It took me quite some time to decide which specific kind of dystopian media I should review first for the launch of Planet Dystopia. Among many candidates my thoughts got constantly drawn to the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, three quite astonishing hardboiled SciFi novels written by Richard K. Morgan. The reasons are numerous.
Since I have read the first book, “Altered Carbon”, back in 2002, my interests in cyberpunk, (neo-)noir detective stories, the darker SciFi corners and dystopian topics in general, have increased by several magnitudes. Especially compared to a lot of the SciFi stuff I followed in my youth, which was usually more on the light hearted and (most times too) optimistic side of things.
By the time I had finished the second and third book, “Broken Angels” and “Woken Fury”, I was totally hooked “on Kovacs”. It has even become an addiction of mine to reread the whole series every now and then – I always come back. As life goes on, a lot of perspectives change and you pay attention to other details. An important aspect that greets me especially on every revisit of this rasping abrasive world.
This review post will cover a quick overview of the societal and technological developments that characterize this unique trilogy and will also head on to the eponymous main protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, afterwards.
So enjoy the ride and let me know if you feel the same and / or if you miss something. I will include your input in future updates and expand this review from time to time to include a bit more info, especially on each of the three specific novels. I am also considering to take a closer look on each of them in separate lengthier posts (yes, I enjoy them that much).
Oh, just for your information: I will neither provide a full plot synopsis nor spoiler the shit out of you, so don’t worry about stuff like that. This post serves as an introduction to the content rich scenarios and universe that Richard K. Morgan has provided us with.
If you are interested in learning more about Richard K. Morgan’s bio, you can visit his Wikipedia Article. For more news and blog posts by himself check out his webpage, where you can also download free sample chapters from all of his works, including this trilogy.
If you like what you read here, feel free to support him by buying his books, just as I did. I even bought multiple versions each (German, English & eBook editions), so yeah, dear Mr. Morgan, I guess I paid for a few of your well-earned vodka martinis & Jack Daniels shots. With joy, I would like to add. Cheers!
The Altered Carbon Universe
It is the 25th century and humanity has successfully reached out for the stars: Long range space travel, ftl communications and other technologies are quite common yet often expensive things. Countless colonies span across the stars as does the influence of the (now interstellar) United Nations which shares its administrative might with various mega corporations. Besides the numerous power struggles for political and economical interstellar power, secessionist movements and criminal conglomerates do their own to add some further chaotic elements to the mix of conflicts of interests.
Mankind has also advanced its technological knowledge far enough to be able to completely digitize personalities by means of a small “cortical stack” implant which is placed in the spinal column of the body shortly after birth. This sort of hyper-advanced harddisk holds the personality and all memories the individual person has gathered throughout their life, up until the very moment of death.
Imagine that, an almost indestructible digital device that backs up your whole personality, your whole mind – your self – as you’re using it. In real time. If undamaged, the cortical stack itself or the data it contains (you) can be transferred to another body (“sleeve”), in a process that is called “resleeving”. Whether that body is purely vat-grown or “just” of classic organic nature does not matter. Affected persons resume their consciousness at the point they died. Death has lost its sharp teeth it seems, if it weren’t for the dark aspects of human nature to turn this and other technology into tools of oppression and societal division.
Almost everyone on Earth and in the various colonies that are spread afar can save up and afford a new sleeve – even if it is just a very cheap synthetic one with , when the original one starts wearing out. The process of resleeving is a fairly expensive process, a little more elaborate perhaps than buying a new house is these days, but in Richard K. Morgan’s vision of the 25th century it’s a quite common event very similar to that.
However, as only the ultra-rich can afford the frequent upgrades, the cloning of supreme artificial bodies and the auto-backup storage for their minds, there are social tensions between the so called “Meths” (named after Methuselah) who have often lived several hundreds of years, while accumulating extreme wealth and influence during those lifetimes, changing from one premium designed body to the next customized and specialized one, and the average people who are in their first body or who have to work a whole lifetime just to afford to switch to their next quite basic and minimalistic body, just to start all over again.
Human bodies, whether they were born, cloned, premium designed or just built from very cheap synthetic materials with below average sensory input, are just “sleeves”, replaceable meat, ready to get grinded. That little metal plate in the back of the head, that is the real person, the real you, everything else is interchangeable.
