Altered Carbon and Spin State

It’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts about books I’ve read. While I tag the episodes as “reviews”, I’m not really trying to write something to help you decide whether or not you want to read the story — it’s more an analysis of the writing to give me new ways to look at my own work.

Recently I bowed to the suggestions of Amazon and bought two Science Fiction novels, Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan and Spin State by Chris Moriarty. I must say that the Amazon suggest-o-matic did a fine job.

The two books have much in common. For instance, both take place in universes where information is not bound by the speed of light. This gives the universe the absolute timeline that makes faster-than-light stories so much simpler. Spin State uses Quantum mechanics sleight-of-hand (thus the title), while Altered Carbon uses less well-defined hand-wavery.

This leads to the core thesis in both books: If information can go faster than light, and humans can be described as information, then people can go faster than light. And if people are information, then information can be a person. Both stories have characters who are Artificial Intelligences. (They would argue that they are not artificial at all.)

In Carbon, (almost) everyone has a module installed in their head that records the current state of their brain. In the event of untimely death (‘untimely’ open to interpretation, budget, and religious belief), that personality and everything it knew up until the moment the recorder stopped working can be restored into someone else’s head (unless, of course, the recorder was also destroyed). Bodies are now referred to as “sleeves”, and there are more people than there are sleeves. The deceased and the incarcerated are now just files in a database, waiting for flesh to host them once more.

If you have enough money, you can live forever. You can even clone up a batch of replacement bodies, keep them in cold storage all over the place, and hop from one to another as a form of instantaneous travel. You can even have multiple copies of yourself, but that’s illegal, of course.

When you can live forever, it changes you. You’re lose a little of what it means to be human. You become a Methuselah.

Takeshi Kovacs is a bad-ass Envoy for the U.N., trained to withstand the stress of dropping cold into a new world, in a new body, and Doing What Needs to be Done. This time he finds himself on Mother Earth, the memory of his last death (and the death of good friends) only minutes old, subjectively. His sleeve this time has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make him stronger, faster, etc. He’s been called in by one of the wealthy immortals of Earth to solve that man’s murder — a murder so thorough that the ancient one lost two days of memory. The police have ruled it a suicide.

Takeshi has been downloaded into a body that used to belong to a cop who has been convicted of Horrible Crimes. The Envoy’s new employer chose that sleeve partly out of spite, as it’s the cop’s lover who is in charge of the murder case. She hates the Methusalahs, and they don’t miss a chance to rub her face in their power. Now she has to deal with some other asshole in the flesh of the man she loves.

It leads to some interesting questions about identity and what it is that attracts one person to another. Is part of attraction chemical, not governed by the information of who we are and how we think, but instead by glands and receptors and the stuff that’s built into our meat? Do we become chemically familiar with the people around us?

One thing I didn’t buy: criminals are put on the shelf for a given period of time. This is supposed to be a punishment, but think about it: if you rob a bank and get caught, you will be instantly (as far as you experience) shot a hundred years into the future. Sure there’s some shock there, but unless you posit that society and technology has completely ground to a halt, the future looks pretty bright to me.

Altered Carbon is a detective story with Science Fiction clothing, and it follows the Detective Story Contract: The reader is given the information needed to figure out the answer, so when the detective reaches the conclusion you say, “ah, sweet!” rather than, “Hey, I call shenanigans!” Morgan does this well, though there are a lot of moving parts. For a while I was reading this at bedtime, and not in big chunks, and found myself going “wait – who’s that again?” a few times. If your memory’s like mine, this is a novel to read in big chunks.

I had several theories as the story progressed, and was right often enough to feel clever but there were still plenty of surprises. It was a fun read.

Notable side effect of the technology: once everyone’s wired up, advertising goes straight into your head. And it’s really effective.

In Spin State, Catherine Li is a bad-ass Soldier with the U.N., specially trained to drop in on a planet and Do What Needs to be Done. Her body has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make her stronger, faster, etc, but it’s past time she took them in to the shop for maintenance. We first meet her on a commando raid on a facility on some backwater planet. Their mission: get into the facility and stand by while a kick-ass AI gets what is needed from their data systems. An AI has no physical presence, but it can temporarily take control of a body that has special hardware installed.

The raid doesn’t go perfectly; the person who was the host for the AI gets killed, and Li blames the AI. Then she’s sent off to her next mission, which turns out to be a real bitch. It’s on her home world, and a past she doesn’t remember starts to catch up with her.

