foundations on which the story is built, but it’s all these extra touches that make the reading such an agreeable experience. The sense of wonder is in the details. Morgan gives notice that there’s a new star in the SF firmament.

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