Book review: Altered Carbon

Book cover for Altered by RIchard K. Morgan

What is human consciousness? Is it an abstract concept, an ephemeral state, or a thing that can be captured and stored? If it’s a thing that can be stored, does that “thing” represent who we are? If that thing were put into another body, or a similar body, would we be the same person?

Based on my knowledge, modern science doesn’t have the answer to these questions. Fortunately, the lack of scientific evidence hasn’t stopped people from writing books about or based upon it.

A significant number of science fiction books I read treat the human mind as something that can be captured and stored. Depending on the book, that representation of the mind can live on inside a computer, or it can be placed into and/or transferred between bodies. Seeing how different authors explore the concept is an interesting thought experiment. It begs all sorts of questions such as is the stored representation really me? Will that representation realize it’s a copy? What are the ethical implications if multiple copies of me are active at the same time? It’s a long list that goes on and on.

Given that science fiction has a peculiar way of foreshadowing future technologies, it wouldn’t surprise me if some variation of these visions appear in the future, especially given the desire of those who want to live forever. My latest science fiction read to explore this concept was Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan.

Altered Carbon is set a few hundred years into the future. Humans have settled other planets. Human augmentation is prevalent, with neurochem being the preferred way to extend one’s senses. The human conscience is stored in a device, called the “stack,” that is implanted at the base of one’s brain. A person’s stack gets backed up at regular intervals. If a person is killed, they can be brought back to life in a new “sleeve”. In other words, they’re conscious is restored to another human body. For the common folk, it can be whatever body is available, while the wealthy have organic clones of themselves available for re-sleeving. The result? Real death has become more of an inconvenience rather than a finality to one’s life. Morgan uses the concept to explore the moral and ethical dilemmas of what it means to live forever.

The story itself centers around a mercenary (Takeshi Kovacs) from another planetary system who is brought to Earth to explore the murder of an extremely powerful and wealthy man (Laurens Bancroft). Bancroft has been “alive” in one form or another for over 250 years. The catch? The person who hires Kovacs to find the killer is Bancroft himself. His death has been ruled a suicide, but Bancroft is convinced he’s been murdered and that the suicide story is part of a conspiracy to cover it up. His death would have been easily solved had he not been killed minutes before his regularly schedule backup. Therefore, he has no recollection of the 48 hours or so leading up to his death.

The book is entertaining, and one that I would consider a fun read. Morgan does a great job balancing the technology discussions so they don’t get in the way of or slow down the story. There’s plenty of action and intrigue, although I did find some areas of the story to be a bit disjointed at times before Morgan stitches things together while wrapping up the book.

By the way, in case you weren’t aware, Altered Carbon was turned into a Netflix series. I haven’t personally watched it but have heard good things from friends. I will warn you that both the book and the series contain graphic violence and sex scenes. In other words, both the book and the television series are targeted for mature audiences.