Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review: Altered Carbon

I mentioned a few days ago that I had read Altered Carbon, a cyberpunk novel by Richard K. Morgan, and for those who can't be convinced by my brief mention to go out and read it, here's my longer appeal.

Altered Carbon takes place centuries from now, when humanity has managed to settle a handful of planets in the galaxy but space travel remains prohibitively expensive.  One huge, society-changing technological innovation is that ability to transfer a person's memory into a digital state which is then stored on what is basically a hard drive implanted in the base of a person's skull.  If something happens to your body, you can digitally transfer your consciousness into a new body, a clone, or even an unoccupied body of someone else, called a "sleeve."

Takeshi Kovacs is an ex-envoy, an elite soldier of the future trained to optimally utilize "sleeves," especially modified ones, in combat.  For decades he has been essentially emailed around from venue to venue fighting for the human government until he eventually goes rogue and ends up having his personality digitally stored in prison, an effective way to handle overcrowding.  Plus, a prisoner's real body can be used by others who wish to rent it, etc.

The truly wealthy can transfer themselves from one body to another, prolonging their lives for centuries.  The uber-wealthy can create digital back-ups of themselves in case something happens to their internal hard drive, called a "stack."

One centuries-old uber-wealthy person named Laurens Bancroft has apparently committed suicide, a futile act given that he has a back-up of his personality available.  To solve the mystery of why he would do such a thing, Bancroft arranges to have Kovacs transferred to Earth and uploaded into the body of an incarcerated police officer to solve the mystery.

On one hand, Altered Carbon has all the elements of a classic noir detective story: the reluctant protagonist, the untouchable plutocrat, the sultry siren, the grumpy police officer investigating the case ("there's no case, Kovacs!"), and of course a chorus of skeevy gangsters, laconic hitmen, and the odd hooker or three.  On the other hand, Morgan spins a pretty typically dystopic cyberpunk story with drugs, guns, cybernetically-enhanced killers, virtual reality, and a ton of sex.  Since I listened to Altered Carbon on CD, there were times when I was glad the kids weren't in the car and I was driving around with the windows up.  I don't know how these voice actors do it some times.

Altered Carbon is a pretty solid set-up.  I'm not 100% thrilled with the execution, because way too much of the story comes in the back third of the book.  I like having all my pieces fairly up front, and let the hero put them together, instead of having the author hold out on me until the end.  This is probably why I like "English manor mysteries" over "detective stories" as a general matter of course.  There's also just a little too much Jedi/ninja/Jason Bourne in the whole "envoy" concept.  Kovacs could have been just as much a tough guy and a good detective without having be almost too good at things.

Where the story really sings, though, is in the examination of the impact on humanity that the whole stack/sleeve element provides.  Bancroft is no longer really human as a result of both his prolonged life and his ability to have every whim met by his fantastic wealth.  Others have become fractured because of the constant shifting from body to body.  How much of our personality is dependent upon the flesh, and not just our experiences, impacts how Kovacs responds to people as he interacts with individuals who knew the owner of his current "sleeve."

Friends with whom I have discussed this book have told me there is already an RPG closely modeled on this concept: Eclipse Phase.  If I was running a cyberpunk game, there's a lot I would rip off this book: characters, locales, even the way they depict post-human aristocrats.  The whole sleeve/stack thing is intriguing, and I am considering it for my EOW game, but I could see how it could quickly take over the game as a concept.

So, given that it seems to be that a bit of a cyberpunk renaissance is going on right now in the gaming world, go out and give this a read if that's your thing.  Just not around the kids.

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