“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Overview: 1984… The year of Big Brother… at least that’s what George Orwell has people believing. But when the total security-surveillance state failed to materialize, sci-fi fans were looking elsewhere for inspiration. June saw the third Star Trek film hit theaters. October had the shit blasted out of it by a small-budget called The Terminator. But in between… in July… a new book hit the sci-fi section of bookstores. It would be a book that would change sci-fi and the future… only nobody, not even the author, knew it yet. But for anyone who read that famous first sentence, all they thought they knew about science fiction was effectively shocked out of their system.
That book was Neuromancer, written by William Gibson. Gibson had been writing short stories with “Fragments of a Hologram Rose” first published in 1977. Even way back then, there were elements born that would mature into the now-familiar characters, setting, and themes of future cyberpunk tomes. Surprisingly, the release of a movie two years earlier nearly doomed the book. Even after a dozen rewrites, he pushed on and completed Neuromancer. And the rest is history…
The Story (in case you haven’t read it yet, slacker): Henry Dorsett Case was an expert hacker, a “console cowboy”, who can blaze through the virtual world of the Matrix with the best of them. He was caught stealing from his employer, but they let him keep his gains because they were going to “make sure he never worked again” and poisoned his nervous system with a mycotoxin leaving him unable to hack.
Now wandering the streets of Chiba’s Ninsei “Night City”, a drug-addicted Case looks for a cure, or at least a way to die. One night, he returns to his coffin hotel only to meet a leather-clad woman named Molly who was hired to recruit him for biggest hack of his career, complete with repairs to his nervous system and a cure for his drug addiction…
Wait a second… why am I giving away so much of the plot? This is book you need to be reading! WHY HAVEN’T YOU READ THIS BOOK YET??? You’ve only heard about it now? Oh, OK. I understand…
Discovering The Underground. Somehow, this book totally slipped under my radar in the 80s. Between school, good music on MTV (with real music videos), and video games I was probably too distracted. But thanks to Billy Idol’s album, I was introduced to words like “cyberspace”, “virtual reality”, “Neuromancer”, and even “cyberpunk”. The first three really didn’t connect until I got a book called Virtual Reality Playhouse, a book about VR with some demos, which explained that the term “cyberspace” came from Neuromancer. Thus began a quest to find the book…
Neuromancer cover, digitaly painted by Rick Berry (1985). Also used for the 10th anniversary printing. Click pic for artist’s info on Wikipedia.
Found it in time for its 10th anniversary printing, and I haven’t been the same since. For someone who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars (well, more ‘Trek’ than ‘Wars’) and playing Starmaster on my Atari 2600, Neuromancer presented a pleasant shock.
Does the book still give that same shock today? Somewhat, but not for the revolutionary themes contrasting against the cookie-cutter space operas. Instead, the book has become a prophecy for our digital world.
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . .”
A (self-fulfilling?) Prophecy. Sci-fi has always been an influence on scientific progress, and some have even become reality. For today’s world, none has been more influential than Neuromancer. The concept of ‘cyberspace’ for example. Has it really become the “graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system”? Not exactly, though not for the lack of trying. Since the book’s release there have been several attempts to create a virtual reality system for the home. From Mattel’s Power Glove to the Occulus Rift head-mounted display, there have been several toys to try and recreate that VR experience. Take a look at your favorite first-person shooter or vehicle simulation game. They’re about as close to that cyberspace as Gibson envisioned. There’s even a Wiki dedicated to VR. As far as the “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” part, it’s called the Internet.
Remember losing your VRginity at the arcade in the early 90’s playing Dactyl Nightmare?
Hackers? Case was one, before the mycotoxin poisoning. And since then… At least we now have ICE. Well, firewalls, anti-malware, and other tools to stop hackers from getting into our systems. Replacement organs can now be printed in 3D, and we now have a bionic pancreas! Look at your laptop or tablet computer. Possible Ono-Sendai decks? It seems Gibson’s magnum opus was quite prophetic, but some elements even he may not have foreseen. Cellphones, and sequentially smart phones, were noticeably missed.
