Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

altered-carbon_uk_pbWhat an unutterably execrable piece of absolute shite.

I’ve been puzzling over precisely how to express my views of this book since about 15% of the way through. I’ve even been live-tweeting it (mainly as an outlet for bafflement and fury), and come up with some suggestions there*, but I think this about sums it up. Because it was, without a shadow of a doubt, a terrible, poorly-written, poorly-plotted, poorly-characterised, boringly-paced, predictable, formulaic, smug, misogynistic piece of utter garbage. I am angry at this book for existing, to be honest. I have been angry since the second fucking page and I am going to continue being angry.

And breathe.

So, the book is set in generic, grim cyberpunk future. Corporations! Corporations everywhere! Our protagonist is a hard-boiled investigator from a much grimmer planet than earth, with a shady past in the Extreme Military (so that he is Amazing At Everything), brought to earth by a rich dude to solve a murder. The twist!? The murder is of that very rich dude! Because in this future, you can download yourself into a new body if you have enough money. It is… not a stunningly original plot. Hard-boiled protagonist must then wander earth being hard-boiled and solving crimes/sexing ladies/being aware at the reader about the fact he has a penis.

Yes, seriously.

Because, for some reason known only to the author, it was apparently really fucking important to keep us up to date on the erection status of our protagonist. And have him walk down the street with all the prostitute advertising. And inform us again. And give us a really detailed description of the interactive prostitute advertising and its effect on his intimate areas. And also describe prostitutes with penis necklaces. And a man with a snake-but-also-it’s-a-penis tattooed on his abdomen. I shit you fucking not. Now, call me a prude, but I am just not that interested in penises.

And don’t get me started on the sex scenes, sweet Jesus god I mean…

Firstly, “milking” is not a word I’m ever going to consider fine for sexy usage, and doubly so when describing an act performed upon a woman. Also, “pneumatically-breasted” is… I don’t even know where to start. Also there’s the bit about someone’s heated buttocks which is just creepy. And their nipples being like… rope? And then, AND THEN, we get the sexy sex drug that one of the sexy ladies secretes, to make her extra sexy. Right up until the author describes it as being in “her juices” *shudder*, at which point nothing is ever going to be sexy again. I could go on, but I don’t think anyone wants me to.

The point is, to drag us back a little, that the sex scenes are appallingly cringey, and I consider it an honourable service I have performed in my duty to books to have actually read both of them. I don’t think even teenage boys are quite so ridicu-… ok fine, maybe teenage boys. But anyone with a shred of awareness is not going to be anything other than embarrassed on the author’s behalf. He’s turned the dials up to eleven to demonstrate that OH MY GOD THE PROTAGONIST, HE SO MAN, SO GOOD AT THE SEX. And left us with something ridiculous. Multiple times. And the hint of sexy clone sex island of paradise and glory.

It’s just juvenile and pathetic, really.

Which isn’t helped by the fact that all the characters are horrifically two dimensional. There are the sexy women (one manipulative, one angry… and then some prostitutes whose defining characteristic appears to be being prostitutes). The evil woman, who is ever so slightly sexy, but mainly evil. The rich guy, who is mainly rich and monologuey. And then our protagonist, who has the depth of puddle in the Sahara and the interest value of a damp j-cloth. He’s 100% off the rack, writing-by-numbers, hard-boiled detective.

Which brings me nicely round to the misogyny. So you take some cyberpunk (often misogynist) and smush it up into some hard-boiled detective story (often misogynist) and of course, the misogyny cancels out. Spoilers: no, no it does not. A woman is fridged on the fucking second page. And not even really fridged, because to be honest the protagonist mainly forgets about her while he’s busy being Manly and So Hardcore and Very Detective. And thinking about his penis. But she gets killed off, just after the protagonist describes her curves as being like a sine wave, and thinks about her pulling woollen socks over “the sheen of her thighs”… which seems a bit implausible to me, being as I am acquainted with both socks and thighs. And that’s all she is. He brings her up a couple of times but isn’t even… that sad? Too busy sexing the ladies, I suppose. And it doesn’t ever really get above that low, low bar. There are a lot of jiggling breasts, short skirts and suggestive handling of tennis rackets, and not much in the way of actual female agency, even from the sexy female police officer.

