Customer Review

87 of 108 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bad novel, bad noire, bad SF, March 27, 2004
This review is from: Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs Novels) (Paperback)
Obviously my very strong negative reaction to this novel is in the minority, so before anyone takes my opinion too seriously he/she should take a look at some of the other reviews. Since I am writing in dissent here, I apologise for my less than pithy comments. To see where I'm coming from, you might want to read 'Voice of the Whirlwind' (Williams) which is very similar to 'Altered Carbon' and which succeeds where 'Altered Carbon'falls short. I can review the high points quickly, the thumbnail sketch of the noirish detective story is very good (the overall plot strategy you might say) and the writing on a scene by scene or at the line level frequently sizzles, however at the operational level of plotting and character 'Altered Carbon' mostly failed to work for me. It doesn't work as good science fiction either, and that's a good place to start.
The first person narrator (Kovacs, the 'detective') is supposedly an informed citizen of his future, yet he often lapses into modes of thought which are more appropriate to much more primitive times. This lapse into anachronistic thought patterns happens either for the sake of expedience or to create bogus 'surprises' for both the reader and the narrator. There's a good example of the expedient variety where the protagonist goes off onto a pointless killing spree, knowing that he's under close surveillance by the police and one or two other parties without worrying about any sort of precautionary or evasive action. Maybe Kovacs is just being stupid because the guy doesn't even look over his shoulder, but it also shows that he isn't worrying about futuristic bugs, vastly improved video surveillance syetems etc. So I guess this exemplifies two shoddy practices, expedient anachronism and stupidity. Obviously, the author's aware of this fault as there's an attempt to paper over this problem, when it's later revealed that the police lost track of Kovacs, but of course he had no way of knowing that at the time he set off on his rampage. If devices of this sort are employed sparingly, I'm pretty forgiving, but if I see that the writer uses them knowingly and often, I think he's disrepecitng my intelligence and indulgence.
The problems with character and plot in 'Altered Carbon' are so closely entwined it's hard to treat them separately. However, the first big problem is that Kovacs is inconsistent, and ironically, another character in the novel obligingly points that out to us, though the inconsistency encompasses more than merely his personality. He's supposed to be some sort of renegade super-effectvie super-psychopath as the result of special training and conditioning. However, he seems more like an impotent, gratuitously violent, unpredictabley sentimental thug, maybe someone like Bobby Brown (Whitney's beau). Everybody in the story, including the viewpoint character, tells us the opposite though. In the context of all the violence and adulation, the reader expects Kovacs to be a smart tough guy, but looking at what he does, how he does it, and why he does it, there doesn't seem to much support for that belief. In order to talk about why the protagonist appears to be wonderfully ineffective and how most of the other characters fail to work for me, I'll need to look at the plot.
The plot moves largely by employing a hackneyed device from detective stories. Almost every bit of knowledge or effective action that comes Kovacs' way is either provided by, done by, or massively enabled by the various women that our hero encounters. Virtually everything he does on his own is either wrong or futile or stupid. Basically, the women he meets fall over themselves to help him out (to be fair at least one wants to kill him) it's like watching a TV episode of 'Mike Hammer' which equally relied on this cliche, but with tongue firmly in cheek, 'Altered Carbon', alas, has no sense of humor about it's absurdities or awkward bits. This dependence on others renders Kovacs very passive and ineffective as a character and makes it hard to beleive what we're told about him or that he qualifies as an amazing and scary guy. Anyway, in order to believe that all these women (and at least one computer) are willing to go to great lengths, take substantial risks, and go against their own best interests to help Kovacs out, I require either sufficient motivation or plotting that manages to keep me from worrying about what is motivating the characters. In this case, I worried a lot about motivation and generally found it wanting, though there's one striking and very cool counterexample.
I think I'll now close with another coupled defect, an example of noire failure and the eager embrace of a dangerous and very popular plot convention which has been ruining many Science Fiction novels for years. A classic noire story is a gestalt allegoy. It starts with the protagonist working on the basis of bad data, mistaken theories and flawed methods, he/she follows these and tests them against a radically different reality, which leads to an enlightenment and some sort of action and conclusion in harmony with the true state of affairs. The point of maximum cognitive dissonance generally occurs very close to the climax. In 'Altered Carbon' this point occurs about 1/3 of the way through the story, and at that point the first part of the novel has an abortive termination and then the novel gets started almost from scratch all over again. For me, the tempo never felt right thereafter. I've seen this structure work, but most of the authors I consider superior noire stylists don't even try. The practice of throwing away a big chunk of a novel and starting all over again is bafflingly common in Science Fiction, and the conventional noire plot easliy lends itself to it, but it's rarely pulled off in either genre or combinations thereof.
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Tracked by 2 customers

