Did “Altered Carbon” Alter my Perception?

Going into this book, all I knew was that it was science fiction and that it had been turned in a Netflix show. Given that Netflix has a horrendous reputation when it comes to strange, esoteric, yet somehow exceedingly generic sci-fi, I was dubious and never actually watched it through.

However, recently I managed to get a soft-cover copy and decided to give it a chance. Was I in for a disappointment, unlike when I tried out my Intertops poker bonus, or would Richard Morgan prove my initial assumptions wrong? The answer to that is… kinda?

The Premise
Welcome to Earth at, er, some point in the near future. Humanity has managed to get out among the stars- not that you’ll get to see them. Our protagonist, named Kovac Takeshi, has been brought in from a distant world where he had been serving out multiple life sentences as a brain in a jar at the behest of uber-millionaire Laurens Bancroft.

See, in the future, just about everybody has been installed with a chip at the base of their skull that digitizes your entire personality. If you’re body dies, your chip can be extracted, and your brain can be uploaded into a new body. Death is just an inconvenient nuisance… for those that can afford to buy a new body.

And if any man can afford a new cadaver, it’s Laurens Bancroft. He has several, in fact. The problem is that Laurens Bancroft woke up one day in a new body, having apparently committed suicide in his previous. The problem is, he wasn’t backed up beforehand… so he can’t remember the 48 hours that led up to it.

Convinced that his death was actually a murder, and with the police being uncooperative, Mr. Bancroft downloads ex-Envoy Corps Kovac Takeshi to work the case.

What I liked
Alright, let’s start with what this book does best. First and foremost, the core mystery is fantastic. I genuinely had a hard time piecing together what had actually happened until it got revealed. The pieces were all there as they were revealed to the main character, so it wasn’t like in the BBC’s “Sherlock,” where Sherlock would just come up with an answer randomly. The mystery, and the conclusion of the mystery, is the kind of story that can only really be told in a setting like this.

Which leads neatly to the second thing I liked a lot about this book, which is the setting itself. It’s a near-future sci-fi on Earth that really focuses on one crucial technology that completely upends all of society as we know it.

The mystery of our story only works because of the fact that characters in this universe can upload and download their brains from the cloud. Body swapping and modification lead to all sorts of er, creative scenarios and interactions. It leads to some fascinating philosophical conundrums… which the story itself sort of sneers at, but I’ll get to that later.

The characters… were well written. I say that with the pause because none of the characters ever really jumped out and clicked with me. Kovac is only participating in the story because he’s basically been blackmailed into it, and his backstory is vague and confusing.

Is he a soldier? A criminal? I just googled it, and apparently he turned to a life of crime after serving in the Envoy Corps, but since I was confused about that point after I put down the book, I guess that’s a point against this novel. However, in spite of that, all the characters read distinctly, and their motivations are otherwise easy to follow and straightforward.
None of the characters feel “samey”, and the strengths, weaknesses, and beliefs of most of the characters are expressed bluntly (which is far better than the opposite).

One last thing, though: There’s some lore thrown out about a Corporation War that happened in the past, and although that’s never really delved into, one of the outcomes was AIs that grow sentient enough to buy themselves out and set up their own corporations.

However, since those AIs were originally made with a specific purpose hardwired into their brains, these AIs are still operating towards those goals… like the sentient hotel Korvac stays in that offers help in any way it can, just so that Korvac will stay longer in its rooms. And I love that.

What I didn’t Like
Alright, let’s talk about authorial biases- as in, the biases of Richard Morgan himself. Within the first ten pages, one of the main protagonists (not Korvacs) goes on a massive rant against some catholic protesters. Ostensibly, the protesters are demonstrating against a law that would allow the police to download people against their will to question them about crimes (possibly their own murder). The Catholics in the story are against the idea of downloading/uploading people entirely, as they don’t believe that the human soul should just be duplicated so carelessly.

Now, it’s an interesting argument- one with a lot of nuances and comes from a similar vein that the argument against Star Trek’s transporters comes from (a tech that basically disassembles people to the atomic level and reconstructs them).
However, Richard Morgan treats the subject as belonging in the same category as Catholics who are against birth control (a specific example the character in question brings up). Kovacs is completely ignorant of catholicism- as in, he has never even heard of Earth’s largest and most practiced faith, which has somehow not followed humanity into outer space.

My point is that there seems to be an underlying hostility that the author has towards Christianity that seems really uncalled for.

At the same time, the story is also extremely hostile towards “Meths” (short for Methuselah), or people that can afford to just keep swapping out bodies every six to ten decades and are functionally immortal. While I don’t necessarily disagree, given how they’re portrayed as immortal boomers ruling the world, it blends into a vaguely anti-capitalist message that I definitely don’t agree with.

However, pulling anti-corporatism out of a cyberpunk novel would have basically been impossible, so that’s more of nitpick than anything else. Also, I have never been one to dislike a novel simply because the author shares a different worldview than I do. In fact, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in Altered Carbon that I do agree with, to a surprising degree.

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