The Future of Chemistry in “Altered Carbon”

A couple of years ago, my blogger friend Sam Leung recommended a science fiction novel to me called Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan. (This author  also wrote the video game Crysis 2 and some comics, including Black Widow stories!) You can read Sam’s review of the book here on Robo♥beat. =)

Anyway, I read Altered Carbon, liked it, and put it away. I never went on to read the rest of the series.

But lately I’ve been looking for a new sci-fi series to read, and I heard Netflix is making an Altered Carbon show. It’s still very early to know what the Netflix version will be like, but it piqued my interest enough for me to pick up the novel and re-read it.

I’m liking it even more this time around. It’s one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. But at the same time, there are a lot of things about the book that rub me the wrong way, and they’re more noticeable as I get older and my opinions become stronger. All this has inspired me to write a review!

A Science Fiction Detective Story

40445Imagine a hard-boiled detective story — even a noir film — and put it a few hundred years in the future. That’s what Altered Carbon feels like. The central premise that makes this world so different is that people are “resleeved” into new bodies instead of dying. Depending on how wealthy you are, you might remain in young bodies for centuries — or you might commit a crime, get sent to sleep on ice for a century or more, and then be thrown into a messed-up body that’s not your own. It’s a simple concept, but Morgan does an amazing job at thinking it through to every end. What would happen to a marriage that lasted centuries? What kinds of crimes would resleeving allow? Morgan explores every angle.

The protagonist of the book, Takeshi Kovacs, is awoken from cryo and sleeved in someone else’s body that comes with its own baggage. (Like, he’s addicted to cigarettes now.) The person who brought him back to life is Laurens Bancroft, a wealthy “Methuselah” — a man who has lived for hundreds of years. He was murdered, then placed in a new body to live again, and he wants Kovacs to solve his murder.

The plot is a little hard to follow at times, mostly because the detective story that is so strong at the beginning gets derailed with other subplots by the halfway point. However, it’s perfect for setting up fascinating scenes that describe how this world works, in great detail.

An Anti-Hero, Resleeved

Altered Carbon is written from the first-person (and extremely intimate) perspective of Takeshi Kovacs. What I mean by extremely intimate is that you are basically in his head, non-stop, for days on end. The book takes place in a very short time span, and you never really leave Kovacs — even when he’s drunk, high, at a whorehouse, decapitating people, or getting into R-rated positions with women he really shouldn’t.

I love this point of view for its insight into Kovacs’s history and inner demons. He has a lot of those. Since he’s been in cryo for over a century and is new to Earth, there are no family or friends around to put him in context. Instead, you get to “remember” his history through his scattered thoughts and memories. He has dreams about an old war buddy, recalls training from his former Envoy commander, etc. They’re not so much flashbacks as flickering memories here and there, which is a great way to keep the book’s pace up while still learning about Kovacs’s past.

At the same time, the intimacy can be a little off-putting at times. That’s partly because Kovacs isn’t all that likable. He is a pretty bloody killer at times, which makes for some excellent — if brutal — action scenes. Though some are hard to stomach, that seems to be what Morgan is going for:

I’ve taken some stick for passages in Altered Carbon which people complained had sickened them, but then violence should be sickening… Where violence arises in my books, it is intended to shock, to horrify and to some extent to get the reader to face up to their own ambiguity on the subject.

— Saxon Bullock interview (2002)

In another interview with Clarkesworld Magazine, he also notes that violence can be “cool” and “thrilling”… so there’s that too.

How Much Information is Too Much?

While I enjoyed the intimacy of the first-person narration at first, the flip side of it is that it sometimes feels like I’m getting too much information. I’ve never really encountered this before, but then, I’ve never read from the perspective of a male narrator in quite this way before.

A personal point for me was that there is a big emphasis on sexuality in the book, which is always presented with a “male gaze” feel. Some of this came down to the fact that the book is written from a straight male perspective.

I don’t mind a good sex scene, as I read a lot of romance and erotica. But in Altered Carbon, the biggest irritant for me was just how horny this book is. At first, I didn’t mind hearing about Kovacs’s, er, physical arousal — after all, he explains that his hormones have built up after all that time in cryo. But after awhile, hearing about every one of his physical responses — from chemical advertising, from testosterone drugs, from just how “sensual” one of the women is (even when the scene doesn’t call for the male gaze) — just started to grate on me. As I said, sex in a book can be great, but this felt more like reading about a horny guy objectifying women at every turn, and a culture that does that too.

