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Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy

“Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh? The vision that said we would be angels.”

I recently finished Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy. Most people probably know the material better as Altered Carbon, the mostly loose TV adaptation from Netflix.

If you’ve seen that, you have an idea of the kind of world we’re dealing with.

It’s an immensely dark cyberpunk future where ancient alien technology has given humans a bump in progress… or so you would think. In conjunction with advancements in cloning and other biological augmentation, the new ability to digitize human minds into cortical “stacks” allows mankind to travel the stars without having to worry about aging or even the passage of time. Data can exist in perpetuity and be sent long distances at fast speeds, say across the stars to distantly colonized planets. If you die and your stack is undamaged, you can be resurrected in a new body. This has traumatically changed the way people view life, death and their own sense of reality. For instance, destroying someone’s stack is called “real death” and considered murder, but it’s only “organic damage” if you kill them while leaving the stack intact. Also, human bodies (real or synthetic) are referred to colloquially as “sleeves.”

We follow the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs. He used to be an Envoy, imperialist super commandos who can topple governments, kill without remorse and find ways to manipulate just about any person or situation to their advantage. Most people have to spend time adjusting when they receive a new body, whether they died or not. Envoys like Kovacs were specially trained and conditioned to slip into any body, quickly adjust to their new surroundings and carry out their mission.

ALTERED CARBON

The first novel follows Kovacs as he’s resurrected over a hundred years after being gunned down, and gets wrapped up in a clandestine murder mystery. He’s brought to the industrialized hive that is now Earth on behalf of Laurens Bancroft, a ridiculously wealthy and nigh-immortal societal elite. Laurens recently died under not-so-mysterious circumstances: the police rule it as the suicide it appears to be, but the resurrected Bancroft arrogantly insists he would never kill himself and is convinced someone murdered him. He uses his connections to acquire Kovacs and puts him on the case, which Kovacs learns is even more complicated than it seems.

Altered Carbon probably works the best out of the trilogy since it is, at its heart, a detective story set in a cyberpunk dystopia. Familiar ground for us sci-fi junkies. It’s also the only one of the books that takes place on Earth, which hasn’t changed that much, even with the massive technological shifting of norms and the tyranny of the United Nations Protectorate. Luckily, as an Envoy who soaks up cultural/environmental data like a sponge, time displaced off-worlder Kovacs never really feels like a fish out of water. With this framework, the book functions as a solid introduction to this world and how its unreal advancements have affected human civilization, from the mundane to the gaudy. Those who watched the Netflix series will also find this book to be the most familiar; although, there are significant differences.

Perhaps the most easily digestible one of the Kovacs stories. It tells a rather well-worn plot and fleshes it out with a deftly crafted futuristic ecosystem that is written to feel plausible in the worst ways, while at the same time establishing the tone and atmosphere of the trilogy as a whole.

BROKEN ANGELS

The second book was my favorite of the three. This is probably because it’s the most unconventional. Picking up like 50-60 years after Altered Carbon, Kovacs is now caught up in a chaotic war on a planet called Sanction 4. He’s got an enhanced soldier sleeve with specialized wolf-pack instincts, but that’s a small comfort for the shit-show he’s enduring. Another war-weary soldier presents him with what could be a way out, and a chance to become exorbitantly rich: somewhere on this planet is a gateway to an ancient Martian starship, an invaluable relic which has never been seen before. Seeing this as a chance to escape his miserable plight, Kovacs accepts the job to find this ship and sell it off to the highest bidder. He and his devious new partner enlist the help of a professional excavator turned tortured POW, a voodoo-worshipping corporate executive, and a colorfully rag-tag selection of formerly KIA military specialists. They’ll have to maneuver around (and, in some cases, exploit) the planetary war if they want a chance in hell of finding their prize and escaping the nightmare of either continuing to participate in the war or being punished for desertion. Although once the journey begins, things quickly start going wrong.

I think the reason Broken Angels worked so well for me was because it really commits to the stark barbarity of this universe. Kovacs is always a mercenary figure, affecting a sociopathic impartiality in most circumstances, but here he is a literal sociopathic mercenary. He’s capable of caring about people — usually a woman he will inevitably have sex with — but is generally a cold-calculating individual who looks out for himself. Even more oppressive than his internal battle are his external surroundings. Sanction 4 is in the middle of a world war, one in which the soldiers on both sides can be repeatedly deployed, killed or maimed on the battlefield, resleeved into new bodies (if their stacks are salvageable) and redeployed. A war fought between heartless militarized conglomerates and brutal extremist revolutionaries, both of whom will destroy entire cities full of bystanders for the slightest advantage.

Between the war in the background and the ill-fated plot to steal the old starship. there’s an element of horror to this novel the other two don’t quite match.

WOKEN FURIES

The third and last book finds Kovacs on Harlan’s World, his home planet. His personal vendetta against an insanely radicalized religious group is interrupted when he encounters a lethal and enigmatic woman. Operating under the alias Mickey Serendipity, Kovacs joins this woman and her team of “de-coms,” a crew of grungy cyborgs tasked with decommissioning sentient military hardware. However, they unwittingly discover something that could possibly threaten the status quo of their twisted intergalactic civilization. Which understandably puts the ruling class of Harlan’s World on alert. In order to put a lid on this situation, they get maybe one of the only people who might pose a threat to Kovacs: a backed-up version of Kovacs’s younger self, illegally double-sleeved to hunt down the Kovacs who is presently making trouble for everyone.

