Let me start with a quick introduction to TMDC readers; if I'm going to be offering up regular opinions and book recommendations, it will help if you have some idea of the sort of things I like.
First, I (obviously) love science fiction. My very favorites are stories that maintain a human connection -- a reality and a future I can imagine evolving from our present. I have nothing against Dune or Foundation, for example, but if you make me choose between that or something like Old Man's War (or Ender's Game), there's really no contest.
Second, I'm a huge fan of good pulp detective stories in the style of Red Harvest or The Dain Curse. Give me a tough, cynical smart-ass for a main character, surround them with people brimming over with dirty little secrets, and we're off to a good start.
Finally, there's this: I'm a sucker for a good amnesia yarn. There's something very compelling about a story where the protagonist is part of the mystery, even to themselves.
With me so far?
Good. Let's talk about Altered Carbon.
What's Going On?
Welcome to post-cyberpunk, interstellar trans-humanism. Check your wallet.
In the 25th century of Altered Carbon, it's difficult to suffer permanent death. Everyone's implanted with a cortical stack -- an always-on, constantly backed up Dropbox for your digitized consciousness. Did you just suffer a massive coronary? Take a bullet in the brain? Fall off a bridge? Maybe just got tired of looking at the same face in the mirror every morning? No problem: your backup can be instantly and easily downloaded ("re-sleeved"), memory intact, into a new body -- a clone of your old one, or... you know... whatever body you like, if you don't mind the price.
(EVE players: sound familiar?)
Of course, if you're someone like Takeshi Kovacs (a former special operative who's fallen on hard times), you can't be quite so choosy: if some ultra-rich methuselah pays to have your consciousness beamed 180 light years back to Earth and re-sleeved into the body of a disgraced cop (whose own consciousness is stuck in a virtual prison for undisclosed reasons), just so you can investigate that same methuselah's alleged murder, you can't really complain: at least you've got a body.
Slightly used body, but still.
Blowing Your Mind
The world of Altered Carbon is at once easy to grasp and fascinatingly complex. Morgan takes the basic, often-visited idea of digital backups for the human psyche and projects that outward onto an entire society. The penal system no longer stores live criminals -- only their digital selves, in virtual reality prisons, their bodies made available to law-abiding citizens that might need a re-sleeve. Travelers skip the tedium of sub-light generation ships, beam their minds across space, and wake up in new sleeves on new worlds. The Vatican lobbies to make re-sleeving illegal. The ultra-rich float far above both common morality and mortality. Wars are fought by troops whose minds are downloaded into combat-wired bodies, on-site.
(DUST players: sound familiar?)
This is a world as believable and real as the stink on worn and sweat-stained clothes, and Morgan uses that to raise questions about the dehumanizing effect of immortality, whether the self is purely mental or inextricably tied to body chemistry, the influence of religious belief, and how the powerful rise above the law.
He also puts together a hell of a good story. Under all the technology, things haven't changed that much: this is still a story of hidden agendas, plot twists, double-crosses, double-double-crosses, sexual tension (and outright sex), dry humor, and outstanding action scenes - there's a lot here to like, and the main character is no exception. This is no calm, transcendent post-human; Morgan manages to build a sad sort of sympathy for Kovacs, who is by turns vicious, honorable, lost and confused in his own body, nearly super human, and entirely fallible.
(EVE and DUST players: sound - ahh nevermind.)
Should I Read It?
Altered Carbon is an instant classic; modern noir mashed up with trans-humanism cyberpunk. I recommend this to everyone I know who enjoys a good genre story, but for anyone who plays a certain internet spaceship game?
I'll be honest. This is the book that brought me back to EVE Online after a four-year break. The way in which backups and "sleeves" are handled -- not to mention how sleeve-jumping complicates the plot in really astounding ways -- electrified the idea behind EVE's own clone technology. The staccato impacts, large and small, that this technology has on society were wonderfully realized.
That's right: I didn't come back to EVE for the spaceships, I came back for the jump clones. The story is that good. Don't think about it, get it.