Neuromancer’s effect on realtime aside, its effect on following works can clearly be felt. If Molly Millions didn’t exist, would Mokoto Kusanagi, Aeon Flux, Trinity, … a whole section on ass-kicking cyber-chicks? Would Case use today’s “smart drugs” with his new pancreas? Human personalities in RAM and/or ROM form? These and other now cyberpunk themes had existed even before Gibson was born, but he managed to bring them together in a way that continues to reverberate in media and society. Is Gibson a prophet, or did he just make some lucky guesses? Or did Jack Womack ask the right question in the 2000 printing: “[w]hat if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?”
“In the bars he’d [Case] frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat.”
The train derails before it leaves the station. It seems that writing a book like Neuromancer would have come easy, but even Gibson faced some hurdles along the way. In particular, one movie almost caused Gibson to cancel the book completely.
Sometime in the early 80s, Gibson was commissioned to write Neuromancer for The Ace Science Fiction Special Third Series, a series showcasing the debut novels of sci-fi writers. He was given one year to work his magic, but felt it could take four to five years to write. In a “blind animal panic” he began writing and in 1982, he had one-third of the book done. Then he went to see a movie…
The movie was none other than Blade Runner. After watching the first 20 minutes Gibson had a sinking feeling about his book. He felt it was game over, that people would read his book and think it’s a Blade Runner rip-off. He wound up rewriting the first two-thirds a dozen times, feeling he was losing the readers. He finished but still felt his career would be ruined by the novel.
It wasn’t. The novel is hailed as the “archetypical cyberpunk work” and one of the most influential books in sic-fi history. And Gibson, he’s still writing…
30th anniversary cover, focusing more on Molly.
Conclusion: Thirty years is a relatively short time for one book to cause so much damage. Then again your bibles, Korans, and torahs have been causing damage for thousands of years, and the good kind of damage either. Neuromancer, on the other hand, not only changed sci-fi as we knew it, but changed the future as well. Even now, its influence can be seen in our advancing technologies, felt in our lives, and even heard in our music. Yes, even music, from mainstream artists like Billy Idol and Warren Zevon, to “underground” and rising acts like Dope Stars, Inc., Atari Teenage Riot, and Fear Factory have rocked our ears off to some Gibsonian themes.
Many college courses in cyberpunk have Neuromancer on their reading lists, but that doesn’t mean you need to go all academic to read it. This is mandatory reading for all cyberpunk and sci-fi fans. Just hit your local bookstore or library, borrow/steal it from a friend, download and/or read it off the Internet, listen to it on your iPod if you need to… Get the book and commit it to your memory banks. And if you already read the book, read it through again and see if it gives you the same prophetic shock like it gave me.
“He never saw Molly again.” Maybe you should see her again… and again.
The Ghosts of Zero by “The Digital Alchemist” (No audio track)
1. Geist Anthropic 1:4
2. Too Much Is Never Enough
3. Cenotaph, or We’ve Been Reduced To Lo-Fi
5. Love Simulacra
6. Cold As The Gun
7. …And Weave The Spider’s Web
8. Geist Threnodic 2:4
9. Best Served Flash-Frozen
10. Geist Eidetic 3:4
11. All The Good Things You Are
13. Made In Brazil | Living In Japan
14. Crossed Swords
15. Geist Intrinsic 4:4
16. Anodyne Fading: The Wolf Without
18. Deep In The Deep: Reaction-Diffusion Dies Tonight
19. Unto The Interface
Overview: Cyberpunk continues to inspire writers and readers some 35 years after William Gibson wrote his first short story. Now a new group of writers, artists, and musicians have come together as the Very Us Artists to create the latest cyber-anthology complete with its own soundtrack. It’s not so much a book and CD, but a multimedia package. But does it work as a whole, or should certain parts be omitted?
