Richard Morgan – Altered Carbon

Richard Morgan produces a crime noir science fiction novel with a hard edge with Altered Carbon (2002). Some call the setting dystopian and that is not correct. Yes it is a world where corporations dominate a capitalistic society and the rich are virtually above the law and many people strive for a similar luxury combined with power. If one cares to examine things more seriously these are all choices and many can live their own life as they want. It is a worse society than today’s one but it all depends to what one compares it to.

Morgan opens the novel powerfully and immediately defines the rules of this future society. It certainly sucks in the reader. Then the rhythm changes and the story becomes a detective although with a heavy dose of violence, many interruptions and sudden twists. There is certainly not a steady course to be found which makes the detective story different while it keeps many familiar elements.

The main protagonist does a peculiar investigation. He makes strange choices and certainly in the beginning it is hard to understand what course he is following. It is a bit an early weakness in the plot. Morgan throws in a bait so that the main protagonist will follow that course tenuously. It is only at a much later stage that the pieces start falling into place.

The main protagonist is an unusual character. He is a sort of special agent with many unique skills and a long complicated history. He seems out of place as a detective but he takes care of his job resiliently. He is a bit of rebel, careless and reckless, which seems out of place with his training. It makes one wonder why he is given this job. Nevertheless his attitude allows for amusing dialogues and situations which put the reader in a different frameset.

Morgan allows the reader to really get to see the world from the perspective of the main protagonist by using a first person narrative. As he is out of place he reminisces a lot and compares what he sees with what he already knows. This way Morgan can provide the reader with plenty of background information on this future universe by throwing around many small bits where it is appropriate to do so. There never is a feeling of infodumping so this is well done.

The future universe does not have much peculiar elements. Much seems rather similar to the current world. Morgan just uses a number of things that are not much different from the traditional cyberpunk SF. He just gives it some different setup and has a few new ideas that make things different.

As a detective novel the story is somewhat unusual. It is more focused on the circumstances than the actual crime. A lot of secondary plotlines draw away the attention. It is all greatly entertaining and it provides a engaging pageturner as it is impossible to predict where things are going. The investigation seems to be going everywhere and nowhere. All in all that makes a very good read. Highly recommended.

One final note: Although this novel has a standalone story it is not the only one with this main protagonist. It is actually part of a loosely connected trilogy. So who enjoys this novel can go for another one.

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