Review: Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

Science fiction and fantasy stories always have one hurdle to overcome that novels set in the ‘real’ world do not have, and that is a need to explain where our worlds differ. The author has to find a balance between easy, but sometimes clumsy, exposition and allowing the reader to determine the differences through the dialogue and context. I was reminded of this when reading Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, a hard-boiled science fiction story set in a future where people are largely immortal. Upon birth everyone has a recording device embedded in their spine, not dissimilar to the Black Mirror episode The Entire History Of You, but with they key difference that this perfect recording can be inserted into a new body, a new sleeve when the old one wears out or is located inconveniently. Morgan does an excellent job of drip-feeding the reader the technical details of his future, though sadly I would have preferred more than a brief skim over the philosophical repercussions of immortality and a downloadable consciousness. There’s certainly plenty of scope for it, though it’s barely touched on.

The characterisation is very good, as long as the character is male. The protagonist, his male antagonists and employer are well-rounded and realistic. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the female characters, who tend to come across as one-dimensional. I know this tends to often be the case in the hard-boiled genre, but an exception to this is almost always the inevitable femme fatale archetype. The archetype is certainly present in Altered Carbon, but she has very little depth.

Storywise, the plot is well structured and well paced and is overall very enjoyable and the ending is somewhat satisfying, always an important factor in a mystery or detective story. Though it did feel that the flow of finale revelations was somewhat rushed.

Altered Carbon won the Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel in 2003 and I certainly enjoyed it. But I must confess I was hoping for a little more from it. It was very good, but it wasn’t amazing.