Friday, April 24, 2015

Carbon Alters the SF Formula With an Infusion of Fun

As I obliquely alluded to in my previous post, the world of science fiction isn’t a happy place right now. I won’t bore you with the details about the recent hullaballoo over the Hugos, arguably the most prestigious award in the field. Suffice it to say that one camp thinks the Hugos have been co-opted by a politically correct clique while the other claims such protests are actually an attempt to hijack the nomination process. For my part, the controversy is mostly academic, because I’ve read less and less SF as I’ve aged. It’s not because I’ve fallen out of love with the genre. Rather, the field has seemed obsessed with disseminating obscure theses and experimenting with artsy styles. Telling solid stories seemed far from its authors’ minds, at least most of them. If they wrote like Richard K. Morgan did in his far-future-meets-hardboiled debut Altered Carbon, maybe I’d be reading more in the field.

Takeshi Lev Kovacs has had a ... distinguished career. Once a U.N. envoy, a super-specialized soldier capable of acclimating to any culture across the galaxy, manipulating any mark, and assassinating almost any target, Kovacs has been called up for everything from police actions to full out war. Then he died. Well, he actually died several times. It’s easy to do when your personality is digitized on a chip implanted in the back of your head. Once your body—or “sleeve”—perishes, you can be resurrected in a clone of yourself if you’re wealthy, in someone else’s sleeve that’s in storage if you’re normal, or in a creaky synthetic if you’re really down and out. Murder is now dubbed “organic damage,” and instead of the death penalty, offenders face time in the stacks, carrying out hundred-year sentences in electronic isolation. Kovacs knows a bit about that. Envoys have the same skill set as career criminals, and he has just gone down after a robbery on his home of Harlan’s World, a slug blasting clear through his chest during a police raid. Then he wakes up on earth in a Caucasian body with a quest. Rather than be consigned to the stacks for a century, he’s now in the employ of one Laurens Bancroft, a three-hundred-year-old tycoon who was recently found dead in his own study. The police say he committed suicide. A freshly reanimated Bancroft believes differently, and Kovacs has six weeks to get to the truth.

Morgan has obviously drunk deeply from the well of William Gibson’s mid-eighties cyberpunk imaginings. Altered Carbon is full of the Gibsonian tropes. Poison-laced needleguns. Clandestine medical clinics. Hallucination-throwing goons. Lots of drugs. But the book is something other than mere pastiche, drawing more from the twisty plots of Raymond Chandler than Neuromancer’s navel gazing. Indeed, at times the action in Altered Carbon gets a bit too tangled, but everything more or less makes sense in the end. Plus, the stupendous speculative setting and jaw-droppingly good action more than make up for any muddled bits. A.I.-managed hotels adopt the personalities of long-dead celebrities (Jimi Hendrix, in the case of Kovac’s temporary abode). Computer viruses and suborbital bombing mix in the middle of a planet-wide war. The final confrontation combines fisticuffs with thermite grenades. And like great SF of the past, it doesn’t fail to ask big questions, musing over human identity and wondering about the nature of love. Would that more authors noted Carbon’s composition and infused their own weighty works with a measure of fun.

(Picture: CC 2010 by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

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