Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

SF-noir cyberpunk, story about a future where people's identities can be stored and downloaded into different physical bodies. Kovacs is an "envoy" - a kind of soldier who is trained to cope with alien environments - and following a failed mission in which his body was killed, finds himself downloaded into a new "sleeve" in order to solve a crime.

I had a bit of trouble following the plot in this book, and I think this was partly because the characterisation wasn't very good: pretty much everyone was cynical and hard-bitten, and there were at least four major female characters who I couldn't really distinguish. This is made a bit worse by the fact that the same "person" could be manifest in different bodies, so references to "Kovacs" don't always mean the same physical body, especially when he's downloaded into the body of the man who's the boyfriend of one of the main female characters.

BUT - that's a fairly minor complaint, because what was good about the book was the ideas. Although the central concept is not a novel one (in fact Larry Niven has a story using the same idea in the short story Rammer), a lot more of the consequences of "re-sleeving" are explored here. In Morgan's universe, people have a "stack" implanted in their neck, and this stack is what tracks their identity. When your body dies, the information about "you" can be retrieved from the stack and used to transfer you to a new sleeve. Criminals have their stack put into storage as punishment for their crimes, and are re-sleeved at the end of their sentence, but not necessarily into a suitable body. People pay to have their stack contents uploaded and archived every so often, so if the stack is destroyed along with the body, then you can be restored from your most recent backup.

This opens a lot of cans of worms: what happens if the same personality is downloaded into two separate sleeves? Are there two "you"s? If you're restored from a backup that was made a week before you died, what happens to the experiences of that week? Are "you" responsible for them?

Technology relating to virtual reality has also advanced, and so you might find yourself downloaded into a virtual world, where you can experience things that would not be possible in the physical one. And so various people are "tortured" in such virtual settings, in order to obtain information. This leads to the interesting suggestion that while too much torture cannot "kill" someone, it can drive them insane. I had to spend some time thinking about this one - can you be made to be insane when you're not attached to a physical body?

One of the drivers for many of Niven's stories is the problem of finding enough physical body parts: that doesn't seem to be an issue here. In part this is because "sleeves" can be synthetic, and there is some mention of bodies being cloned or cultivated, but there's not a lot of detail to explain how the world copes with the disparity between number of bodies and number of minds.

So a pretty good book - I think I got the gist of the "whodunnit" by the end, even if I didn't follow all the nuances of the plot - and there was plenty of food for thought in there for philsophy of mind devotees.

Completed : 28-Jul-2007

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