In The Armchair

Altered Carbon: Richard Morgan

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on March 7, 2007


Richard Morgan is perhaps one of the most talented “wordsmiths” among the writers I’ve read so far. His prose, as one reviewer puts it, positively crackles with brilliant metaphor and evocative word-coinage. His world is rich and developed, though Morgan is so inventive that at times I wondered whether he didn’t simply make it up as he went along. Every line bristles with intelligence and invention.

This is Morgan’s first book, and his self-assured writing is suprising and refreshing (compare Michael Jordan’s first attempt in the Wheel of Time series). Morgan endows each character with a unique personality, carefully developed and detailed. The book is essentially Alistair MacLean-style “tough guy” action (referred to in several Amazon reviews as “hardboiled detective fiction”) mixed with cyberpunk.

More or less, the book’s style is to deliver periodic “kicks” to the reader. Takeshi Kovacs, the protagonist, is a lean, mean, mentally conditioned killing machine… but a good one. In identifying with Kovacs, the reader is invited to feel like a restrained god who always gives the bad guys a chance to mend ways before beating them into bloody pulp. The reader spends several pages building up hatred for specific bad guys, then revels in the mindless violence the protagonist does to them next. Spends some time feeling sorry for people, then warm and fuzzy as Kovacs does something truly philanthropic. All in all, the book is violent and callous enough to be every male’s testosterone fix.

Altered Carbon’s world needs to be taken as a given, and once that is accepted, the novel is fairly believable and logical. The world itself seems inconsistent. Superficially, it seems like a realistic world, but practically the only real advance in 500 years, in the novel’s world, is the ability to digitize human beings and improvements in AI. (This is not a new concept at all; Greg Egan, Charles Stross and others have been doing it for a while.) Other than that, life is almost the same as it is now except for cosmetic changes like cars traveling in the air instead of on the ground.

Nevertheless, this is a great book. Just the complexity of metaphor and brilliance of word-coinage makes the book worth it. And unlike many in the current crop of Sci-Fi writers, Morgan has good ideas, good prose and knows how to tell a story. That last bit seems missing in Sci-Fi of late.

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