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Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon, Ron McLarty
The Best Horror of the Year Volume Five
Ellen Datlow, Laird Barron, Conrad Williams, Ramsey Campbell
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Raymond Roussel
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Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon  - Richard K. Morgan, Todd McLaren This was pretty good contemporary cyberpunk. Morgan doesn't have William Gibson's way with words, but his characters are more interesting and his pacing and action scenes are much better.

There is the potential for a space opera here - the world of Altered Carbon is a far future in which humans have spread to the stars, and the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, was born on another planet, but this story takes place entirely on Earth, in "Bay City" (what used to be San Francisco). That and all the Japanese names and yakuza and such seem to be conscious nods to Gibson.

Kovacs is your basic badass ex-commando killing machine with a tortured past. He used to work for the "Envoy Corps"; in this far future, the U.N. is apparently the interplanetary government and it trains super-soldiers as "Envoys" to go do all the usual killing and pacifying for what turns out to be corporate interests and rich people. Same as it ever was. Kovacs gets disillusioned and turns rogue, and the book opens with a criminal enterprise he and his girlfriend are running going very badly. This is how we are introduced to the most interesting technology in this world: "resleeving." Basically, human minds can now be digitized and transferred ("sleeved") in new bodies. People convicted of crimes can be sentenced to virtual "storage" — your mind goes into a data bank for some period of time (potentially centuries) and in the meantime, someone else can buy the right to walk around in your body. Mix this with artificial intelligences and virtual worlds and you can see the possibilities for cons, grand schemes, and cunning plans are enormous.

Kovacs winds up on Earth, freed from his virtual sentence following his botched enterprise in the prologue, because a very rich "Methuselah" (someone who's been resleeved repeatedly for hundreds of years) wants him to do a job for him. Laurens Bancroft died, violently, a few days ago, and upon being resleeved from his backup storage, he of course has no memory of what happened after his last backup. The police say either he killed himself or his wife killed him. Bancroft refuses to believe either scenario, and wants Kovacs to find out who actually blew his head off and why.

This is where Altered Carbon crosses cyberpunk with a hard-boiled detective novel. Kovacs has to go looking for clues, and of course runs into all sorts of people with conflicting interests all of whom threaten him or bribe him to do what they want. The way in which he eventually uncovers what's really going on, gets caught up in an extensive web and snagged on multiple hooks and conflicting obligations, was quite skillfully plotted. He eventually unleashes bloody vengeance as is typical for this sort of story, and of course he runs up against multiple dangerous dames with whom he has a lot of graphically and sometimes laughably-described sex.

If you are fond of the "hard-boiled lone wolf bangs babes and carves a swath of bloody vengeance" genre, then Altered Carbon is the book for you. The whole digitized humans angle contains no ideas that haven't been floating around in cyberpunk for decades now, and certainly other cyberpunk novels have been written with a noir feel to them, but this is the best of the lot I have read recently.

There were some authorial indulgences (the sex scenes, the Jimi Hendrix AI-run hotel, and a whole lot of prostitutes) which are characteristic of a freshman SF novel (though I kind of liked the Hendrix). But overall, this paid tribute to its predecessors while not being wholly derivative, and I enjoyed it quite a lot, and wouldn't mind seeing a little more extra-solar SF next time.