Getting inserted directly from the stack into a virtual environment which runs at faster than realtime is also an option from which almost unlimited possibilities arise – for pleasure and acquisition of knowledge as well as for torture and interrogation, leaving no visible marks, just scarred psyches.
(Anti-)Hero Takeshi Kovacs
The main character, Takeshi Kovacs, was born on one of those colony worlds far out in the depths of space, on the rim of mankind’s grab of the stars. He served in the military of the United Nations and joined the so called “Envoy Corps”, a specialized and highly trained (para-)military unit, notorious for their ruthless determination and their trained mental disciplines, allowing them almost superhuman abilities, especially to function under high duress, survive debilitating wounds, intuit all kinds of human behavior and sort information at astonishing rates.
Disenchanted by the actions of his employers, enemies and his own questionable doings, he decides to use his abilities to become self-employed. Constantly walking a thin line between (semi-)criminal activities and mercenary work for wealthy, influential people and factions on Earth as well as a multitude of other planets. As a consequence of this and like all good noir detectives, Takeshi Kovacs has a complicated relationship with the police as well as all kinds of authoritarian forces he meets.
Beside his many problems with authority, depression and personality flaws, Kovacs is exceptionally down-to-earth and manages to convey a weary as well as cynical personality while still harboring glimmers of hope and being altruistic on a case-by-case basis. Takeshi’s experiences over more than 250 years of objective time frame spanning over the whole trilogy, leaves one astonished and awed in the face of a human being that continues to live on after witnessing the beauties and horrors of multiple lifetimes.
“Altered Carbon” on Netflix
The streaming platform Netflix features a brand-new series based on the first novel of Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, the eponymous “Altered Carbon”. Released on February 2nd 2018, a ten-episode first season got released. Created by Laeta Kalogridis and featuring (among others) Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy and Martha Higareda.1
Highly recommended: Planet Dystopia’s in-depth article about the first season of Altered Carbon.
Laeta Kalogridis first optioned the rights to Morgan’s novel soon after it got published at the beginning of the new millennium. The title was quite tough to sell to production studios though, especially as the base material was not tied to a well-known franchise. Due to its quite complex plot and the futuristic setting, which requires a lot of effort regarding special effects and film sets, the production costs were estimated as very high – too high, from the point of view of most producers at the time. The inclusion of a great deal of adult material in the novel also did not help to find production partners. Finally, Netflix decided to give it a try and started the production in 2016.2
Kalogridis gave the following interesting answer, when asked about her team’s aims regarding design, setting and characters:
“We tried to imagine what a potential globalized future on Earth would look like, with a certain amount of technological change, a certain amount of technological familiarity and a very large degree of human familiarity.” Laeta Kalogridis3
If you like to see some actual footage of the new Netflix series, have a look at the trailer here:
Highly recommended: Planet Dystopia’s in-depth article about the first season of Altered Carbon.
To keep it simple (lol): Morgan’s trilogy is an absolutely magnificent, sophisticated, hardboiled, (neo-)noir cyberpunk epos in a futuristic setting. A powerful narrative combined with gritty, believable characters, well done scheming and a complex multifaceted universe.
There is always enough information being presented to keep the plot going and there is enough of the plot hidden that you are guaranteed to be always on the edge and curious as well as entertained by what Takeshi Kovacs would come up with next. The action scenes are violent, brutal, quick and dirty – the cruelty cuts through bones like butter and makes a lot of literary contenders look like a child’s birthday party. Definitely one of my all time favorites and a must-read for everyone who is interested into contemporary dystopian media.
[Update December 5th, 2017]: Added section with information & trailer regarding the coming Netflix series “Altered Carbon”.
[Update February 12th, 2018]: Upgraded the series section with even more infos and links to the extensive article about the “Altered Carbon” series.
- Netflix Original: Altered Carbon. Netflix Title Page, 2017
- Cf. James Hibberd: Altered Carbon – First teaser trailer for stunning Netflix sci-fi series. Entertainment Weekly, 2017.
- Quote from Laeta Kalogridis in Adam Starkey’s: Netflix reveals release date and trailer for Altered Carbon – here’s what we know so far. Metro.co.uk, 2017