I first read Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon not long after it was published. I’ve read a few of his other books, too, and I really like his style. For reasons of “I have too many other books on my pile”, I haven’t got around to reading the rest in the series… although having been reminded of the book by the Netflix series, I’m going to remedy that this year. I’ve just re-read Altered Carbon itself.
Because my memory was fuzzy, I went into the show with only a vague memory of characters and plot. Which was good, actually, because it meant that I got to be surprised by plot twists and be immersed in the world-building.
I loved both the book and the show. This post contains spoilers for both, because I want to compare them.
I had heard some people complaining that the tv show was more simplistic than the books – which didn’t surprise me, although I couldn’t recall if I agreed. Having now re-read the book (and watched the show, um, twice), I disagree. Yes, the show has reduced some of the complexities, but in other ways it introduces more, and different, complexity. The two are actually quite different. It made me think of a film or tv show and its reboot: there are characters in common, and similar or identical plot beats, but with definite differences – perhaps to account for when it’s made, or directors’ stylistic differences, or whatever.
So the show is, I think, more racially diverse. (See this article for some good points on that topic and also some good points about the violence against women, which would be a whole other post for me and is covered here pretty well. DON’T READ THE COMMENTS.) It changes Kristin Ortega to be of Mexican(ish?) descent – in the book she’s described as having cheekbones courtesy of a Native American ancestor, which is weird and maybe racist? I’m Australian, I’m not sure of the nuance there – but otherwise doesn’t mention her appearance. (More on Ortega later.) The show makes Elliot and his family black – which is interesting but also changes the plot somewhat, since the whole point of why Bancroft wanted to have sex with Elizabeth Elliot is a physical similarity to his wife (who is white and blonde in both). Quellcrist’s physical appearance isn’t mentioned in the book, as far as I noticed, nor the race of other Envoys, so having at least some of them be not-white was positive.
What I think is the most stark difference between the two is the emphasis on family. In the book, we learn that Takashi had a difficult home life, but very little detail. We see that Laurens and Miriam Bancroft have a fairly distant relationship, and that Elliot loves his family, but they get little interaction on the page. In the show, though – what a difference. I adore the fact that Ortega’s family gets so much time (although I am a bit cranky about her being made so much shorter than Riker/ Tak, since in the book they’re almost of a height; I did enjoy the actor in the role, though). The familial argument about whether it’s a good idea to re-sleeve Grandma for a family celebration puts the whole issue of Catholics’ opposition to stacks etc into great relief. I also just love how MUCH Ortega we get in the show, even though she is clearly obsessed with getting her boyfriend back and clearing his name (which I do understand). In the book, she really is just there as suspicious support for Tak. Even her mum gets a bit of character development! That’s so cool!
Tak’s family also gets a great deal more depth – and maybe that’s coming from the other books, I’ll find out soon. But seeing his relationship with his sister, and then making Reileen be that sister grown up, is deeply intriguing. I wasn’t entirely convinced by her motivations in the show, although towards the end it started making a bit more sense… but it’s still a really interesting difference. It’s not like the Reileen in the book has much more character depth, so it’s a change not a loss.
The Elliots are far more present in the show than in the book – Vernon Elliot has zero to do with Tak and his mission in the book, unlike the show where he becomes an unwilling and not very helpful assistant. And we never meet Lizzie in the book; she’s just mentioned as waiting to be re-sleeved. So I love that she gets to have a hand in her own vengeance (much as I disapprove of violent vengeance in the real world…). The book has Ava Elliot be re-sleeved in a white body, but still female, while in the show she’s given a white man’s body. Part of the point of Tak’s training is that re-sleeving happens so often it’s meant to be straightforward, but that’s not the case for most humans – especially when they haven’t chosen it. What I was impressed by in the show is that although Vernon Elliot is initially bewildered and maybe horrified by the body his wife has been shoved into, he does come to grips with it and they do share intimate moments. And to my eyes, it’s not shown to be homophobia or transphobia, but more about that very specific experience of an unexpected body for his wife. (Trans folk etc should feel free to point out where I’ve missed stereotypes and so on, because I wouldn’t be surprised if I have.)
Even the Bancrofts, dirty Meths that they are, get more family exploration in the show. We don’t ever meet a Bancroft child in the novel, but two of them feature in the show and the son is a significant bit-part.
Perhaps the most intriguing change with Tak is his relationship with Quellcrist Falconer – and again, maybe this is coming from the later books, but it’s definitely not in this first one. It humanises him in a way that I think is really fascinating, since he commits such dreadfully violent acts and is himself subjected to terrible violence. Visually, to have a contrast with his time with Quell I found quite affecting. I think I have more sympathy for TV-Tak than I do with book-Tak, because there’s more emotional depth to hook into.