There’s a wrinkle when people are sent across the void using quantum-mechanical spin state stuff: A person’s memories don’t always come out intact on the other side. As a person makes more jumps, they become more and more reliant on hardware installed in their heads to remember things for them. That means that their bosses see everything, and soldiers only remember what their boss wants them to. Li has a vague notion that she’s done some things she’s not proud of during a grinding, protracted struggle in a war that’s over but not really. It makes me think of Stalingrad. The enemy in this case is a system of worlds called the Syndicate who have decided that the old way of making new people is obsolete; instead they clone up batches and throw away all but the best, culling them as they develop until there is a family of exceptional humans who all have the same face.

It turns out Li has one of those faces, but she’s had it surgically altered to escape discrimination in UN space. Another woman with the same face is a famous scientist who has been murdered. And Whaddayaknow? We have an action-mystery story. You see, the quantum-spin faster-than-light mechanism relies on an exotic material that only comes from one place. Once that supply runs out, humanity must return to decades-long (centuries-long?) journeys between planets, and the UN’s benign rule becomes impossible to maintain. So Famous Scientist was trying to figure out a way to synthesize the material. Or at least, that’s what she told people she was doing.

So that AI that flaked and may have cause the death of Li’s comrade? It goes by the name Cohen, was born on Earth (when Earth was still a pleasant place to be), and clearly has designs of its own, however much it may be working with the UN right now. And it has a history with Li. Cohen interfaces with the world through a variety of people who have shunts installed, and I have to tip my hat to Moriarty for his carefully natural-sounding language differentiating the host meat from the personality within.

Lesson one: Don’t turn your back on someone with a shunt installed. You never know who might show up.

Li is the natural pivot point in all this: she has hidden Syndicate roots but embodies rugged individualism; she has a connection with a powerful AI, and she does the ugly jobs for her boss who is a Big Wheel at the UN. She’s a good soldier and accepts that she remembers what her superiors choose, but she’s convinced that it’s all for the right reasons. She roots for the wrong baseball team, but I’ll forgive her that.

Warning: Spoilerish paragraph:

While the AI in Altered Carbon is an interesting side character, Cohen in Spin State is central. He (yes, ‘he’) was one of the first machine intelligences to emerge, and much of the time he seems, well, human. Later Moriarty shows us that ‘Cohen’ is not really singular, and that the nature of machine intelligence is entirely different than our mushy biological intelligence. Yet they share one thing with us: a desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are also better than us at just about everything. In that light, the human engineering programs of the Syndicate start to make a lot of sense. Alter humanity or get left behind.

There were, I must say, a couple of things that bothered me about this story. I simply cannot believe that the mine for the material that the entire economy is based on would be run the way it was in this story. Even if extracting the mineral is an art form, the rest of the labor would be more cheaply done by robots in a society this advanced. I think the writer could have found plenty of other ways to create local unrest.

Also, virtual reality has advanced to the point where it’s indistinguishable from physical reality. I’m having a hard time articulating what it is about that that bothers me, except that it seems to be unable to let go of physical reality. People meet in virtual representations of real places, and can be embarrassed by the arrival of other people in that place also. If you’re a super-AI, how do you allow that to happen?

But for those nit-picks, I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Two stories of hard-nosed people in over their heads. There is shooting, and sex, and explosions, and questions of identity. People die horribly when their heads are hacked. Philip Morris will be glad to know that tobacco has followed mankind to the stars and back again, to be thrown in an acid-rain puddle under a flickering streetlamp while taxis rush by.

Note: if you use the above links to buy one of these books (or The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey), I get a kickback.

7 thoughts on “Altered Carbon and Spin State

  1. Trying to get in touch with you concerning your Jers Novel Writer program. Stumbled across it while trying to find a program to fit my need, and it seems to be perfect! Yes, I actually yet the entire info box about agreeing to your terms and the entire ‘Read Me’ documentation, and sniggered at all the snarky comments. Your sense of humor seems to match my own. Any way to buy a license? I can’t seem to find an operating link on your site. Regards.

    • Hi Meredith. At this time there is no way to buy a license, because I am not actively developing the software. I’m tempted to pull it out every once in a while, but I have a day job now (at Apple, so it’s not all bad), and that means precious free time is for writing, rather than coding.

      The only thing the license does is shut up the nag window, so you do have fully-functional software. I hope you enjoy it, and if I do go back to working on it, your current version will be the first to know!

      • Warm congratulations on your position with Apple. I am enjoying the program greatly. I love the side notes feature. That is the single best feature of any of the writing programs I’ve tried to date. That and the character organization. I do hope one day you continue to develop the program, but until then, thanks for leaving it posted! Regards.

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