May 26th, 2002

Another book review: Altered Carbon

Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon is an SF thriller. Or may be it's a thriller that just happens to be SF. To be honest, it's hard to tell. Sure, the plot drivers are SF: life extension, mind recording and body swapping, FTL communications, and a slower than light colonisation programme guided by the artifacts of a long gone Martian civilisation. But Morgan's Bay City owes more to the San Francisco of numerous film noir or the near future of Richard Paul Russo's Carlucci novels than to the far future. Set at least 500 years from now, everything is just too recognisable, with no explanation for the end of progress.

A retired UN body hopping soldier turned career criminal is imported to Earth from Harlan's World (a subtle clue to the novel's underlying plot, as the early shared world novel Harlan's World was the story of the human colonisation of the planet Medea, and Euripides' play Medea is a tale of a woman's revenge after betrayal by her partner). He's been brought in to use his unique skills to solve the possible murder of a powerful industrialist. As cloning and mind recording are everyday techniques, the industralist is in a new body, missing 48 hours of memory - and he wants to know what happened to end with his death. The result is a blood soaked tour through the vice-ridden underworld of Bay City, with a body count that racks up faster than an Arnold Schwarznegger movie. Politics tangle with revenge, leaving us to poke through red herrings until we come, with our hero, to the final encounter.

Altered Carbon has been getting rave reviews recently - even in the normally literate Vector. Yes, it's a decent novel, and a reasonably exciting thriller. But it's certainly not breaking new ground - or even adequately exploring the few new ideas that Morgan has. It's a pity, as there is so much more that Morgan could do with the scenario he builds. The war between the rich old and the short-lived poor is a mirror to our world of powerful and powerless, yet Morgan just uses it to drive his viewpoint character from set piece encounter to set piece encounter. The ethics of his explicit mind-body duality are glossed over, even though they form the background to the political plot, as are the psychological issues of a world where reincarnation is a matter of credit rating rather than karma.

Still, despite the flaws there's something promising here, though. Morgan can write, and he has good ideas. Perhaps his next book will be better...

But if you want dark, nihilistic SF, go try M John Harrison's The Centauri Device...
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