10 May, 2009

Review: Altered Carbon, by R. K. Morgan

Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon
Altered Carbon (2002) is Richard K. Morgan's debut novel and begins the Takeshi Kovacs series. It is a high adrenaline dystopian science fiction novel that promises to leave you breathless.

Humanity is flung out among the stars, and instead of traveling from planet to planet, people instantly needlecast their conviousness and memories to a new body, at their destination. Death has been eliminated, through resleeving, if you can afford it, or if someone can afford it for you.
Takeshi Kovacs, once a member of the most elite intergalactic force (the Envoys), is needlecast to Earth to serve as a private investigator in the apparent suicide of an immensely powerful man. Violence, sex, and torture mark Takeshi's adrenaline filled journey to the truth, and what a journey it is. Yet, despite his fierce training and penchant for violence, readers will invariably find themselves hooked to Mr. Kovacs, and will be left demanding more.

Before the end of the prologue I was sold, hook, line, and sinker. Altered Carbon is a brilliant mix of military science fiction, and space opera, eloquently framed in a dystopian future earth. Maybe a bit heavy on the tech talk, Richard Morgan nevertheless manages to weave a monumentally compelling tale that demands to be finished the day it was picked up. This book is so gritty, so in your face that it actually hurts. I'm not even talking about the torture scenes -- just the gratuitous violence sequences are enough to make you clench your teeth and give you a sore jaw.
 It is difficult to shake the impression that you are running away from something just as Takeshi Kovacs is running towards his goal. Regardless, this is a work that will thrill just as much as it will raise important theological and theoretical questions. Regardless of your bent and experience with science fiction, I would call this a must read.


  • An action packed adrenaline roller-coaster that leaves you breathless.
  • Compelling characters with realistic motivations.
  • A concise gritty and dystopian vision.
  • AIs, drugs, immortality, and chemically/mechanically enhanced bodies.
  • Great prose that gets you right into the action.

  • The torture scenes can be a bit too intense.
  • A few too many fortuitous encounters and discoveries.
  • A few glossed descriptions of the tech.

Your Take

I understand that this series has a lot of fans and few detractors. It is difficult, maybe impossible not to get sucked into the action and the unforgiving pace. Then again, some of you might have put Altered Carbon down for the simple reason that it was too much. Had you been reading a comfy little fantasy novel prior to this, I can easily understand that impulse.
My one question is whether or not some of the scenes, especially the torture scenes went too far for you -- then again, maybe it was the sex scenes. I know I would be hesitant to recommend this book to anyone under the age of eighteen.


A fun interview with Richard Morgan by Infinity Plus.
A theme based interview on the Failures of Capitalism by io9.
A great in depth review of Altered Carbon by A Dribble of Ink.

Piqued Your Interest?

If you enjoy military science fiction or space opera, this is a must read. I don't doubt that once you have read Altered Carbon you won't be able to stay away from the rest of the Takeshi Kovacs novels.


Anonymous said...

Potent stuff, and hard to criticise. Some of the best characterisation of any author anywhere.
Truly unputdownable.