Review: Altered Carbon

Posted: April 5, 2018 by in Books that are Mediocre (3/5 single_star) Meta: Richard K. Morgan, Science Fiction

As with my previous review, the decision to finally read this novel came as a result of consuming media outside of the book realm. Prior to now, I hadn’t picked this book up because of the complete underwhelming Richard K. Morgan had given me in previous books. Granted, most of his stuff that I’d read was in the fantasy genre. Although I have also read THIRTEEN, but that didn’t really ruffle my feathers either. Still, the trailer for the series that Netflix recently did just looked AMAZING. Grabbed me and would not let go. And wouldn’t you know it, about that same time the book came up in my audiobook queue at the library as available and I just couldn’t help myself. Turns out, I probably should have listened to myself and/or watched the show instead.

ALTERED CARBON (Amazon) is, surprisingly, Richard K. Morgan’s debut novel. I’ll tell you what. This thing doesn’t exactly read like a debut novel. He’d been writing before for sure. Guy is a professor somewhere, I think. So obviously he knows how to string words together. What also surprised me about the book is how similar in structure and… “issues” let’s say, to his other books I’d already read that came somewhat later in his writing career were to this one. Just goes to show that the dude hasn’t changed a whole lot in his writing style.

The story revolves around Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-Envoy, which is a military unit created to battle issues dealing with interstellar warfare. They’re strong, fast, and are brilliant at noticing and remembering things. Several hundred years ago, Kovacs was killed, but his consciousness was digitally downloaded and stored for later use. That use comes when a very rich man, Laurens Bancroft, orders Takeshi up to do a job for him. That job? Find the man that murdered him. Laurens Bancroft is what is known as a Meth–a person that has lived a full life and then downloaded their consciousness into another body, a “sleeve”, and lived another; wash, rinse, repeat. His most recent sleeving has happened because he was killed. And now, he’s purchased Takeshi’s consciousness, re-sleeved him into an available body, and then hired him to find the culprit. Only hitch? The police say the Meth offed himself, and there’s plenty of evidence to support that theory.

As a setup, that’s a pretty good, yeah? I thought so. Add to that the pretty fast pacing of the first half of the book or so, the ridiculous amount of complication that comes in during that same time, and the fairly impressive fight-scene mechanics that he pulls off, and I was thinking that this was going to turn out to be a pretty good book after all.

And then I started noticing a bunch of things.

There’s really a dearth of characterization in this story. I missed that fact for a large majority of the first half of the book because of everything that was happening and how much was getting added to the story with every turn of the veritable page (I listened to this one, remember?). This lack of characterization turns out relatively okay for the secondary characters, but once things slow down, it becomes really obvious, and kind of annoying.

The second thing I noticed was that none of the pieces of the plot was really connecting to anything else. Like, in the slightest. Each new interaction seemed as disparate and disconnected from the other pieces of the puzzle as the colors of a rainbow. Yes, those colors might fit together because that’s how we’re used to seeing them, but other than showing up right next to each other, they’re all pretty different from one another. Make sense?

And then came the kicker. Do you remember watching the movie The Illusionist? Well, I do. That movie had a lot of the same issues as this story did, with regard to bringing everything together. There’s this scene in that movie where Ed Norton, who is the main character, is staring at the screen and he keeps making this surprised face as a bunch of flashbacks roll through his mind and across the screen. It is in this handful of seconds, that the main character connects all of the disparate pieces of the plot puzzle together in one fell swoop. Well, the same thing happens here. Because, you see, Takeshi Kovacs was trained as an Envoy to have perfect recollection. And suddenly, he puts all of the pieces of the scattered puzzle together nearly seamlessly. Kind of like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Problem is, iff you didn’t know to look there for that pot of gold, you’d be thinking, “Where did that come from?”

The third thing I noticed, past this point in the story (which just about killed the story for me completely) was that lots of other things started to drop off the map of consequence. First, came the perfect memory; he can’t forget anything. Then, there’s the perfect bank account; unlimited retainer from Mr. Bancroft, anyone? Then, of course, there’s the issue of perfect survivability; what happens if he dies? Eh, they’ll just spin up a new sleeve. After all, sleeves are even cheaper to clone than robots are to build these days. There were several others that played this game, but I only have so much room to complain here. Suffice it to say that when consequence and limitation fall off of the map of possibility, any story loses its ability to entertain me. for me, it is in limitation and restriction that good story thrives.

Lots of cool science fiction, future science impact and it's effect on morality. Trying to find a great story to immerse yourself in? Look elsewhere.

And that doesn’t even approach the issues I had with the complete lack of motivation Takeshi has toward the end of the book, or that the climax is essentially a conversation. About what, I won’t tell you, as that could be perceived as a spoiler for the story at large. By the end, I could definitely appreciate the story that Morgan was trying to tell and the nuanced complication of it all, but I was completely lacking in any amount of enjoyment for the story by the time I got to that ending.

If you go in for typical Science Fiction and its decided lack of character-driven story and need for realistic structure, you’re probably going to enjoy this book just fine. Lots of cool setup. Lots of cool science fiction ideas. Lots of how future science might affect society and even morality. Trying to find a great story that you can immerse yourself in though? You probably want to look somewhere else.

  • Recommended Age: 18+
  • Language: Strong and mucho
  • Violence: Messy, grisly, detailed chaos
  • Sex: Quite a bit, and at Morgan's typical level of ridiculousness


  • Joe says:

    I also found the book to lack significantly in character depth, which was quite a letdown when I read it a few years ago. The TV series works a lot better and the reason is that they gave the characters a lot more depth and background. In addition, they adjusted the story quite a bit just for that purpose (e.g. Kawahara, Quellcrist etc), which worked just fine with me. And the series looked just gorgeous, too. With other words: don’t bother with the book – go for the series.

    • Lowell says:

      Some people are just meant to watch a screen…Born to stare at a TV. (Nothing wrong with that). This story is deep, yeah…a bit “cerebral”, and the “conversation” that disappointed you as a climax…is just excellent writing. There plenty of explosions in the Transformer series. Go get some.

      • Writer Dan says:

        Nah. I hate stuff that just goes boom. I just also don’t care about “deep” ideas unless they’re impacting a character, which is easily the biggest gripe I have against Science Fiction as a genre. I’m curious though. What made the conversation at the end of this book such “excellent writing”, in your opinion?

  • josh s says:

    i recommend checking out the other books in the series, if you haven’t. it seems to me that morgan intended this as a trilogy from the outset based on how many things that are only very briefly alluded to in the first book are fleshed out in books 2 and 3, and kovacs’ character arc in the three books works really well (in my opinion). some or all of the things you dislike appear in those books as well, but overall i think the series works really well as a whole and gets more and more interesting as it goes (and the character of kovacs gets more interesting as it goes). I appreciated the way he opens up the scope and picks a different genre to play with in each successive book, too. it would have been easy to just make a series of sci fi hardboiled adventures but the other books… are not that.

    • Writer Dan says:

      Stylin. I’ve seen the next two books in the series at a couple of the second-hand stores I frequent, but have never picked them up expressly because I was so meh about this one. Sounds like I’ll have to remedy that next time I see them. Thanks for the suggestion, Josh.

    • Writer Dan says:

      Found the second in the series at a secondhand store and snatched it up. Now in my EBR TBR.

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