The (Back) Story: The prologue (The Ghosts of Zero) gives us the basic back story of the rest of the book:
Corporations became bigger than “too big to fail;” they became governments and nations unto themselves and the established powers were unable to stop them, especially when the corporations began absorbing military forces or creating their own as “security.” That’s when the Multinationals Wars(TM) started as the corporations screwed the law over and courts became battlefields. World economies virtually died out as currency was replaced by World Bank Currency, a.k.a. WBC, the W, or simply “dub.”
Technology advanced as the corps wanted the best weapons for “hostile takeovers.” Robots and nanotechnology soon appeared, but without Skynet or SHODAN (which was good news or bad news depending on how you wanted to see it). The Internet slowly died out as privacy and freedom was overrun by surveillance and censorship, but was replaced by Worldnet, though nobody knows how it came to be.
The (Front) Stories: At first, this anthology may seem like 19 separate stories set against the backdrop of the above scenario. But once you start reading the eighth story, you suddenly realize that there are more common threads running through the book than just the back story. In particular, the four “Geist” stories about a former pyra-play addict who risks everything to hunt down a creature called the “Geist” (as in zeitgeist, the spirit of the times). The Geist attacks systems like a mosquito feeding on blood, but in doing so causes major disruptions. The other stories gives background on the technologies, people, events, and the Geist itself.
Not all the stories as connected. Some are simply stand-alone, side stories. Even so, they further enhance the dystopic scene of the (post)Multinational Wars(TM) as couriers, Stomp Brawl (a future MMA) fighters, librarians, and even children fight for personal and human survival in dark and dangerous times. My personal favorite is the librarians who are trying to save the data from an ice-based computer that’s shutdown and melting.
The Soundtrack: Have you ever tried reading a book while music was playing in the background? Sometimes it helps to read with music from a radio, CD, iPod, or pirated MP3s playing as a “soundtrack” for your book. If only all books had its own soundtrack…
A CD with the book (or MP3s with the ebook) has 19 tracks that correspond with all the stories (except the prologue) ranging from ambient synth-instrumentals to outright rock songs. I listened to the disk after reading the book and the tunes brought back some memories of the stories. It would have been better if I was listening while reading to get the full effect. But with or without the book, they still make good ear-candy.
An example of the music from the Foreshadows CD: Bilian’s “Love Simulacra”
Conclusion: The Very Us Artists have made their case for the next generation of cyberpunk, and it’s a pretty bold statement. A broad collaboration that shows what multimedia should have been in the 90s. Even now there’s word of more than could be published in a book. Webshadows continues where the book leaves off.
Some might balk at the $36 US price tag for the book/disk combo, but given the amount of work that went into this project, the whole being more than just the parts, and current prices of books and CDs, the price is well worth it.
Update: Just got word from John LaSala, one of the masterminds behind the Foreshadows project, that he is willing to cut 10% of the price for the physical package. Just go to their website, purchase, and when asked for a coupon tell them ROBOTO10 sent you.
First of, an apology. I had received Ryan’s second Street of Eyes novel back in May. That time period was rather confused with a lay-off, some temporary work, unemployment, then being called back to work, and a reading and review got lost in the shuffle. There’s only one way to describe how I feel for letting this go for so long…
Fortunately, I did manage to cram the entire book into my eyeballs this weekend. I can say that the second Street novel ain’t no huurrr-duuurrr hurpa-derp. What it is is a worthy successor to Empathy that picks up where it left off: With Gina recovering on a Ukraine fishing trawler after her fall from an airship in a lifeboat. She gets to know the ship’s captain, his wife, and the fishing village where the couple live. But her telepathic powers are still in effect, and they have her hopping into the heads/bodies of Rat and Bomber. Soon, Gina wants to leave the simple fishing life and try to find Bomber, fearing Gabriel may have killed him.
Meanwhile, Bomber (now going by Simon Caine) is recovering from jumping out of that same airship. He begins looking for Gina and Gabriel, but needs help from hackers Jock and Rat. Rat is given a unique opportunity: She is invited to be a ranked hacker by working for the lead hacker himself, the King of Laputa. Only she meets another woman who used to be the leader until outed by the current king and is now planning a revolt against what she sees as a “boy’s club” (the Fifteen leaders of the hacker nations).