Because apparently everyone just wants to do what this guy says, because he’s been in the Extreme Military (which is like Peter Grant’s magical GCSE in everything, but much more violent). Even when he decides to just… kill a lot of people. Very dead. For spurious reasons that I would consider misogynist (I think the author thinks they’re chivalrous). Because the protagonist is a horrible, horrible human being… but never gets cast as an anti-hero, which would at least mean the author had noticed the shittiness and made is aware of it. But no, we’re meant to blithely accept Captain Murder and his Head Chopping Habit as an actual, honest to god hero. Come the fuck on, Morgan, give us some credit as vaguely intelligent beings. Give us… something to work with. But no, clearly we’re meant to be in some way impressed by the machismo bollocks… like it’s nineteen-fucking-seventy or some shit. It’s 2017**! PLEASE TRY.

And it didn’t even have the decency, as most detective novels of this type do, of being an easy read. My god it dragged. I got through it quickly by sheer force of will, because I wanted to be done with the fucker, and get onto a halfway decent book (The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, if you’re interested), not by any virtue of the writing or pacing. At its best moments, the prose is entirely unmemorable, but at its worst, it is so, so clunky, with some descriptive turns of phrase that are evidently meant to be quirky but clever but just fall totally flat. He’s obviously aiming for grimly industrial and gritty, but you can’t just put it everywhere. It doesn’t work for describing e.g. breasts. Mostly, it makes you look a prat. Who can’t write.

I think you’re getting the idea of what I think about it. Maybe.

So, I made some predictions when I was early in the book and I was preeeetty close to the mark. Those predictions were a) the solution to the whodunnit and b) which of the ladies he would sleep with. It was not a stunning bit of detective work on my part to get there. But I did. Nothing that happened in the book surprised me, except by the depth of its terribleness. And the sex scenes. And focus on penises.

Apparently, they’re making a Netflix series of this too (which is why it’s even vaguely relevant). The only good thing I can think of about that is it’ll deprive us of the protagonist’s internal monologue, for which we should all be grateful. But seriously? Why? Reading this made me want to watch The Matrix, because Keanu Reeves is hands down a more convincing, emotional being than our protagonist could ever hope to be. Even in the third Matrix film. EVEN THEN.

So, before I just end up saying “penis” again***, to sum up: this books is godawful on every metric – oh, I didn’t even mention the bullshit “science”, where apparently women’s skin is an organ but men’s is a barrier, and women would be way better than men but they’re impaired by periods so it’s all fine… among other quackery – and no one should have to suffer it, ever. Somehow, it won an award. I can only assume either the panel or the voters (I don’t know what sort of award the Philip K. Dick is) were all blind drunk and/or massive misogynist eighties nerds. It’s the only explanation. There are no redeeming qualities that could explain it otherwise.

So… yeah. I hated it. It got 1 star. It’s competing for “worst book of the year” and I almost think it might have beaten Too Like the Lightning to that accolade… because that at least tried to be interesting on any metric. This is just bland, generic, totally predictable bollocks. I’ll have to think on this one. But don’t read it. Don’t ever read it. You’ll never get those hours back.


*Of which by far the most likely was “My review is just going to be me shouting “I DON’T CARE ABOUT HIS PENIS” over and over again, isn’t it?”. Which tells you probably more about this book than you’d really want to know, because oh my god yes, that was a valid issue I was having.
**Still, just. 25 minutes left.
***Thing that actually happened, I was discussing this book early on in reading it, and we ended up singing “penis man, penis man, does whatever a penis can”. This is what it does to people. Be warned.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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One Response to Altered Carbon – Richard Morgan

  1. Pingback: 2017 in Books | A Reader of Else

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