Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan, has been widely acclaimed–rightly–as one of the best science fiction debuts of the last several years. Morgan transports the hardboiled detective style of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, or (more recently) Elmore Leonard, into a future world that he describes in convincing detail. Good prose style, good plotting, exciting read. But what interested me most about the novel was its take on the mind/body dilemma, the idea of downloading your consciousness into another body…
In the world of Altered Carbon, everyone is fitted at birth with a “cortical stack,” a tiny device that records all your mental experience and the states of your neurons. The cortical stack can be transported from body to body, as well as backed up digitally at a remote location. It can also be instantaneously transmitted elsewhere (i.e. to another planet) when physical travel would take a lot of time. And a cortical stack not actually embedded in a body can still lead an apparent corporeal and conscious existence in a virtual reality simulation. The novel’s detective protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, wears several different “sleeves” (as bodies into which cortical stacks are inserted are called) in the course of the novel.
At first glance, this sounds like the pipe dream of futurologists like Ray Kurzweil, who imagine that downloading our minds into machines is the utopian cure to all our ills. For the purposes of the novel, Morgan assumes that such a technology is indeed possible; but he is far more aware of its paradoxes and downsides than somebody like Kurzweil is.
For one thing, Altered Carbon is about the impossibility of truly determining where the body ends and the mind begins. When your cortical stack is implanted in a new “sleeve,” you reawaken with your memories and desires intact. But for all that, you aren’t quite the “same” person you were before. You have a different range of bodily sensations; you feel and see and hear differently than you did in your previous incarnation of flesh. You have a different range of abilities, depending upon what your new body is able to do. (For instance, neurochemical enhancements, that give you things like extraordinary eyesight or a hopped-up nervous system that can respond to threats faster, are properties of the sleeve, not of the mind inhabiting that sleeve). Your sleeve might be addicted to nicotine, for instance, even if you have never smoked before. And sexual attraction is messily divided between cortical stack and sleeve–your memories and desires move you in certain directions, but so do the pheromonal responses of your flesh.
As a result, finding yourself in a new body can be a profoundly disorienting and alienating experience. It’s nothing so simple as running the same “software” on a different piece of “hardware.” Altered Carbon is, among other things, about the sheer weirdness of this sort of transformation. Even when mind is theoretically separate from body, it needs a minimum of physical instantiation (the cortical stack itself; if you destroy that, and there are no backups, the person is truly dead and cannot be revived in another sleeve). Beyond this, mind only functions when it is corporeally embodied in some way. In itself, a cortical stack is simply an inert record; there is no consciousness, no sensation of time passing.
In Altered Carbon, there is also virtual reality. A diesmbodied cortical stack can have conscious experience in VR, just as an embodied person can. The technology is good enough that the simulation seems entirely real. But even here, consciousness is contingent, and dependent upon the details of corporeal perception and feeling. You can experience pleasure and pain in VR, and pleasure and pain are inherent to the flesh. What this means in the novel is that virtual reality is mostly used for sex and for torture. In a simulation, you can get off in ways that would not be permitted in the physical world. And in VR, a victim can be tortured indefinitely–made to feel the most excruciating pain, and yet never able to pass out or die from this pain. As in Sade’s novels, the victim is endlessly renewable, as there is no limit to the pain he or she can be made to feel. As far as I know, Slavoj Zizek is the only writer aside from Morgan to have pointed out this horrific possiblity.
So what first seems like a ploy for plot effect–the idea of cortical stacks and sleeves allows Morgan to write a novel in which a rich man hires a detective to find out who murdered him–turns out (as is often the case with SF) to be a brilliant exploration of our current “technological imaginary.”