Past Prologue. For Clairvoyance, we get to learn more about some of the character back-stories. Gina used to be Emily Vaughn, the daughter of a well-to-do family who resented her father’s social climbing by “being a lap dog for the Federation.” Bomber was a US Marine who underwent ID changes as needed. And Gabriel was a survivor of a nuclear attack because of a secret nanotech program. This gives our characters the background that explains their current actions, and a little foreshadowing as those pasts return to haunt them in various ways.
Don’t derp out on volume two. Already, Ryan is working on the third and final Street volume (aka Precognition) on his site. If Clairvoyance is any indication, Precognition should be the magnum opus for the Street series. In the meantime, better get Clairvoyance (and Empathy if you don’t have it yet) to prepare for the grand finale.
Authors: Dan O’Bannon & Jean “Moebius” Giraud (Illustrator)
Year: First appeared in Metal Hurlant, 1976
Category: Cyberpunk Books; Graphic Novels; Proto-Cyberpunk Media
Another piece of the proto-cyberpunk puzzle is found. So far, proto-cyberpunk media has dealt more with the themes of cyberpunk. But what about the look, that Blade Runner-esque future with stratosphere busting skyscrapers and flying cars? Did Ridley Scott have that vision in his head all along?
As it turns out, there was a major influence that would spark the future visions of Scott and Gibson: A short comic about a private eye (or “nose” as the main character called himself) who is hired to retrieve a package. The story itself isn’t much (too short to call it a novel), but the artwork is what influenced Scott and Gibson.
(From Blade Runner Movie site) “Years later, I was having lunch with Ridley, and when the conversation turned to inspiration, we were both very clear about our debt to the Metal Hurlant [the original Heavy Metal magazine] school of the ’70s–Moebius and the others. “
Problem: Metropolis had these city scenes some fifty years earlier! Did Gibson and Scott ever see Metropolis? Apparently not, since they give their props to Moebius:
“So it’s entirely fair to say, and I’ve said it before, that the way Neuromancer-the-novel “looks” was influenced in large part by some of the artwork I saw in ‘Heavy Metal’. I assume that this must also be true of John Carpenter’s ‘Escape from New York’, Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’”, and all other artefacts of the style sometimes dubbed ‘cyberpunk’. Those French guys, they got their end in early.”
Fritz Lang and the Germans beg to differ.
My advice: Check both out and see who had the future first.
Authors: Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele (illustrator)
Year: 2006, 2009
Category: Cyberpunk Books; Graphic Novels
NOTE: This review will cover both graphic novels The Surrogates and The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone.
Coming to a big screen near you. With the Surrogates movies opening this Friday (Sept. 25), I’d thought we should check out the book that it is based on. Originally a five issue comic, The Surrogates shows life in 2054 Georgia (US) as a police detective searches for a person who is destroying “surrogates,” robotic avatars that people use to interact with the real world from the safety of their homes. There is also a prequel, The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone. The two books are combined into the The Surrogates: Owner’s Manual.
Synopsis: Lieutenant Harvey Greer investigates the destruction of two surrogates that is first attributed to a “flash storm.” A data-recording unit on one of them shows that they were actually destroyed by an electrical discharge from someone or something that would be called the “steeplejack.” Greer suspects that the steeplejack may be working for a religious cult called The Church of The Prophet, aka the “Dreads,” who are known to have a history against surrogates.
As Greer delves deeper into the mystery, his own surrogate is destroyed by the steeplejack, who plans to disable or destroy all the surrogates. Instead of replacing it, he decides to continue without it, and does find who is behind the steeplejack and the anti-surrogate plot.
In the prequel, Flesh and Bone, a homeless black boy is beaten and killed by rich white kids using their parent’s surrogates. This causes the Dreads’ anti-surrogate movement to swell, leading to a riot when the most reliable witness to the beatings is killed before them. After some negotiations, the Dreads are allowed to leave the city and setup a “nation” where they can govern themselves. In this book, Greer is a patrolman waiting to hear back about his detective test.
