Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Altered Carbon and Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan

If there is such a thing as a literary equivalent of a mash-up, Britain's Richard K. Morgan is surely the current master of the form. Part cyberpunk, part noir thriller, part military adventure, his novels transcend genre, and in many ways traditional characterization. Both Altered Carbon and Broken Angels (and a third novel not reviewed here - Woken Furies) feature Takeshi Kovacs (the name itself a mash-up of sorts), a flawed, honorably violent everyman who we as readers become intimately familiar with, in spite of the fact that we never have any idea what he actually looks like.

And it is this notion of fleeting, deceptive physical appearances that truly marks Morgan's novels as originals. For in the universe inhabited by Takeshi Kovacs, there is no need to stay dead forever. Pretty much everyone in the group of planets known as the "Protectorate" (think Star Trek's Federation of Planets, with a corporate Big Brother thrown into the mix) has a "stack" implanted somewhere around where the brain stem meets the spinal column. This stack is a human's digitized consciousness. Die, and your stack simply has to be retrieved and implanted into another body - or "sleeve," as bodies grown for this purpose are known. Those who are wealthy can afford a massive number of genetically enhanced sleeves, can have their consciousness backed up using any number of failsafe protocols, and can essentially cheat death. The other classes still have to fight and scrabble for their existence, but there are sleeves available even to them - for the right price - either legitimately or through the black market.

This central conceit creates a wealth of literary opportunities for Morgan, but it also raises tremendous philosophical issues, which the warrior/philosopher Kovacs deals with at various levels throughout the novels. Who are we if appearance no longer at least in part dictates our notion of self? What is the value of life when it becomes commoditized? How can we trust ourselves, let alone anyone else, in a universe such as this?

Yet, in spite of their philosophical implications, the novels' triumph is that they don't get bogged down in heavy-handed, teeth-gnashing analysis paralysis. Rather, the philosophical musings about the human condition are couched in what are ultimately riveting, action-driven thrillers. Altered Carbon, the first Takeshi Kovacs novel (and Morgan's first novel as well), doesn't give readers much time to catch their breath, as they are thrown into the midst of a seedy future Earth, where Kovacs is decanted (yet another term for re-sleeving) out of a prison sentence to solve a crime. This first novel is pure crime noir, or future noir, or cyber noir...or, just noir in general if the other appendages don't seem to fit.

The second novel, Broken Angels, takes a surprising departure from the first and becomes largely a military adventure novel on a planet far away from the Earth of the first novel. It is to Morgan's credit that Kovacs is such a robust and versatile character that he can fit a variety of story parameters.

Both novels take a particularly grim and pessimistic view of humanity, which manifests in Kovacs' noir-style first person narration. Still, Kovacs is as conflicted as we are as readers, and his mistakes often make him all the more endearing as a character.

As a word of caution, these novels are for highly mature readers. Morgan doesn't hold back in terms of language, violence or other graphic content. It fits with the universe he has created for Kovacs, but it might not be for every reader.

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