Beyond that, I started to dislike Kovacs and even the author’s style. I would say the plot drags on for too long. Two-thirds of the way through the novel, there’s a great little twist — but instead of wrapping things up, Morgan plods along through a strange boxing match, a torture session, and more. Even the prose, stylish at first, starts to feel too forced after a while. I wanted Kovacs to stop being so noir cool and just be real. I wanted that for the actual book, I guess.

How Romantic is Chemistry?

One of the more interesting questions this book poses is about romantic chemistry. Kovacs works closely with a cop, Ortega — a woman who seems to be a little too interested in him. It turns out she’s keeping an eye on his body, because it once belonged to a cop with whom she was in love.

Kovacs begins to feel a physical attraction for her. Their chemistry almost feels meant to be. Morgan writes about how their bodies fit together, how she seems made for him. On some physical, chemical, hormonal level, they are a perfect match.

But that doesn’t mean they’re in love. I found this kind of fascinating. I’ve never seen chemistry explored in quite this way, but it fits very well in Morgan’s world where bodies can be changed. (For example, a subplot has a woman being resleeved and reuniting with her husband, then feeling almost like he cheated on her, just because he slept with her in her new body.) Even though Kovacs retains his former personality and preferences, his new sleeve gives him chemical differences — almost like new desires that he can’t quite control.

What’s also interesting is that he doesn’t really see Ortega in this light until he finds out about her past relationship with his body’s owner. I believe there is a real chemistry there, but also that Kovacs is kind of taking advantage of the situation. If he had never found out about Ortega’s past, would he have eventually fallen for her or not? Early in the book, he is much more interested in another woman and continues to be throughout the story, even when he’s with Ortega.

This woman is Miriam Bancroft, the wife of Laurens whose murder Kovacs is investigating. Being in a centuries-long marriage (and one in which her husband frequents whorehouses), Miriam sleeps around on occasion. But what’s interesting is that during arousal, she releases a drug called Merge Nine that causes Kovacs to feel what she’s feeling. This connection is intoxicating during the act, and it leaves Kovacs hungover the next day.

Something Like Dystopia

The world Morgan creates in Altered Carbon isn’t really a dystopia, but it has the dark, dirty feel of a world without morals. That’s not actually true, of course — it’s just that Morgan prefers to zoom his lens on the seedier sides of the city, since this is where Kovacs is investigating. It’s a noir-like story, so don’t expect things to be pretty.

This is where Morgan’s thematic explorations take us, to whorehouses and heartbreaks. In the 2002 interview, he explains this a little:

Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an elite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses.

Art by Phade01

As for the setting itself, I love that the story is set in a futuristic San Francisco called Bay City, since I live in San Francisco! Alcatraz Island has been turned into a huge resleeving facility. Hearing about some of the dangerous neighborhoods, as well as the flying cars that make boating across the bay a thing of the past, made it fun to reimagine the future of this area.

Altered Carbon‘s outlook is a little bleak. People are corrupt. It doesn’t matter how many decades or centuries you live — you still have your own perversions and pretensions. So much can come down to hormones, chemicals, and other things of the body — even the sort of chemistry that can lead to love.

Morgan does an excellent job of exploring all of these things through the lens of resleeving bodies. Whether or not I liked Kovacs personally as a character — and despite some hang-ups as the book went on — overall I enjoyed the story immensely. I think it’s good when a book can inspire contradictory feelings in the reader — when you love it but also dislike parts of it. Altered Carbon is a pretty bold statement of a book, and I recommend it if you like science fiction, detective stories, and action of all kinds. =)

— Ashley

3 thoughts on “The Future of Chemistry in “Altered Carbon””

  1. Good review.

    A little off-topic, but I’m reminded of a couple stories I read in Analog a few years ago that had similar premise. The difference there was that the new body you downloaded into didn’t necessarily need to be human, so half the characters were talking animals. And it was a detective story, too.

    Wasn’t exactly a comedy, but it did have a lot of humour. I recall the RPAF (Royal Pigeon Air Force) being… colourful.

    Barry B. Longyear was the author. I should look him up, see if he has any full-length novels. Those stories were pretty good…

    1. Interesting, I haven’t heard of those stories! It’s funny, I read that Morgan says his idea in Altered Carbon is not original, but he used it because he found it interesting.

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