I don’t remember where I saw Altered Carbon, or what inspired me to read it. Generally, I don’t like noir; neither do I care for cyberpunk. I think William Gibson is massively overrated. I suppose what ultimately made me read Morgan’s Altered Carbon was its treatment of virtual immortality, something that I haven’t necessarily seen elsewhere1.
Altered Carbon is full of opposites—or, appropriately enough, binary systems: there’s the typical cybertronic/organic divide. There’s also reality/virtuality, male/female, life/death, and consciousness/physicality; in Morgan’s future, science has created a way to completely digitize a person’s brain and store the generated code in a small microchip, called a “stack.” This means that unless the stack is destroyed, the physical death of a body does not mean the end of that consciousness. Most people get two lives; the rich, called “Meths,” live for centuries.
The undercurrent of the whole book explores this disparity, perhaps with less attention than it deserves. The better part of the novel is simply a hardboiled detective novel with equal measures cyberpunk and serial action novel. Requisite steamy sex sequences; some pretty dark parts with torture and the like; lots of really ham-fisted dialog, which, in the setting, at least seems appropriate.
On its face, the book is pretty baldly about the level of depravity to which we can sink when life ceases to hold singular meaning—when culture actually has need for such distinctions as “death” and “real death.” It’s not exact the most subtle of messages: while never explicitly stated, it becomes pretty obvious that this future could officially be considered a dystopia, despite the miraculous scientific and medical advances. Somebody’s been reading too much Cat’s Cradle. The moral conflict inherent here is made obvious by Morgan’s inclusion of Catholics2; in this case, they are religious abstainers from resuscitation. That is, once a Catholic is dead, his stack is stored but not put into a new body unless a court proceeding demands it temporarily3.
These questions that Morgan raises are, in the end, addressed only in the most oblique of ways, hidden behind the gunfire and necessarily action-oriented plot mechanics. I think that the book ultimately did them an injustice, if only because a noir detective story cum cyberpunk thriller cum Elmore Leonard novel isn’t necessarily the most suitable place to discuss metaphysics and the nature of the soul.
As a surface-level action novel, it was entertaining, if somewhat forgettable. As new blend of fiction archetypes, it is substantial. As a multi-faceted work, it falls tantalizingly short. I recommend it as worth a read regardless, and hope to see Morgan refine this strategy in future works (Altered Carbon is his debut novel).
- I’m aware that there’s probably a slew of science fiction with similar premises, but I’m not all that widely read in scifi, so I clearly haven’t heard of it[↩]
- it’s never clear if this refers only to the Catholic Church as we know or, or includes Protestant Christians as well, though he does refer specifically to the Vatican[↩]
- This idea is given—purposefully, I feel—short shrift. How must a religious abstainer feel while being “alive” again in a body for a short period of time, only to be effectively “killed” again[↩]