A curious change that I’m still trying to think through is the change from having the hotel be the Hendrix to one themed around Edgar Allan Poe. The Hedrix’s avatar is rarely a Jimi Hendrix lookalike (not until near the end, in fact), so I don’t think this is a case of erasing a black character. Perhaps the creators of the show thought that the AI of a Poe-hotel would be more likely to get into the spirit of an investigation? I have no idea. Also, the show creates the AI poker scenes and arguments from whole cloth, which I think is deeply interesting… and perhaps fits into the notion of family being a connecting theme across the episodes…
Finally, the book doesn’t have the Hello Unicorn! backpack, which is clearly a problem. (I found this article while looking for a picture.)
I’d like to say that The Cold Commands is a satisfactory or entertaining sequel to Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, but those who have read the latter would know that I was lying through my teeth; it couldn’t be either. So I will go with ‘appropriate.’ Other adjectives to describe it as a novel include ‘enthralling,’ ‘chilling’, and ‘relentless’.
You could probably read this without having read the first book, but personally I wouldn’t recommend it; partly because things make more sense in context, and partly because The Steel Remains is excellent.
The enthralling part comes largely from the characters: the situations they find themselves in and their development as people. As with the first book, the story is largely told from the perspective of Ringil, Egar and Archeth. Ringil is recovering – slowly – from his time with the dwenda Seethlaw, but he has changed: not only older, maybe wiser, definitely sorer, but in some even more intangible ways also involving blue fire and interest from the dark gods themselves. Ringil is a delightfully ironic take on the stereotypical fantasy hero; he’s a warrior, wields a sword gifted to him by non-humans, and has a strong sense of justice… but he’s also homosexual in a world that doesn’t accept that, has been disowned by his family and forgotten by most of the world, and doesn’t particularly want to fight most of the time. On the other hand, Egar Dragonbane quite likes fighting, almost as much as he likes having sex. Exiled from his home on the barren steppes, Egar is struggling to come to terms again with city living and his one-time mistress. Egar is definitely more in the Conan tradition, and provides an interesting contrast to Ringil, with the added benefit of more brains that nomadic barbarians have classically been awarded. Also, more humour. Rounding out a truly unlikely trio is Archeth, I think the most interesting of the three. She’s a half-breed – half human, half Kiriath, the now-absent one-time allies of the humans – which means she has access to and some control over what might be magic or might be highly advanced technology (there’s definitely some playing with the old Clarke adage here). She too is homosexual, leading to some difficulties, which combined with the fact that she is female and has the ear of the emperor – sometimes – leads to clashes with religious authorities. On top of all of this is her continuing anguish at having been left behind by the Kiriath, which she feels both as a betrayal, and as a failure on her part, of not being good enough to accompany them. These three came together many years before the events in even The Steel Remains, to deal with the threat posed by the Dragons. The Steel Remains was mostly about their individual adventures and problems, with those issues coming together towards the end to reveal the beginnings of a very interesting pattern. Here, they have their own chapters, but the links between them are more obvious and their private fights and confrontations more definitely, if still obscurely, connected.
Chilling and relentless describe the overall plot; both are to be expected in a novel by Richard Morgan. The Steel Remains left our (anti)heroes having defeated a possible dwenda invasion, and feeling slightly uncomfortable about what that might mean for their world. Dwenda are still something of an issue in this sequel, but there are other maybe-threats too, such as the Dark Court, the gods worshipped by some, who are paying an disturbing level of interest to the goings-on of individuals like Ringil; and something, or possibly someone, that appears to have newly come from the absent Kiriath but without a user’s manual. Plus there’s the everyday, run of the mill threats like a mildly crazy emperor (who might feed you to the octopus), unpleasantly near-crazy religious zealots, and inter-city strife over trade and slavery. The relentless part comes from the steady pace of things going wrong or new problems being discovered. It’s not frenetic, in that the characters are not running from one thing to the other unless they’re being chased; instead it’s like a normal few months where almost nothing goes to plan, and problems pile up on top of each other slowly and steadily. Ringil, Egar and Archeth find themselves involved in problems they would actually rather not have anything to do with, thanks all the same, but don’t seem to have a choice about. All of that is chilling, too, as is the uncomfortable knowledge that while there are some happy times for the three protagonists, this is unlikely to all end well. And then there’s the deft and clever world and secondary characters created by Morgan; that’s chilling too, because they are so very real. For example, the various cities and their politicking, internal and external, are intricate and recognisable, and quite clearly keep going about their business without much concern for the events being portrayed in the novel. Then there’s the slavery, newly legalised in a number of states. Slavery, and the treatment of slaves, is often portrayed in an unemotional way – as a business opportunity. It’s clearly not because Morgan approves of slavery; Ringil in particular works rather hard to stamp it out. But the presentation of how it could become normal very quickly is indeed chilling because of its plausibility. And the way that people appear to have forgotten recent history, too, is both plausible and recognisable.
Overall this is an enthralling piece of fiction, ticking a lot of boxes for me: quirky and original characters; action that’s well-described and gritty without being in love with gore; deft world building that doesn’t swamp the story; and a story that leaves me desperate for more. I am fairly sure that there should be a third book about Ringil and his grim band (not that I’ve seen anything official about that), which makes me very happy indeed.
