Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan (mass market paperback edition, published by Del Ray, 2006)

The concept on which Altered Carbon is based is ingenious – it was futuristic and fantastical when Richard Morgan wrote the first book in the series way back in 2002. Twenty years on it is still ingenious, due to the world changing, so that the issues and ideas at the core of the series that were relevant then, are still relevant now. This is why the television version of the novels has been so successful. Why am I only now reviewing Altered Carbon? Because self-isolation leads to a lot of hours of watching Netflix.

Morgan had the foresight to develop an interesting premise that would not lose relevancy as the years went by and he continued to write more adventures for his central character, “Takeshi Kovacs”. The title “Altered Carbon” and the subtitle “No Body lives Forever” are really clever and appropriate. Human bodies are after all, 99% made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, and of that they are about 18.5% carbon. Carbon serves as a common element of all known life.

Morgan says in his Introduction to the novel:

“The fiction of Altered Carbon is alive, in way I could not, twenty years ago, have imagined in my wildest authorial dreams. And Kovacs is alive with it – sitting here now, across the darkened room from me in that chair, with a drink in one hand and a heavy calibre weapon in the other. He’s grinning, because he knows he’s never going to die.” (p. viii)

What’s in a name? That which we call a sleeve by any other name would smell as…sweaty?

In Morgan’s vision of the future, people can swop bodies, called “sleeves”, to prevent themselves getting ill or dying, or enable them to live – theoretically – forever. People’s brains and what’s in them are stored in a “stack” – a small storage device that sits below their skulls at the back of their heads. His intriguing hero, “Takeshi Kovacs”, a former soldier turned investigator, is, in his “natural” state, heroic, tough and highly intelligent. In the various sleeves into which he is decanted, he gets additional skills, strengths and chemical injections. He is formidable. He isn’t primarily interested in sex or money… there is something of the flag-waving warrior of righteousness about him. He’s a stickler for principles, which is interesting in a soldier of fortune, highly trained killer and high-status U.N. “Envoy” who comes from another planet called “Harlan’s World”.

The essence of the problem in this futuristic Constructed World, now that death had been beaten, is the use of physical bodies. That is, right now, in 2020, a real area of interest for many people. How do you go about your business without being physically present in your own skin, as it were? Do you borrow a body and work through someone else? Do you use an avatar? Do you only connect over the Internet? Are the days of physical connection, body to body, over and done with?

Kovacs recalls the words of one of the philosophers and military leaders from his time, “Quell”:

“If they want you, a youngish Quell had once written of the Harlan’s World ruling elite, sooner or later they’ll scoop you off the globe, like specks of interesting dust off a Martian artefact. […] They are what we once dreamed of as gods, mythical agents of destiny, as inescapable as Death, that poor old peasant labourer, bent over his scythe, no longer is. Poor Death, no match for the mighty altered carbon technologies of data storage and retrieval arrayed against him. Once we lived in terror of his arrival. Now we flirt outrageously with his sombre dignity, and beings like these won’t even let him in the tradesman’s entrance.” (p. 318)

This is the first direct reference in the novel to the title and what it refers to.

The TV show version of the novel

Promotional poster for the TV show, Altered Carbon

The first season of the TV show Altered Carbon consisted of ten episodes and premiered on Netflix on February 2, 2018. On July 27, 2018, the series was renewed for a second season of eight episodes, which was released on February 27, 2020. An anime film set before the second season was released on March 19, 2020.  The TV version differs from the novel in the details of the mystery that Kovacs has to solve, because in the 470 page novel it has lots of twists and turns. In the TV show there is also more of a focus on Takeshi Kovacs’ side-kick, the police detective “Kristin Ortega”. I thought the actress who portrayed her, Martha Higareda, was too young, slight and pretty for the role, but that’s just me.

The actor who plays the most common (first) version of Kovacs, American-Swedish Joel Kinnaman, is a tall, strapping dark blond who has muscles in places that most people don’t even have places. He looks like Kovacs is described in the novel and portrays the character well, suitably high-minded, dour and tough, and somewhat haunted. I like the fact that he is himself an example of “altered carbon”, since Kinnaman grew up with the condition of pectus excavatum that causes a caved-in appearance of the chest. He underwent surgery prior to the filming of Altered Carbon, having two metal bars inserted in his chest to push the sternum outward in order to correct the deformity. Ow. That sounds painful. But what a nice chest the man has!

