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Altered Carbon (2002) is a hardboiled science fiction novel by Richard K. Morgan. Set some five hundred years in the future in a universe in which the United Nations Protectorate oversees a number of extrasolar planets settled by human beings, it features protagonist Takeshi Kovacs. Kovacs is a former United Nations Envoy and a native of Harlan's World, a planet settled by a Japanese keiretsu with Eastern European labour.


In the novel's quasi-cyberpunk and somewhat dystopian world, human personalities can be stored digitally and downloaded into new bodies, called sleeves. Most people have stacks in their spinal columns that store their memories. If their body dies, their stack can be stored indefinitely. Catholics have arranged that they will not be resleeved as they believe that the soul goes to Heaven when they die, and so would not pass on to the new sleeve. This makes Catholics targets for murder, since killers know their victim will not be resleeved to testify. A UN resolution to alter this legal position forms one strand of the novel's plot, in order to allow the authorities to temporarily sleeve a deceased Catholic woman to testify in a murder trial.

Most people cannot afford to get resleeved more than once per lifetime, so while some people can live indefinitely, only the wealthy are able to acquire replacement bodies on a continual basis. The long-lived are called Meths, short for Methuselahs. The very rich are also able to keep copies of their minds in remote storage, which they update regularly. This ensures that even if their stack is destroyed, they can be resleeved.

One such Methuselah--a man named Laurens Bancroft--has apparently committed suicide, in which his stack was destroyed. He is resleeved from a backup. Because his stack is on a 48 hour back-up schedule, he has no memories of his actions during the previous 48 hours. He believes his apparent suicide was actually a murder and hires Takeshi Kovacs to investigate his death.

Kovacs was an Envoy, a member of a military unit formed to cope with the challenge of interstellar warfare. Faster-than-light travel is only possible by transmitting a digitally stored consciousness across space into a new sleeve. Transmitting normal soldiers in this way would severely inhibit their effectiveness, since they would have to cope with a new body and an unknown environment while fighting. To combat this, Envoy training emphasises mental techniques necessary to survive in different bodies over physical strength, and the sleeve in which they are transmitted has special neuro-chemical sensors which amplify the power of the five senses, intuition and physical capabilities. The effectiveness of the Envoy Corps' training is such that Envoys are banned from holding governmental positions on most worlds. Kovacs is persistently wracked by his memories of the action taken by the Envoy Corps in a battle on the planet Sharya and especially by the military debacle on Innenin, in which the Corps suffered extensive casualties after their stacks were infected with a lethal virus, Rawling 4851.

Kovacs, killed in the novel's prologue and stored in digital form, is downloaded into a sleeve formerly inhabited by Bay City (formerly San Franciscomarker) policeman Elias Ryker. The plot unfolds through Kovacs' narrative. Kovacs eventually solves the mystery, but only after a great deal of violence, including torture in virtual reality, which he is able to bear only because of his Envoy training.

Awards and nominations

Film adaptation

According to the back cover of Market Forces, and the review by Inchotaus Group the rights to Altered Carbon for film production have been purchased. IMDb presently states that a film of the same name is scheduled for release in 2009, to be directed by James McTeigue.

Release details

  • 2002, Great Britain, Victor Gollancz Ltd, ISBN 0-575-07321-7, Pub date February 28 2002, Hardback
  • 2003, Poland, ISA, ISBN 83-88916-91-2, Pub date 2003, Paperback
  • 2004, United States of America, Del Rey, ISBN 0-345-45768-4, Pub date March 4 2003, Paperback
  • 2004, Italy, Editrice Nord, ISBN 88-429-1287-5, Pub date 2004, Hardback
  • 2006, Hungary, Agave Könyvek, ISBN 963-7118-38-1, Pub date 2006, Paperback
  • 2006, Croatia, Algoritam, ISBN 953-220-422-9, Pub date 2006, Hardback
  • 2007, Finland, Like, ISBN 952-471-973-8, Pub date 2007, Paperback
  • 2008, Romania, Triton, ISBN 978-973-733-206-6, Pub date 2008, Paperback
  • 2008, Portugal, Saída de Emergência, ISBN 978-989-637-085-5, Paperback


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