This is probably one of the best books I have read in recent years, because it manages to blend a number of my favourite genres into one great tale. As a measure of how well the book has been received, I understand (from an interview with Richard Morgan) that Altered Carbon has been optioned by Hollywood, and has joined the select ranks of books which might make it onto the big screen.
Altered Carbon mixes equal measures of hardcore action, political intrigue and detective story with welcome dashes of wry humour (and even a little porn).
Set in a future where humanity has colonised the galaxy and death is no longer something to be feared, individuals are fitted with ubiquitous 'stacks' which can backup consciousness, allowing that person to be 're-sleeved' (at a cost) in a new body if their own is damaged beyond repair.
The central character, Takeshi Kovacs, is a renegade from the Envoy Corps, an elite branch of troopers who are conditioned to have superior combat skills. Killed while working as a mercenary on the colonised planet of Harlan's World, Kovacs wakes to find that he has been 'needlecast' (digitally freighted) and resleeved by a mysterious 400 year old benefactor called Laurens Bancroft. Kovacs is coerced into investigating Bancrofts recent 'death', which appears to be an open-and-shut suicide, only Bancroft refuses to accept that. We follow Kovacs as his investigations lead him into serious jeopardy, where more is at stake than the superficial death of just one man.
Altered Carbon contains some fantastic sci-fi conventions, most of which have been done before in some form or another, but never quite this slick. Although the book deals with futuristic concepts, it is gritty enough and seemingly 'real' enough, to be very accessible (compared to hardcore space opera 'Revelation Space, for example).
I especially enjoyed reading how the Envoy conditioning and Neurachem worked. You almost get to know these augmentations as well as Kovacs himself, and to me they seemed to be likeable 'characters' in their own right, especially when they are struggling valiantly to keep Kovacs upright and fighting on the 'Panama Rose'....
Although packed with technology, gratuitous sexual references and gore, the story deeply explores what it would be like to be essentially immortal, and to have the benefit of a backed-up existence. Morgan clearly associates immortality with hedonism, and it is interesting to see how the more depraved characters satisfy themsleves, given an unlimited timespan to sate these urges. Religion is also explored - if the mind is so easily transplanted, then what requirement is there for a soul?
These concepts are cleverly juggled in various ways to create some of the storys finest moments and twists.
The author, Richard Morgan, has a knack of creating appealing tidbits of information that, if he was inclined to explore them, could probably fill entire books of their own.
I sincerely hope he continues to explore.