|summary||Violent, gory and intelligent hard SF|
First, a little background on the universe of Broken Angel. A few hundred years before the events in Altered Carbon, humanity discovers the technological remains of a space-faring species on Mars -- and naturally nicknames them Martians, even though it is clear Mars is not their home planet, just a colony. After decoding some of their technology and information, humanity begins moving out to the various worlds detailed in the Martian records.
The other big technological breakthrough is the ability to record a person's mind via a cortical stack implanted in the spine. This effectively abolishes death through injury or disease, as the stack can be recovered and the data stored -- and even downloaded into a new body, or 'sleeve.' It also makes Real Death, or the destruction of someone's cortical stack, a much more serious crime than mere organic damage.
Far from creating a technological utopia of plenty for everyone this tech-breakthrough, diaspora and near-freedom from death, leads to more revolutions, more killing, and more varied inventive ways of brutalising each other. New bodies, or sleeves, cost money and most people are unable to afford them, and are consequently kept "on stack." Raw, unfettered captialism is the way. Criminal behaviour gets you stacked for a number of years, and your body handed over to someone else. It also opens the way to such charming practises as virtual torture, with no hope of escape or death.
Takeshi Kovacs, born on the Harlan's World colony, is a former member of the Envoy Corps. A military branch that 'conditions' its members, effectively rewriting their personalities to make them better soldiers. The Envoy Corps are the most feared soliders of the Protectorate. The conditioning gives them iron emotional control, a lack of empathy, extra combat awareness, and skill at psychologically manipulating others. They also possess the ability to deal with being quickly and frequently re-sleeved when deployed into a combat situation via needlecast (a kind of hyperspace communication system) -- something that can, apparently, be quite traumatic for normal people.
Altered Carbon covered (in flashback) some of Kovacs' background story, and the reasons for his disillusionment and desertion from the Envoys; Broken Angels continues his story. After the events in Altered Carbon, Kovacs finds himself signed up to fight in a mercenary unit -- known as 'The Wedge' -- on the colony world of Sanction IV. Former Envoys are highly prized by commanders, and despite his distaste of command and responsibility, it pays the bills.
After being injured in a battle, Kovacs is approached by another soldier to get involved with the unofficial find of a Martian artifact ... one of the most extraordinary and potentially lucrative yet found. It's a race to claim ownership, against other ruthless corporations, betrayal, slow sleeve death due to radiation sickness (the Mandrake corporation engineers the nuking of a nearby city, just to clear out the area), and killer nanotechnology.
Like Altered Carbon, Broken Angels is a brutal read in parts. It doesn't flinch from the horrific things people do to each other, and is spectacularly inventive in thinking up ever more horrendous methods of punishment and interrogation. It throws in voodoo, 'soul markets' where dead soliders' stacks are sold, and an anatomiser -- a machine designed for a horrible ritual punishment in The Wedge.
While I enjoyed Altered Carbon, I thought it almost too much of a teenage-boy fantasy novel: An almost unstoppable bad-ass who can deal with anything, but is basically a good guy at heart; the almost fetishistic descriptions of weapons and gleefully detailed battles and brawls. It's all good stuff; well written and inventive, but a bit limited (except for the Jimmy de Soto hallucinations, which I thought were excellent). It was saved by its imaginative technology, hard SF speculation and clever detective story twists. Broken Angels seems a bit more mature. There is still the gleeful descriptions of battles, but the surrounding characters seem more fleshed out. 'Broken Angels' is no character-driven, emotionally deep masterpiece -- but it is a page-turner which neatly combines fast-paced action, imaginative technology and plot twists.
A quick note for any British readers who remember when the Conservatives (the traditional party of the Right) were in power: In the novel, the current whiney political officer of Kovacs' Wedge unit is called Lamont (he's been deliberately addicted to wire to keep him quiet), and the previous one was Portillo (he was regularly beaten, also to keep him quiet). It's a safe bet that Morgan is not a card-carrying member of the Conservative Party.
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