When one of Earth's most powerful men is found decapitated in the security of his own home, the police rule suicide. The victim doesn't agree, and hires the best private detective that his considerable wealth will buy to catch the real killers.

Welcome to the future world created by Richard Morgan, where physical death is transitory and immortality all but assured.

Central to the novel is the notion of the cortical stack, hardware that implants close to the spine and records the life and experience of an individual. If not damaged by major trauma, the stack can be recovered from a damaged body and placed into a new one — a clone of the original or any other body that might be conveniently vacant. Capitalism is alive and well: the rich can maintain banks of clones, whereas the poor may have to settle for cheap artificial bodies, or have themselves stored and rent their own bodies to others to pay the bills.

Homicide takes on a new dimension when the victim can be restored from backup to testify. When that backup copy is 48 hours old, and the intervening time lost to the victim, motive for suicide or murder becomes murky. There may lie a mystery, that only a person of special talents can solve. In Altered Carbon, that person is Takeshi Kovacs. Kovacs inherits the mantle of crime fiction's most hard-boiled detectives: tough, capable, and driven to find the truth at any cost.

Morgan brings the gritty detective novel into — and beyond — the twenty-first century with his rousing and complex first novel. Merging SF and detective novels is difficult to do well. The author must teach us the rules of the SF world, while simultaneously giving us some facts and withholding others as the investigation proceeds. Morgan strikes the balance elegantly, painting a rich and realistic future world. Seamless exposition deftly intercuts the dramatic action, and seeming background exposition often arises later as a key plot point or twist. Thus Morgan avoids the deus ex machina that would spoil the detective novel, while maintaining SF's sense of wonder.

At 534 paperback1 pages, Altered Carbon is a serious chunk of dead pressed tree flesh, but one which draws you in immediately. It starts with a bang and the pace seldom flags. There are elements of violence, of sex, and of torture — but nothing that would put off a regular reader of detective novels, or of e2 for that matter. By the time you hit the last page, events have drawn to a solid conclusion, but you may still want more. Morgan has obliged with further tales of Takeshi Kovacs, the next in the developing series being Broken Angels.

  1. Gollancz, 2001, ISBN: 0-575-07390-x

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