Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Carbonist Manifesto (Now with added guns!)

Title: Altered Carbon
Author: Richard K Morgan
Publisher: Gollancz

The insatiable appetite of streaming TV services has demanded another sacrifice, and the latest victim is "Altered Carbon," soon to be adapted into a 10-episode series for Netflix. Time then for a re-read and remind myself what the book was like.

It's a bit like virtual reality sex, all fun and squishy games until you stop and think about what you're doing, and realize your avant-garde adventure is just another adolescent masturbatory fantasy with cyberpunk juices splattered all over its face.

Which isn't to say it's bad, really, after all VR sex is still sex and Altered Carbon is very, very sexy.

The sexy star of this sexy book is Takeshi Kovacs, a soldier gone rogue who is killed in the book's prologue, which ordinarily would be a bit of a snag in the sexy heroics department. It's no barrier for our man Kovacs however, as he is held in a kind of digital prison until he's sprung by a 300-year-old moneybags named Bancroft, on the condition that he solve Bancroft's own murder.

The scifi concept here is digital immortality and the resulting malleability of the physical. People in Altered Carbon are implanted with a "cortical stack" at the base of the skull, which stores their personalities and memories, thereby uncoupling the self from the physical space it temporarily occupies. Bodies are now called "sleeves," as interchangeable as clothes or Star Wars movie directors. Crime is now punished by taking the offender out of their body and stuffing them in a server somewhere -- during which time their body can be bought and used by someone else.

So Kovacs is dead, but then downloaded into a new body, which used to be someone else's. Bancroft was murdered, and now his clone with memories from the last backup--48 hours before he was killed--wants to find out why.

It's kind of two books at once; on the one hand, a hard-boiled whodunit with a manly male hero and a body count that would make Tarantino blush, and on the other, a kind of anarcho-communist manifesto about the corrupting influence of wealth on institutions and the need for the common man to resist oppression.

The Detective Story

The first of those two books is huge fun for about the first half, embodying everything young boys dream about when they hear the word 'cyberpunk.' Kovacs blows people's heads off the way you or I shake hands, or rather the way we would if we were coked to the eyeballs and had the insatiable urge to shake hands with people every 30 seconds or so.

It's a very visceral book, describing in loving detail the impact of both sex and violence on human bodies in all their liquid glory. There's a torture scene involving blowtorches and soldering irons, for example, a Terminator-esque revenge sequence with multiple beheadings and solving the murder mystery requires a series of visits to whorehouses.

In support of all this mayhem there is the requisite hardware aplenty, described in techno-fetishistic detail, from poison-tipped flechette guns to "particle blasters" that operate like a cross between a laser gun and a blowtorch, from anti-gravity belts and stealth suits to custom-made bodies with enhanced reflexes.

All the frenetic action gets weighed down as the book progresses a bit, mainly for two reasons. One is an over-reliance on a limited number of set-pieces: Kovacs is pretty rubbish for a super-soldier, and gets repeatedly captured by the bad guys, leading to yet another last-minute rescue and/or escape, my word, what a surprise.

The other thing that drags it down is Kovacs himself, who isn't a terribly interesting fellow to spend any time with, possessing two essentially two narrative modes: psychopathic murderer and Red Brigade firebrand, a sort of Zack de la Rocha dropping real bombs rather than the lyrical kind.

Making him a super-soldier is part of the fantasy, I know, but executed a bit ham-handedly here. Kovacs is an ex-"Envoy", a kind of special forces soldier whose speciality is that they can be downloaded into any available body and immediately be ready to fight. Which doesn't sound like much of a superpower, to be honest, but it's used as an excuse to provide Kovacs with all kinds of plot-convenient abilities written off as "Envoy conditioning," "Envoy intuition," "Envoy training," and "Envoy wisdom." 


The moralizing in the book is a lot less fun than the action. Socio-politics is explored with all the subtlety of a Rage Against the Machine song, as Morgan foresees that digital immortality will accelerate the accumulation of wealth among the rich and old, leading to decadence and the careless brutalization of anyone who gets in their way.

The central message is, in the book's own words, that the political is personal. If you are victimized by systems or institutions, you should be outraged and fight back. Acceptance of unfairness is cowardice. Cue particle blasting.

The commodification of the body and the idea that under late-stage capitalism we don't even own ourselves is here made explicit: we're all whores of one kind or another. I'd be more sympathetic if Morgan's prescription wasn't quite so bloodthirsty.

I note with cynical sadness that this book appears to get a pass in progressive circles for wearing its anti-establishment sympathies on its sleeve (pun intended), despite the Cro-Magnon gender politics very much on display. Kovacs meets two key women in the course of the story, whose breasts have bigger arcs than their characters, and Kovacs does some vivid, energetic bonking with both of them (or all four, if you like).

In addition, all this moralizing relies on world-building that doesn't stand up to a whole lot of scrutiny (such as: having a digital backup wouldn't save you from dying, such as: why do even the poorest of the poor have this technology, such as: the people's champion Kovacs spends most his time living on other people's money).

Still, I give it points for trying and not copping out and going the "it's just mindless action" route. Morgan has a point that he wants to make, and if he preaches it with machine gun intensity and repetition, well good for him.

Can't say I'm a convert, but it's largely a fun ride that leaves you sated, if feeling a little dirty. So yeah, pretty much like sex. 

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