[By Nic Lindh on Monday, 11 April 2005]
Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is nothing less than the return of jacked-in, mirror-shades-at-night, in-your-face Cyberpunk.
Half a millennia from now, humanity has discovered the remnants of an ancient, vastly technologically superior civilization. Most recovered artifacts from this civilization are vaguely, if at all, understood—among the few things that have been deciphered are star charts leading to other Earth-compatible worlds, which has led to colony ships being sent out. However, due to the lack of faster-than-light technology, the colonies end up being isolated in space apart from the ability to transmit digital information through something called needlecasts.
The most dramatic technological breakthrough invented by humans is the ability to download a digital version of the self into an implanted piece of hardware at the base of the skull called a stack. This way, when a person dies, the self can be downloaded into another body—the only way to die Real Death is if the stack is physically destroyed.
To provide order in far-flung human space, a special elite corps called Envoys has been created. Members of this corps are needlecast to wherever they are needed, downloaded into waiting bodies and then sent on their missions.
The novel’s protagonist, Takeshi Kovachs, is a disgraced former Envoy who is needlecast to Earth to help solve the “murder” of a wealthy industrialist.
Altered Carbon is fast-moving and dense, with the dehumanizing consequences of stack technology providing a hard edge and and a linchpin for the plot to revolve around. Think Neuromancer meets Dashiell Hammett. It is rich in ideas and doesn’t flinch from the darker sides of humanity.