A narrator who gets the worst of it

The choice of actors for this show was particularly important since the novel is written from the first person perspective. The points of view are all those of Kovacs, including his descriptions of the looks and characters of the people who he deals with, and of course his experience with sleeving, being killed, dying, being cloned, be reanimated, being tortured etc.

The novel starts with an absolute show-shopper of an event: Kovacs gets killed, an event that he clinically observes, as if outside himself (which, in a way, he is.) Kovacs and his partner, “Sarah” is holed up somewhere on a job, commandos burst through the door, kills Sarah and shoots Kovacs dead. All the while of course he knows he is not really being killed. Handy, that.

“Still on my knees, I watched her die with chemical clarity. It all went so slowly it was like a video playback on frame advance. The commando kept his aim low, holding the Kalashnikov down against the hyper-rapid-fire recoil it was famous for. The bed went first, erupting into gouts of white goosedown and ripped cloth, then Sarah, caught in the storm as she turned. I saw one leg turned to pulp below the knee, and then the body hits, bloody fistfuls of tissue torn from her pale flanks as she fell through a curtain of fire.” (p. 3)

It doesn’t get any less violent for Kovacs after that.

“Less than two minutes ago I could have picked up the gun, I’d even thought about it, so why not now. I gritted my teeth, pressed my fingers harder into the hole in my chest and staggered upright. Blood spattered warmly against the back of my throat. I braced myself on the edge of the table with my free hand and looked back at the cop. I could feel my lips peeling back from the clenched teeth in something that was more a grin than a grimace.
‘Don’t make me do it, Kovacs.’
I got a step closer got myself a step closer to the table and leaned against it with my thighs, breath whistling through my teeth and bubbling in my throat. The Smith & Wesson gleamed like fool’s gold on the scarred wood. Out in the Reach power lashed down from an orbital and lit the kitchen in tones of blue. I could hear the maelstrom calling.
‘I said don’t -’
I closed my eyes and clawed the gun off the table.” (p. 5)

There you have it. Two of the finest examples of scenes of violence you can get in modern fiction, and the whole novel is chock-full of it. I have read a lot and it had the most gory gruesomeness I’ve ever encountered.

The psychology behind the violence

Scene from the TV show Altered Carbon (Source: Behind the Scenes of Altered Carbon’s Dizzying Dystopia, by Laura Bradley, Feb. 5, 2018, in Vanity Fair)

The quandaries in this new world include the ability of wealthy people to buy their sleeves and so to live in very nicely made bodies for lifetime after lifetime, while poor people either die permanently (“Real Death”) or get completely different bodies from what they were in before. Religious people who believe in the afterlife and in souls, do not want to be re-sleeved. This leads to both crime and political upheaval. Another problem is “simultaneous resleeving”, or of having your consciousness in more than one body at the same time. There is also the problem of war and suffering – people are not actually fighting each other – their bodies are, and those bodies can be shot up, tortured and killed.

“They’re in bodies they don’t know, on a world they don’t know, fighting for one bunch of total strangers  over causes they’ve probably never even heard of and certainly don’t understand. The climate is different, the language and culture is different, the wildlife and vegetation is different, the atmosphere is different. Shit, even the gravity is different. They know nothing, and even if you download them with implanted local knowledge, it’s a massive amount of information to assimilate at a time when they’re likely to be fighting for their lives without hours of sleeving.” (p. 34)

Due to this ability to sleeve and re-sleeve, bodies can be broken and replaced, which makes prostitution and torture a whole different ballgame. This is where the book and the TV show differ in intensity. If you watched the show and thought it was violent, particularly the scenes of “virtual torture”, you should avoid the book. It is really violent, not only more descriptively, but also there is much more of it than in the TV show.

Those scenes where the sleeve is being tortured, while the person’s mind is somewhere else and they know they can only suffer and die virtually, are enough to totally put you off your lunch. It shows that Morgan studied what pain is, how torture works, how people survive torture, and how the body reacts to being broken. I know it’s convincing fiction, but it was a lot of nastiness to get through.