In which we bid farewell to the queen of dragons, squee about 48 years of Doctor Who, dissect the negative associations with “girly” fandoms such as Twilight, and find some new favourites in our reading pile. We can be downloaded from iTunes or got at Galactic Suburbia.
48th anniversary of Doctor Who!
A website devoted to The Weird and created by Luis Rodrigues. The project is the brainchild of editing-writing team Ann & Jeff VanderMeer.
Critiquing the Bigotry of Twilight-haters, not the same thing as defending Twilight
Call for contributions/suggestions for our GS Award.
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Once Upon a Time; The Courier’s New Bicycle, Kim Westwood
Alex: The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan; Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds; The Glass Gear, in Valente’s Omikuji Project; also watched Thor.
Tansy: All Men of Genius, Lev A.C. Rosen; God’s War, Kameron Hurley. Comics: Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman (abandoned); Batgirl the Greatest Stories Ever Told
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I’ve been a big fan of Richard Morgan’s science fiction for a while now. When I heard about this (new in 2008), I was interested… and then I stopped being interested. It sounded too much like stock-standard fantasy: the down-and-out swordsman, the half-breed magician, and some barbarian. Really didn’t grab me.
I ought to have known better. I ought to have trusted Morgan’s sensibilities. I ought to have remembered what this man did with Takeshi Kovacs over the space of three novels, and realised that no way was this going to be some boring sword-n-sorcery weak-ass adventure.
I got the sequel, The Cold Commands, to review, and I figured if I was going to do it justice I should read the first book. So I sent my trusty sidekick to the library for it, and I opened it… and, of course, I fell right into this crazy world of ambiguous history and complicated characters.
There are three points of view presented turn-about, chapter by chapter, right up to the end where things finally come together. The down-and-out swordsman is Ringil, scion of an impressive family who are mortified by his homosexuality, while they ought to be bursting with pride because of his role in the recently-ended world-consuming war. The half-breed is Archeth, half-human and half-Kiriath, a race who have recently abandoned this world and taken most of their pretty technological toys with them; she too is homosexual, which adds (in the eyes of those around her) to her exotic, possibly dangerous nature and their disapproval. And finally there’s Egar, once mercenary for the sprawling and decadent Yhelteth Empire, now back home herding buffalo and sleeping with buxom young women of the tribe.
That paragraph highlights just some of the wonderful complexity and narrative twists Morgan places before the reader. It feels like one of those ten-years-later sequels, with its references to the war against the Scaled Folk (dragons, people, dragons; and Egar is known as Dragonbane) in which humanity was aided by the non-human Kiriath, with their technological mastery; now the Kiriath have left the human world, the alliance of disparate human empires and city-states is falling apart, and – of course – the veterans of that war are having to cope with a world that doesn’t necessarily appreciate their sacrifice or understand how they have changed. But it’s not – unless there have been short stories set in this world that I don’t know about, which is possible, this is a reader’s first introduction to it. It’s nice to be brought into a world that’s a complicated, messy place with seriously complicated history. It doesn’t always make sense, especially the somewhat complicated political situation, but Morgan writes with such finesse that I was quite confident it would all come together in the end. And it does… except for the bits that clearly pave the way for a sequel. And I can forgive that. Mostly.
So: the characters. Ringil is making ends meet in a village near his glorious last stand in the war against the dragons, getting pennies for telling stories, until his mother turns up to beg a favour in the form of tracking down a cousin who has been sold into slavery. This, naturally, turns out to be much harder than it sounds; in the first place it means going home and facing his father. And next, it brings him face to face (um… so to speak…) with something out of mythology. Archeth’s life is at the whim of the Yhelteth Emperor, Jhiral, being the left-behind Kiriath half-breed that she is. She goes where he wills if she knows what is good for her, which sees her in this case going to a harbour town where there has been a seriously weird sort-of invasion: sort of because someone/thing clearly came ashore and destroyed much of the city, but then… they went away. Archeth is very suspicious. The third protagonist, Egar, is on the face of it far less complicated than the other two. How complicated can herding buffalo be? … and then he insults the tribe’s shaman, and things go from bearable to fairly bad. With some supernatural prompting. (Seeing a pattern here?)
The plot barrels along at a brisk clip, moving neatly between characters and places, and the characters are captivating from the opening pages. Aside from those two aspects, the really intriguing part for me was the hint that perhaps this isn’t a straight-forward fantasy world at all. There are definite science fictional overtones, starting with the Kiriath and their obvious technological superiority, which is only regarded as sorcery by the clearly backward and superstitious; Archeth and others who fought with them are well aware that it is technology, created by creatures with superior ability, but not magic. Then there are the hints and allusions from various apparently-supernatural characters about other worlds, and travelling between worlds, and what that actually means. Consequently, I’m pretty wild to read the sequel, to see what Morgan does next.
Dear self: trust Richard Morgan. He knows what he’s doing.