Back Stories. In between the chapters of ink-on-single color pages come some ephemera that sets a bit of background: A research paper on the benefits of surrogates, a questionnaire, news clippings, and even “pamphlets” from Virtual Self, Inc. (Life… Only Better) and The Church of The Prophet (The Dreads). These add to the story by filling in some back details about how and why the surrogates became so popular and despised. In particular, a news transcript about Zaire Powell III proves quite revealing on how he murdered his baby sister and then set fire to his home killing everyone else. After his release he founded the Dreads movement.
But is it cyberpunk? If you need to ask, you must not be paying attention. I can say with confidence that *YES*, The Surrogates series IS cyberpunk. If the beating at the beginning of Flesh and Bone didn’t beat that point home, consider this: Greer’s wife commits suicide when her surrogate is disabled.
But, there are still some questions left; Will the movie follow the novel(s)? Probably not exactly, but Blade Runner didn’t follow Phillip K. Dick’s novel exactly either. Will the movie be any good? I’ll let you know this weekend…
Among the latest in CP. In my last book review (The Shockwave Rider), I covered what is undoubtedly THEE prototype cyberpunk work. Now I give you a recent work from one of Boing Boing’s co-editors, Cory Doctorow, as he tells the story of a tech-savvy teen’s battle with Big Brother in a post 9/11 America. Though targeted to a younger audience, old farts out there should give it read as well.
Synopsis. The story is told through the eyes of Marcus Yallow, aka “w1n5t0n,” a San Francisco gamer who ditches school with his friends to participate in an alternate reality game. Things go bad as a terrorist attack mobilizes the DHS, who kidnap Marcus and company and threaten to “make them disappear” if they tell anyone about their captivity and torture. When an injured friend isn’t released, Marcus wages a personal war against the DHS, who have turned the Bay Area into a police state, by using the various technologies available such as Linux for the Xbox and trusted networking.
How do kids figure out which search-engine results to trust? What happens to their Facebook disclosures? How can they tell whether a camera, ID check, or rule is making them safer or less safe? In the absence of the right critical literacy tools, they’ll never know how to read a Wikipedia article so that they can tell if it’s credible. They’ll never know how to keep from ruining their adulthood with the videos they post as a teenager, and they’ll never know when the government is making them safer or less safe.
The difference between freedom and totalitarianism comes down to this: do our machines serve us, or control us? We live in the technological age that puts all other technological ages to shame. We are literally covered in technology, it rides in our pockets, pressed to our skin, in our ears, sometimes even implanted in our bodies. If these devices treat us as masters, then there is no limit to what we can achieve. But if they treat us as suspects, then we are doomed, for the jailers have us in a grip that is tighter than any authoritarian fantasy of the Inquisition.
The book was intended to get the youngsters to thinking about their security and privacy in a tech-saturated world of paranoia, and to have them and their parental/guardian/mentor units discuss the point of how to better secure liberty and freedom on this prison planet.
For those in the UK, Cory Doctorow will be @ Forbidden Planet London on November 29, 2008 to sign copies of the UK version of the book. Click the pic above for details.
Conclusion. If you or someone you know is old enough to use technology, or needs to know about the consequences of its usage, this book is a necessary read. With the holidays coming up, this book would be an excellent gift for the hacker, gamer, or net surfer in your tribe. It just might open your eyes to the eyes of Big Brother.
“First we had the legs race. Then we had the arms race. Now we’re going to have the brain race. And, if we’re lucky, the final stage will be the human race.” - Angus Porter
Cyberpunk before cyberpunk. Before the word was ever coined, John Brunner created a world so close to what we now consider to be ‘cyberpunk’ that it needed to be read to be believed. It has a computer network that virtually… and literally… permeates American society, while secret government projects try to squeeze the best minds for all their knowledge to try to monitor a society uprooted by a massive west-coast earthquake. About all that’s missing are the cybernetic implants, although there are bio-engineered people and animals that seem to behave almost human.
What you have is THEE definitive blueprint of cyberpunk, even though nobody knew it for another decade.