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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 28, 2008 4:56:41 AM PST
Don says:
I too was disappointed with the book which I found less and less interesting as it progressed. It felt formulaic. The author set up what could be profound issues and acted as if he didn't see them: mind-body dichotomy, the need for sexual reproduction in a world of clones, and overclocking the CPU of the mind (part of mind-body, but one he specifically sets up). He does broach some issues with unnatural eternal life, wealth disparity, and bodily appetites, but then over works sexuality in a manner which seems written to increase readership rather than plot.

Posted on Dec 20, 2009 7:17:40 AM PST
I tend to agree with a lot of your points. Even the idea of moving consciousness from one body to another as a form of travel and use of enhanced engineered bodies was "borrowed" from a 2000 B-flick Xchange.

Posted on May 7, 2010 1:02:10 PM PDT
James May says:
One could pick apart many an SF novel like this. Take a deep breath, have fun with it, it's just an entertainment book. Congnitive dissonance: WTF? So Morgan's not a Cartesian, what else didn't we know going in? I actually thought it was quite a fun read. Wish a Japanese anime version existed.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 21, 2010 7:46:17 PM PDT
Except that it was not fun. Even the Storm Troopers can shoot better than the cardboard cut-out bad, bad people in this pulp-o-boredom. Kill him. Murder him gruesomely. Make it hurt. This is a bad Itchy and Scratchy show cartoon.

Posted on Jan 25, 2011 10:50:15 AM PST
I finished the novel just last night, and I must say, I completely agree with all your points! However, I must disagree with your review title.
I can't comment on whether it's "bad noir" as I'm not a student of the genre, so I'll let that slide. But while it's a certainly flawed novel, novel with issues and some internal inconsistencies, it's by no means a "bad novel." In my opinion. Despite the flaws, I felt the plot moved with excellent pacing and a balance of action and exposition, the characters were interesting, the setting even more interesting (albeit maybe trying a little too hard to be mid-80s cyberpunk novel), and ultimately, I was entertained. If a novel can still be entertaining despite its problems, it can't be a bad novel.
As for "bad SF," that's a mixed bag. I agree that there seemed to be a significant problem making advanced surveillance and reasonable character actions (I had a problem with that as well), that's one of the things I feel SF novels like this need to be given a nod and a pass on, or else no one could ever get anything dine and the author would be forced to get mired in the tedious details of always having to explain how surveillance gets countered and how the countermeasures get countered etc. The SF elements otherwise are presented very believably and logically, and that makes it at least "decent SF" to me.
(Hmm, except for near-deus ex machina (almost literally!) role the hotel plays near the end. That's the only point where I rolled my eyes and found it difficult to ignore.)
I think, also, you may be giving Kovac's revelation of his supposedly anticipated character traits an unfair shake. While he himself describes Envoy training as creating quasi-psychopaths, I never got the impression he WAS a psychopath -- just someone trained to be able to act like one when necessary. From the first chapter we get glimpses that he feels, cares, and even loves. Throughout the novel, one of the running conflicts is his trying to make his training and his emotions co-exist, as they're often in battle. I thought that was reasonably well-done.
His writing, description, turns of phrase...his voice and style, are good in general, and excellent for a first novel!
In all, I'd call this "an engaging and entertaining SF novel with non-insignificant yet easy to ignore flaws." :)

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 19, 2012 1:29:27 PM PST
Oranges says:
I kept envisioning the setting for the book very much like the universe outlined in Cowboy Bebop. A take on this in that style would be astounding.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 19, 2012 11:07:11 PM PST
Tom Rogers says:
Interesting thought-I'd probably have liked this done as manga.
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