The hard-boiled, “noir” genre of mysteries inspires writers of other genres, sometimes to fantastic effect. Altered Carbon is one of those great novels that takes a cyberpunk staple, store-able memories, and extrapolates its effects on society into a fascinatingly coherent world set 500 years in the future.
In the future, most people have cortical “stacks” stored in their spinal columns. If they die, their stacks can be stored forever, if necessary. The wealthy can re-download their stacks into new bodies, called “sleeves”. This makes murder a difficult crime, since the murdered person can be re-sleeved and go on to tell the authorities who the murderer was. It also makes destroying a stack a particularly heinous crime.
The truly wealthy are known as Methuselahs or “Meths” and they can afford multiple clone sleeves and redundant downloaded stacks so they essentially never die. Killing them is useless, since they download into a new sleeve with backed-up memories the next day.
Takeshi Kovacs is a former elite soldier designed to be transmitted digitally across solar systems to fight in specially prepared sleeves. The mental training necessary to survive the rapid, disorienting transit between sleeves and environments is so powerful that “Envoys” aren’t allowed to hold government offices on most worlds.
Killed on his home planet in the prologue, Kovacs wakes up in a new sleeve on Earth, hired by a Meth to find out who killed the Meth in his own home. In a twist on the classic locked room mystery, there was no one in the house but the Meth, and a suicide makes no sense, since he’d be re-sleeved the next morning. The only clue Kovacs has is that his employer double checked his upload time just before he died.
Kovacs finds his way around the Bay area in 2500 AD Earth, learning the city’s underside while we learn how the world works in this dystopian future. As Kovacs threads his way through this dark world, all the twists and crimes that can happen with backed up memories, clone bodies, virtual holding chambers and updated weaponry are exposed. When he discovers why he was downloaded into this particular body, he brings down the fortunes of the Earth’s most powerful Meths.
Fast paced, violent, and charged with new and disturbing ways to commit crimes and conceal them, Altered Carbon is a thrilling beginning to the Kovacs series. The series has just been announced as a Netflix TV show, so you can look forward to seeing it streaming in the near future.