Synopsis: The Pacific coast finally experiences “The BIG One” that kills millions and displaces millions more leaving them with nothing to live on except welfare. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation is experiencing their own kind of “overload” as varying levels of data access has left some without a permanent residence while the “privileged” live in their own kind of haven. To help cope (or, more like, to exploit) this flux, the US Government, under control of criminal elements, began programs to identify potentially “gifted” students to cultivate their “wisdom” to further the Government’s cause.
Nicholas Kenton “Nickie” Haflinger is the product of this program. His talents were being wasted in a failed education system where intelligence made you a target of gang violence. At the novel’s start, Nickie is back at his old academy at Tarnover where he is about to undergo a form of interrogation where his memories are replayed on a data-analysis system while he is unconscious. When Nickie was awake, he was subjected to further questioning and moral arguments with Paul T. Freeman, who is another of the program’s “graduates” from a place called “The Electric Skillet.”
Between the regression flashbacks and the moral point/counterpoints, we see how Nickie managed to elude the authorities while making a living (several, actually) using the skills he learned at Tarnover… and why he ran away to begin with.
Now for the good stuff! So, how did Nickie manage to elude capture for so long? Among his skill-set is the ability to program the data-net using nothing more than a touch-tone phone (PHREAKY!). That, and a high-level access code he stole. With these tools, Nickie was able able to quickly change identities to avoid being captured by creating… wait for it…
That’s right, worms! Those self-propagating programs that hog bandwidth are the result of this book. Nickie programmed his worms to erase all traces of his old identity and to create new ones when needed. He also creates a “super worm” that discloses information that the government has been trying to keep secret.
Another proto-cyberpunk classic for your bookshelf. Make some space next to True Names in your library. The Shockwave Rider is a book that must be in your collection.
‘How Stuff Works,’ Cyberpunk edition. Perhaps better known for his “How Stuff Works” website,Mr. Marshall Brain has since started his own site with some essays and stories. Out of curiosity, I did a search for “cyberpunk” on HowStuffWorks.com and they returned an article on “How Hackers Work,” so he/they seem to have an idea about cyberpunk. Manna also reflects this.
Synopsis. The story is told first-person by Jacob Lewis105, a burger-flipper at Burger-G when, on May 17, 2010, the end began. A simple PC in a back corner of the Burger-G had software installed on it called “Manna” (as in manage) that could micro-manage the workers via voice synthesis through headsets. Before long, other businesses replaced managers with Manna and clones. Eventually, this lead to a two-tiered society of the uber-rich execs and the minimum-wage slaves… until robotic technology advanced to the point where the slavers are no longer required, and a good portion of the human population ended up in unemployment tenement “projects.”
Short, but sweet. Brain’s story is surprisingly good, but the ending did leave me wanting more. I wanted to see if the Manna-net would try to take over the paradise Jacob finds. But for eight “chapters” of 2-3 pages each, it is a good, easy read. If only it was in PDF or some e-text form…
In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for–the stories go–once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer’s true name, then routine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again.
This opening paragraph pretty much describes the premise of True Names. This novella, released three years before Neuromancer, gives us a cyberspace adventure that has influenced many a cyberpunk writer… possibly even Gibson himself.
Synopsis: Roger Pollack is a computer wizard who frequents the “Other Plane” as “Mr. Slippery” and has other wizard friends whose “true names” are kept secret, even from each other. He is confronted by agents of “The Great Adversary” (The US Government) who has reason to believe that another wizard named “The Mailman” is recruiting other wizards for some type of coup on the net that can lead to control of reality.
Everything you’d expect from cyberpunk… and then some. The “Other Plane” connects to many nets, nodes, and databases. Anyone who has the ability to connect and control them can become a virtual god, and when Mr. Slippery finds out who… or what… The Mailman is, you’ll understand why this novella is definitely cyberpunk.
Don’t believe me? Read it online. (BIG ACK signal to “The Rectifier,” though I have yet to find the zip file he mentions.) You can still find the story for sale by itself, mostly online, or as part of a collection like True Names & Other Dangers and True Names: And the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier.
