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Altered Carbon    by Richard Morgan order for
Altered Carbon
by Richard Morgan
Order:  USA  Can
Del Rey, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I have been bemoaning lately the dearth of exciting new SF authors, finding only the same old, same old rewrites, or long-running series that are getting stale. Then I picked up Altered Carbon. It's hard to believe that this is a first novel, as it's excellent and innovative when viewed as either science fiction or as a noir thriller.

Morgan's universe has achieved a virtual immortality. Everyone is fitted with a stack after birth, which stores the soul and current experience digitally. Upon death of the body, and unless the stack (and all its copies) has been destroyed physically or by a virus, the individual can be transferred to another body, or sleeve. Of course, the new sleeve must be purchased, so there is the usual divide between rich and poor, in the ability to buy a new body and in its quality. Criminal activity is punished by storage, the criminal's body available for rental in the meantime. 'Men and women are just merchandise ... Store them, freight them, decant them. Sign at the bottom please.'

Morgan's criminal hero, Takeshi Kovacs, was mind trained as a member of the brutal Envoy Corps. The author kills him off in an unusual beginning that explodes from the pages. He's retrieved from storage on Harlan's World and re-sleeved in the Caucasian body of a bent cop, now in storage on Earth. Kovacs is contracted to a Meth, the very old and powerful Bancroft, and assigned to find out who (temporarily) killed him (the police have concluded that it was suicide). 'A hundred and eighty light years from home, wearing another man's body on a six-week rental agreement. Freighted in to do a job that the local police wouldn't touch with a riot prod ... I felt so lucky I could have burst into song ...'.

Kovacs has attitude to spare, but also too much compassion to have remained a Corps member. Then there is tough police lieutenant Kristin Ortega, keeping a close eye on the body (of her ex-partner and lover) that he's wearing. There's the Hotel Hendrix AI, which is extremely helpful, but only after registration. There's Bancroft's Meth wife Miriam, sleeved in a gorgeous young body. Pulling strings in the background, and with a political agenda, is an old (another Meth) nemesis of Tak's from the Corps. And there are a variety of victims, direct and indirect, of all these powerful people. Following their trails takes Takeshi into confrontations with lowlife on Earth and above the clouds.

The author does a brilliant job of making us feel what it would be like to inhabit another body - from shared nicotine addiction to what he calls 'psychoentirety rejection' ... 'I was literally terrified to have a detailed thought in case the man in the mirror noticed my presence' - and also describes the impact on others; lovers, parents and children. His universe is consistent, detailed and totally fascinating; and his anti-hero engages the reader in action that makes even the wildest of James Bond's antics look tame. Richard Morgan has re-kindled my enjoyment of science fiction.

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