Of all the books, this is probably the most ambitious. It’s also the only one in the trilogy where it feels like the protagonists have actually done something to affect the world they live in; the other two books, Kovacs is mainly just trying to learn what he can and come out of the fire unscathed. Here is where we see all the history and world-building from Altered Carbon and Broken Angels pay off. And it offers a relative conclusion to this character’s story.

OVERALL

If you’re looking for something a little edgy and action-packed, get ready, because these books are a lot edgy and action-packed. While Kovacs always has to do a little sleuthing, he's used to being a blunt instrument. Like, he's intelligent, even philosophical to a degree, but also has to constantly regulate his frayed, amped up mind so he doesn't lash out and fatally assault people for annoying him in some way. He's a man who's got a lot of well-earned cynicism about the state of human existence. His Envoy background makes him an (often rightfully) arrogant individual, but he's not blind to the fact that he's an unfortunate byproduct of the world he lives and dies in.

For the most part, he's a fun Snake Plissken type protagonist. An anti-hero with a deeply hidden heart of gold. He's something of an escapist character, at times. I mean, sure, he's an ice-man whose life is defined by endless violence, but who wouldn't want to be a highly sought after ex-super soldier who's smarter and tougher than just about everyone, who can adapt to just about any predicament he finds himself in, and who is magnetic enough to seduce (or be seduced by) practically any woman...? Well, lots of people, I'm sure. Okay, so maybe Kovacs is more of an escapist character for male readers. Sue me.

Luckily, if you find the hero too abrasive, each book usually has a decent round-up of supporting characters whose comparative normalcy offsets Kovacs's always heightened perspective. And each book ends up having solid antagonists. My favorite was Isaac Carrera in Broken Angels, a seasoned military leader with enough vicious resolve to unnerve even someone like Kovacs.

Although, in truth, the real villain of the trilogy is the world itself. Richard K. Morgan always maintains that vibe. That everyone in these novels, good or bad or something in between, is trapped within the momentum of the bloated, dissociated society they were brought up in. He does it in a way that reflects the state of our own world. It reminds me of an Andy Warhol quote: "Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery."

That said, the high-toned morbidity of it all did start to wear thin once I got to Woken Furies. Maybe I was just ready to be done with Kovacs. At a certain point, his sense of revenge (no matter how justified it may seem) just comes off as petty and sadistic. I mean, the novel does end on a tone of hope, but that's after the third 400 hundred pages of Kovacs bemoaning his awful lot in life between all the scenes of him selfishly embarking on crazy adventures, surviving things no one else could survive, owning one idiot criminal after another, having sex with damn-near every attractive woman he makes eye contact with and generally doing whatever the hell he wants.

I did find it interesting that, in most of the reviews I've seen, people are more put off by the graphic sex scenes than the far more numerous scenes of graphic violence. Personally, I like how the sex scenes are written, but usually dislike how they come about in the narrative; past Altered Carbon, they all seem obligatory. That said, I just find it funny that the sexual content in books like these are seen as distasteful, but the writing in 50 Shades of Grey is apparently something to get hot and bothered over.

I'm grateful it's not all debauched grim-darkness, though. The dialogue never feels unrealistic, the way it sometimes can when writers attempt to portray futuristic societies. The prose is always sharp and quite detailed, whether describing architecture, technology, philosophy, politics, action, sex, etc. More than anything, I think I just like the conflicts Morgan creates and how he slowly builds up to them in each book.

If what you're looking for is something low-key and light-hearted, this ain't it. However, if you're into cyberpunk stories but can also handle the ingrained bleakness and the testosterone soaking every page, then you'll probably have a lot of fun with these books. It helps that each one is rather self-contained, with not much overlap between the stories aside from Kovacs himself.

Takeshi Kovacs quotes (be careful not to cut yourself on the edginess):

Takeshi Kovacs: “It was the single forgiving phrase in the syntax of weaponry I had strapped about me. The rest were unequivocal sentences of death.”

Kovacs: “I walked beside the woman I had killed last week and tried to hold up my end of a conversation about cats. There.”

Kovacs: "I'd love to have access to all the shit you believe. I'd love to be able to summon someone who's responsible for this fuckup of a creation. Because then I'd be able to kill them. Slowly."

Kovacs: "Anger was a constant. The constant companion the last two years and longer, rage in myself and the rage reflecting from those around me. I no longer questioned it, it was a state of being... rage was the default setting."

Quellcrist Falconer quotes:

Quellcrist Falconer: "The personal, as everyone's so fucking fond of saying, is political. So if some idiot politician, some power player, tries to execute policies that harm you or those you care about, take it personally. Get angry. The Machinery of Justice will not serve you here — it is slow and cold, and it is theirs, hardware and soft. Only the little people suffer at the hands of Justice; the creatures of power slide from under it with a wink and a grin. If you want justice, you will have to claw it from them. Make it personal. Do as much damage as you can. Get your message across. That way, you stand a better chance of being taken seriously next time. Of being considered dangerous. And make no mistake about this: being taken seriously, being considered dangerous marks the difference — the only difference in their eyes — between players and little people. Little people they liquidate. And time and again they cream your liquidation with the ultimate insult that it's just business, it's politics, it's the way of the world, it's a tough life and that it's nothing personal. Well, fuck them. Make it personal."

Falconer: "The human eye is a wonderful device. With a little effort, it can fail to see even the most glaring injustice."

Falconer: "If they asked how I died, tell them: Still angry."

All in all, I'd give the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy three and a half out of five sleeves.

2 comments:

  1. Logan, I'm very much a fan of the so-called "hard" sci-fi, and your review is intriguing enough for me to at least try the first book.

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