Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Paul R. Potts

Altered Carbon

I read Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. It has been out for a few years and I have looked at it often in bookstores, without buying it. It has now been published in a mass-market paperback, though, so I finally took a copy home.

The writing is pretty good, and I enjoyed bits of the world Morgan has built. However, I don’t think this is actually great work. I like his morally ambiguous and intuition-driven main character, for the most part. In Morgan’s world, most forms of death are recoverable: wealthy people’s personalities and identities are backed up. People without backups can be killed, permanently by destroying the small electronic module in their skull. This is “RD,” real death, and it is a very serious crime compared to just killing someone’s body, or “sleeve,” which is just classed as “organic damage.”

At a couple of points in the book the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, goes on killing sprees. He doesn’t just kill one or two people: he kills a dozen. He doesn’t just kill the bodies of his victims, he inflicts RD, melting down their “cortical stacks,” the devices that hold his victims’ conscious minds.

There’s no real justification for this in the storyline. We feel some sympathy with this character, and perhaps start to like and understand him, but then we’re supposed to accept that he is someone who can go on a killing spree like this, without remorse. If we do that, how can we continue to see him as a sympathetic character? Also, within the story there seems to be no serious consequences for these actions, although as he investigates the matter that frames the whole storyline, supposedly all of this takes place as elaborate vengeance for another “real death.”

It’s weirdly inconsistent. Either death has great significance, or it doesn’t. What we get instead is that it apparently has no significance when Kovacs does it, but when other people do it, the act is enough to drive Kovacs’ actions for hundreds of pages.

The story also lacks some focus: props and sets appear and disappear without further reference. There are some big issues at play involving human consciousness and what death means if you can be stored and resurrected later, or even if there are duplicate copies of you running around, but for the most part Morgan doesn’t go very deep into these issues.

The consciousness-in-a-machine themes have been handled much better by Greg Egan in his books such as Permutation City, and in some of his fantastic short stories, where the little device in your head that holds the real “you” is known as a “jewel” instead of a “stack.”

For surreal and grotesque science fiction crossed with the classic detective novel, I’d recommend instead Noir by K. W. Jeter. It’s darkly comic, full of wordplay, although I should caution you that it is quite grotesque, very uneven, and will be too weird for many readers.

If you’re interested in some of the philosophical ideas brought about by copying human consciousness into a machine, see the classic Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. For another darkly comic cyberpunk-y vision, one that is a fun ride, if not all that well-written, see Signal to Noise by Eric S. Nylund, and the sequel, A Signal Shattered.

When compared to these books Morgan’s novel doesn’t seem very original. He seems to be inspired by secondary sources: more by Blade Runner than by Philip K. Dick’s spooky Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and more by The Matrix than Baudrillard. I’d be willing to give Morgan another try, but I don’t really recommend this book.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I’m also finally getting back to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. This is a long novel about an alternate past where magic was real. The style is engaging and funny, and it is peppered with interesting footnotes. It is slow reading, though. I’m currently at about the halfway point.

Setting it down for a number of months hasn’t seemed to harm my enjoyment of the book, in part because it is somewhat episodic. There are a couple of plot lines happening in the background and returned to now and then, but much of it is really in the form of short adventures within the framework, as if it had been written on and off over the course of several years and then fit together (which, in fact, I think it was).

The author’s vision of magic is really beautiful, and has a magnificent kind of internal logic to it. Jonathan Strange, one of the two magician characters, seems to operate entirely by intuition, rather than planning, and I get the feeling that the author does too. Highly recommended if you like long novels and discursive storytelling.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
April 14, 2006

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