Damn you, Altered Carbon

I wanted to like you so much. You were supposed to be the best thing since Neuromancer.

Altered Carbon is a clever William Gibson/Raymond Chandler hybrid, with a brilliantly imagined future world, but this book suffers from the core flaw I find in nearly all of the sci-fi I’ve been reading lately: an amazing core idea is left barely developed. In the case of Altered Carbon, although the author struggled mightily, nothing in this book developed naturally: not the plot (excessively convoluted, contrived, and in the end unconvincing), not the characters (the characters, except for superficialities, are largely interchangeable, and there is no genuine psychological development), and certainly not the larger social and philosophical themes. A philosopher from the hero’s home planet is fequently quoted, but this philosopher is neither poetic nor profound. Altered Carbon is clearly inspired by The Big Sleep, but unlike Philip Marlowe, Takeshi Kovacs is not convincingly tormented by being a man of honor and conscience in a world without either. Kovacs is more like John McClane (or any other kick-ass John like John Rambo or John Connor, but we can at least give Morgan credit for not naming his character John Kovacs) than he is like Philip Marlowe, and, in spite of their unquestioned awesomeness, the main characters of Rambo and Die Hard would be completely out of place in hard-boiled noir. They work by blowing shit up, and so does Takeshi Kovacs.

Altered Carbon doesn’t quite succeed on the science fiction level either. Unlike The Matrix or the works of sci-fi’s great psychologist, Philip Dick, Altered Carbon’s mind-bending technology (your consciousness can be downloaded into any physical body, or ‘sleeve’) doesn’t actually bend any minds in a serious way. The technology is a plot element, and a brilliant backdrop, but nothing more.

Altered Carbon (and others like it, such as The Windup Girl) stands in a long line of science fiction based on a brilliant premise that is left undeveloped. This tradition stretches back to the 1950’s, when book-length science fiction became common again and includes a few almost-great books like Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Simak’s City, and Kuttner’s Mutant, books that could have been, but weren’t, more than just a volume of stitched-together short stories. Today’s best science fiction authors are no longer pasting together novels from short stories, but many of them still can’t realize the full potential of the ideas spawned by their rich imaginations.

Come on people, we can do this, can’t we? The best that contemporary science fiction has to offer should not be beat out by thriller writers like Tom Clancy when it comes to plotting and technological realism, and by literary mainstream authors like Richard Powers and Ian McEwan in depth and differentiation of character and quality of the prose.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

2 thoughts on “Damn you, Altered Carbon”

  1. I thought Altered Carbon did a great job of exploring what sleeving/cortical stacks would bring to society. Meths being morally closer to AIs, different religions in a post-death world, personal identity that is disconnected from not only your original body but also the real world (being uploaded to virtuality), economics, government/law/prision, sexuality in post-STD/post-pregnancy world, interplanetary travel without the necessity to transport bodies (needlecasting), and more.

    I came away from the book with so much to think about — it being an entertaining read was just icing on the cake.

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