Kovacs is trained in the “Envoy Corps” to withstand and survive torture and pain. This is just one of the ways in which he is bio-engineered:

“I put the chemicals back on the table and regarded him gravely for a couple of seconds. ‘Then let me tell you something instead. When they make you an envoy, do you know want to know what they do? They burn out every evolved violence limitation instinct in the human psyche. Submission signal recognition, pecking order dynamics, pack loyalties. It all goes, tuned out a neuron at a time; and they replace it with a conscious will to harm.’” (p. 238)

This particular form of conditioning leads to Envoys like Kovacs being surrounded by violence, horror and fear in the same way as a brick sinks into mud. With his job comes capture by criminals, agents, spies, etc., and – as mentioned before – the scenes of torture are really graphic. Here’s the start of one of those incidents:

“Digital Human Storage hasn’t made interrogation obsolete, it’s just brought back the basics. A digitized mind is only a snapshot. You don’t capture individual thoughts any more than a satellite image captures an individual life. […] Interrogators, whose requirements are so much more specific, have an even worse time. What d.h. [Digital Human] storage has done is make it possible to torture a human being to death, and then start again. With that option available, hypnotic and drug-based questioning went out the window long ago. It was too easy to provide the necessary chemical or mental counterconditioning in those for whom this sort of thing was a hazard of their trade. There’s no kind of conditioning in the known universe that can prepare you for having your feet burnt off. Or your nails torn out. […]” (p. 153)

I’ll stop the quote there because it only gets worse from there on…when body parts below the waist get involved. I’m not squeamish but just reading this stuff was bad.

Pain and poetry

The disturbing thing is that this world that Morgan has created is fully and rationally explained and justified. Nothing just happens. Everything has reason, cause and effect. It makes it compelling to read, unputdownable in fact. And you wonder, is it a good thing that all that blood and gore seems to get more acceptable as you work through the novel?

The violent episodes, described in almost poetic metaphors, are balanced by the poetry from “Quell” and “Harlan’s World” quoted by the characters. It is peculiarly good poetry. I was wondering who wrote it – if Morgan did, he might well have a different set of strings to his literary bow. It does make the novel quite tragic. These characters, so violent and full of force and extreme emotion, stop and look inside themselves and say quiet things like this:

“How shall I explain the dying that was done?
Shall I say that each one did the math, and wrote
The value of his days
Against the bloody margin, in an understated hand?
They will want to know
How was the audit done?
And I shall say that it was done,
For once,
By those who knew the worth
Of what was spent that day.” (p. 381)

Morgan ensures that his protagonist narrator, Kovacs, and the “supporting cast”, know “the worth of what was spent” in every death they are involved with or cause. They know the value of the stack, and the sleeve, and the life that had been lived. This makes Altered Carbon more of a “Knight’s Tale” than a straight-out Sci-Fi detective novel or murder mystery. If Richard Morgan had lived in the 19th century, he might have been a writer like Alexandre Dumas, and Kovacs might have been “d’Artagnan” of The Three Musketeers, a heroic, chivalrous swordsman who quotes poetry, rescues damsels in distress and fights for justice.


About Richard Morgan

Richard K. Morgan is a British Science Fiction author. Besides Altered Carbon, he has written three more “Takeshi Kovacs” books, the latest one, a graphic novel, published last year:

  • Broken Angels (2003)
  • Woken Furies (2005)
  • Altered Carbon: Download Blues (2019)

The multi-talented artist has also written the series of novels A Land Fit For Heroes, the Black Man novels, more graphic novels, narratives for video games, and music, “Woken Furies” from the album Dark All Day by Gunship (2018). On his official website, you can find sample chapters from his novels! Goody! Go and download!

The Author, Richard Morgan(From his website) “Altered Carbon is a New York Times Notable Book that won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2003.  He is now much older than in this B/W photo on the right. Market Forces was also optioned to Warner Bros, before it was even published, and it won the John W. Campbell Award in 2005. Black Man won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2007, The Steel Remains won the Gaylactic Spectrum award in 2010, and its sequel, The Cold Commands, was listed in both Kirkus Reviews’ and NPR’s best Science Fiction / Fantasy Books of the Year. His latest novel, Thin Air, a return to hardboiled SF, was published in October 2018.

Richard is a fluent Spanish speaker and has lived and worked in Madrid, Istanbul, Ankara, London and Glasgow, as well as travelling extensively in the Americas, Africa and Australia. He now lives back in Norfolk in the UK with his Spanish wife Virginia and son Daniel, about five miles away from where he grew up.  A bit odd, that, but he’s dealing with it.”

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