Friday, November 25, 2005 5:33:57 PM
Any road up, as my old grandfather (does anyone have a young grandfather?) used to say, Pevans regularly reviews science-fiction books in his gaming zine, To Win Just Once, and one of the books he recently reviewed caught my eye – potentially a painful experience, except that it did so in the figurative sense, rather than the literal (or literary – ha ha!) sense.
There is a largely correct view among my friends that I read nothing but hard boiled detective fiction (first person private eye) but I do occasionally stray into the field of science fiction so when Pevans reviewed Altered Carbon (Richard Morgan) and described it as a private eye novel set two centuries in the future, I was intrigued enough to grab a copy. If you want a quick verdict, then you can deduce from the fact that I am now on the second book in the series (Broken Angels) that I thought it was pretty good, especially for a first novel.
Your average reviewer will lazily describe this as a cross between Raymond Chandler and cyberpunk. In fact, although certain plot conventions (prickly individual employed by fabulously wealthy man married to dangerously sexy woman) follow the Chandler prototype, there is none of Chandler’s laconic use of simile; the writing style is, if anything, more akin to the taut style of Dashiell Hammett, and so is the almost throwaway use of casual violence.
There is a reason for the violence being so casual. In the world in which Altered Carbon is set, people’s memories and personality traits – the very essence of who they are, as opposed to what they are – can be captured on a chip which resides in the neck, just above the spine. It follows, therefore, that should a person’s body die, they can be brought back to life, either in a new body or a repaired version of their old body. In the book’s parlance, bodies are known as “sleeves”, and it is not uncommon for the rich and the powerful to have one or more sleeves on standby, ready for use. The IT professionals among you will have also spotted the need to make back-ups of the personality chips on a regular basis. One of the neat scenes in the book concerns a Zen assassin who is terminated by the hero (Takeshi Kovacs), only for her to reappear in the next chapter as the hero’s accomplice; she has no memory of being terminated by him and so therefore bears him no grudges.
The “download your personality” element is the hook on which the whole story hangs, and it offers amazing scope for plot twists, disguises and deception. One's understanding of what’s happening is already hampered by the vast number of characters that are introduced but it is worse when you also have to remember whether each character used to be known by a different name in a different sleeve.
In a world where people’s memories can be recorded on a chip you would also expect lots of other futuristic developments to titillate the imagination, and this book does not disappoint in that department, particularly in regard to the extensively realised depiction of virtual reality, and also in the fabulous number of chemical and electronic enhancements that are available to augment the body's natural abilities.
There are a lot of mean streets in this universe and, unlike Chandler’s prototypical honourable knight of the streets, Takeshi Kovacs is just as mean, if not more so, than the scum he is employed to combat. He is a chemically augmented mercenary from a special forces background who hails from a tough, revolutionary planet; think a member of Israel’s equivalent of the SAS living in a world full of Arabs, but without the compassion that the Israeli might have .
At least, that’s the way the hero likes to think of himself and it may even be the way the author intended to portray him, but it is a rare author who has a successful book with a totally unsympathetic central character (Richard’s Starks “Parker” novels, perhaps, or the terminally boring Thomas Covenant) and by the end of the story it turns out that Kovacs has a code of honour, just like every other P.I. who has ever featured in literature.
For a first novel, this is an excellent, imaginative piece of work. The action is tough and fast, while the writing varies from good to functional. It is somewhat off-putting to realise that the author does not know that “alright” is not a word and does not know the difference between disinterested and uninterested, but that’s just the snob in me talking. If you like convoluted stories in a futuristic background, this should be right up your street.