The next generation of cyberpunk has arrived… in 2002. Richard K. Morgan’s debut novel has brought forth a new era of cyberpunk literature that has already produced dividends from Ryan Span (Street: Empathy) and Mr. Morgan himself with two sequels and an unrelated book. JIVE Magazine has gone so far as to name him The New King of Cyberpunk Fiction. Even now, a movie is being made from this book (IMDb reference - Empty for now) due to be released in 2009.
Cyberpunk is said to have that “noir” atmosphere about it, borne of hardboiled detective tomes. Altered Carbon takes the noir factor and overclocks it to make it read like a detective novel. Or, maybe it’s a detective novel that takes the cyberpunk factor and overclocks it to make it read like a cyberpunk novel. However you want to look at it, Altered Carbon is a novel that needs to be read, then read several more times.
They wear their stacks on their sleeves. To better understand the premise of the novel, a quick overview of the key technologies featured…
First, you have “sleeves,” cloned bodies for when you die. For the sleeve, there’s the “stack,” a recording device that’s implanted at the base of your brain when you’re born. The stack records and stores your every thought, emotion, sensation, memory, etc. Your digitized brain can then be uploaded to virtuality, or transmitted (”needlecast”) across the galaxy, where a new sleeve awaits your arrival on another planet.
If your meat body dies, the stack is removed and “re-sleeved” (implanted into a new clone body) so you can continue your existence. That’s IF you have the insurance, loving relatives, or a sleeve-fund ready to pay for the new bod. Otherwise, you go into storage, possibly for centuries. Also, the stack itself can be corrupted or outright destroyed, resulting in “real death.” Some are fortunate, and rich, enough to have their stacks backed up like you would back up your hard drives. Backups are done every couple of days, so if your stack is destroyed, the backup is re-sleeved and you loose a day or two of memories. For someone who has the cash, they can have several sleeves at the ready along with a backed up stack, theoretically enabling them to live forever. Those who have lived through several sleeves are known as Methuselahs, or simply “Meths.”
One such Meth is Laurens Bancroft. Bancroft recently had his head destroyed, along with his stack. Because he had a backup of his stack done a couple of days before, he was able to be re-sleeved, but has no memory of the events leading up to his “death.” The police said Bancroft committed suicide, but he doesn’t believe them and hires an outsider to conduct his own investigation. That outsider’s name: Takeshi Lev Kovacs.
The universe through Kovacs’ eyes. Kovacs is a former U.N. “Envoy,” a form of super-soldier who undergoes special spiritual/psychological training to prepare them to adapt new new bodies quickly for interstellar deployment. Often these new bodies are augmented with neuro-chemical implants to enhance their sleeve’s senses and abilities. Because of their training Envoys are banned from holding government jobs on any world and tend to turn to a life of crime upon leaving the corps. Kovacs was serving time in storage for an unspecified crime when he gets needlecast to Earth and re-sleeved as Elias Ryker, a Bay City (San Francisco) cop, to investigate Bancroft’s death.
From the prologue, where Kovacs is killed, to the end of the novel, we get to experience Kovacs’ adventure through his senses. In a way, this book may actually be Kovacs’ stack transmitted back from 500 years in the future. During his investigation, we see how his Envoy training serves him, especially during a particularly nasty torture in virtuality.
Catholics… or How religion poisons the future. An interesting thread in the novel concerns Resolution 653, a case in a U.N. court where a dead Catholic is going to be subpoenaed and made to testify by re-sleeving. The Vatican has decried re-sleeving as blasphemy, claiming that a human soul is not saved on the stack but goes directly to God upon death. About the only good news about this is that Catholics are easy targets for murder, since they won’t be re-sleeved to testify against their attackers.
This book needs to be imprinted upon your stack. If you preferred to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? over watching Blade Runner,Altered Carbon is something to put on your “must read” list. Just like reading cyberpunk novels? Here you go. Want to see what the next generation of cyberpunk fiction is like? Take a look. Prefer detective novels over cyberpunk? You’re at the wrong site, but Altered Carbon is definitely noir enough for you.