Are we defined by our bodies? Or is who we are something more intangible than that? Morgan brings up some very interesting concepts in Altered Carbon, which is the first in his series. This book will make you think.
Set in the twenty-fifth century, we follow Takeshi Kovacs, who once was a U.N. Envoy. He is about to be involved in a conspiracy, that is more tangled than the batch of wires coming out of a server room, and darker than a murderer’s soul.
He has no choice in the matter. Kovacs knows almost nothing about the situation he finds himself in, and he pieces it together, slowly, as the story moves.
Here is a world where all people have a little data saving device stuck into their spines (in the base of their heads) shortly after they are born. All their experiences, their thoughts, their fears, their hopes and their dreams are recorded in this handy little gadget. People don’t die anymore (with a few exceptions) because if the body your consciousness is currently housed in dies, you can be downloaded into another body. You can go on from there, as if nothing ever happened. Just another day.
I found the social implications of this to be staggering. In this world, there is no “death penalty”. Instead, people are sentenced to years “in storage”, sometimes hundreds of years, if the crime was bad enough. Kovacs is just coming out of storage as the story begins, and he’s not the only one doing so at that moment.
You can “store” your great, great, great, great, grandfather, and return him into a body for special occasions, such as a wedding, so he can interact with all the other generations of relatives. When the event is over, he can return to “storage”, and an entire virtual existence. You no longer need a body to “live”.
People who come out of storage often are “sleeved” (Morgan has come up with a wonderful term for the process) into a body that was not the same body the were in before. Maybe you are poor, and can’t afford to be returned to that body. Perhaps someone else, who could afford to pay the price, is using your old body right now.
The richest people can afford to make clones of their bodies, and switch over to a “new” one whenever they want to, but, the general population ends up using what is available. Some people end up in a robotic body, instead of a human one, for a variety of reasons. This future society has a bunch of rules governing just who can be “sleeved” into what, for how long, and under what circumstances.
Kovacs is being sleeved to do a specific job for the rich man who bought him out of storage. If he refuses, he loses the body he was downloaded in and goes right back in, but if he succeeds, he can keep the body (or negotiate for his old one).
What makes an individual is not his age, his ethnic background, or even his face or fingerprints anymore. Gender isn’t even a defining factor, because although most people are downloaded into bodies the same sex as the one they started in, you can choose to be “cross sleeved”. You can exist inside a robot that has no gender.
What is it that makes “you” who you are? What’s left? How do you identify your friends, or loved ones, if they no longer look anything like they used to? If you fall in love with someone, and later, someone else’s consciousness is downloaded into that same body, what happens now?
Are you in love with the physical aspects, or the personality? How do you separate the two, when the “new” personality uses the same voice, has the same facial expressions and nervous ticks, and some of the previous occupant’s memories as well? It all makes for some really sticky philosophical situations, especially when you throw religions, and their ideas about life and afterlife, into the whole puzzle.
Morgan gives readers a mix of hard science fiction and a thriller. Lots of fast paced, extremely violent scenes, with a whole lot of rapid gunfire, one scene after another. It’s not an easy read, due to the complicated levels of meaning involved in everything in this world of shifting bodies, but it’s worth the initial struggle.
I am looking forward to the next book in the series someday, but plan on waiting for a while. Reading about all these lonely, lost, bodiless souls, searching for meaning, makes me too sad to jump immediately into the sequel.