Altered Carbon is readable–even very readable–but not a book I’ll want to reread.
The book is a mix of the hardboiled detective genre with the Vietnam vet genre in a transhumanist setting. Improbably, the mix almost succeeds.
The hardboiled part is written very well. Fans will like the little nods to greats of the genre–Bay City, for instance. The Vietnam vet stuff, all about the main character’s torments at the horrors the system made him perpetrate, and the vengeance he’s wreaking, is also good if you like that sort of thing. But the genres don’t mix. The world of hardboiled detective fiction is a world where the System is flawed because we are flawed. The Vietnam vet fiction world is one where we are flawed because the System is. Put another way, the Vietnam vet hero is a victim and also a kind of revolutionary cleanser. The hardboiled detective is too self-contained to be a victim and too cynical to ever delude himself into trying to effect systemic change.
The transhumanist setting doesn’t work very well either. Hundreds of years in the future, everybody can and does digitally back-up their personalities; memories and personality can be digitally edited; personalities can exist virtually or can be transferred from mind to mind fairly easily, to the degree that the wealthy keep spare bodies in far-flung locations in lieu of travel; people can exist in multiple copies–yet society ticks along in terms that the modern reader can recognize. Frankly the setting reads like it was meant as a movie treatment.
The book’s treatment of religion was D-U-M-B. I don’t buy that 25th century Catholics will ape the manners and mores of contemporary American fundamentalists. The Proposition 8 analogue was eye-roll inducing.
The Bancrofts were an interesting if bleak assessment of what marriage would be like if it lasted for hundreds of years. Plenty of mutual infidelities, jealousies that have grown even stronger over the years, meetings that have to be brief or infrequent to be tolerable, but an affection that has deepened and deepened until it is almost an agony. Eternal life is hellish, it seems, without righteousness.
The stuff about a husband meeting his wife in the completely new body she’d been revived in, or the lover who meets and has to work with her old lover’s body inhabited by another man, are poignant and thought-inducing. They led me to question the book’s premise that the human personality could effectively be digitized and separated from its body, or vice versa.
The Patchwork Man is an interesting conception. Could have been pretty spooky if it were better executed-though I suspect the author deliberately kept the spookiness level down so as not to add more genre confusion.
I would not recommend the book to any of my young men. It’s pretty perverse at points. In fact, the perversion gets in the way of the book. To justify it, the author (or at least the main character) takes the tack that morality and feelings of guilt for aberrant sexualities that violate morality are really just conventions imposed on us by society. He also suggests that maybe we’re all just meatbots anyway, with no free will, so morality is a myth. But the main character’s actions are driven by a strong moral sense, which the author clearly expects us to share and admire.
The Hendrix hotel was a fascinating character. I loved the hotel.
The villain was absurdly small potatoes. About the only thing interesting about her was her use of the Valle de los Caidos as her base.
Bertie would find this book too obscure and complicated. Jeeves would find it too insignificant. Darth Vader would be disgusted by the villain’s lack of imagination and fire–Morgan’s villain is far from Miltonesque.