TLDR: Contrast, descriptions, and single-sentence “flashbacks” can be used to build the world and character backstory.
Altered Carbon has a four star review on Goodreads while also getting a lot of criticism for its graphic violence, lengthy sex scenes that contribute little to the plot, and its unabashedly male gaze.
I personally enjoyed Altered Carbon, but your mileage may vary.
Here’s my brief review followed by worldbuilding analysis:
It’s Dirty Harry meets Neuromancer and its amazing.
The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is one bad, angry dude, but he might just have a conscience.
World building doesn’t get any better than this. Every description is tinged with the filters of the Kovacs’s back story. The history of the world leaches in through every detail.
The sex and violence are gratuitous at times, but the author makes it clear from the prologue that this is a hard-boiled, violent, detective novel and that’s exactly what it delivers.
Not only is the detail visceral and the sex & violence hard-hitting, but this book is packed questions about existence and identity that Kovacs often dismisses in order to “get to the next screen,” that is, to move on with his mission. The resleeving technology is handled marvelously and the casual brushing aside of deep questions adds strength to the reality of this alternate world. Life is happening. There’s no time for moral debate and ethical inquiry for these characters, but it seems like we readers ought to think hard about what this author is holding under our noses.
From here on out I’ll ignore Altered Carbon’s other flaws and focus on the book’s excellent worldbuilding in much the same way I analyzed Ready Player One’s excellent three-Act structure while ignoring its trash character development.
3 tips for worldbuilding:
- An opportunity to describe anything in your story is an opportunity to describe the whole world.
- When a character reacts to something in the present, the reaction is informed by the character’s background. Show that background.
- Never just describe something when you can also contrast it.
Let’s start with something simple:
There were three of them, the lead vocalist a two-and-a-half meter giant naked to the waist with what looked like Nakamura’s entire muscle-graft sales for the year wrapped around his arms and trunk. There were red illuminium tattoos under the skin of his pectorals so his chest looked like a dying coal fire, and a glans-headed cobra reared up the ridged muscles of his stomach from the waistline. The hands that hung open at his sides were tipped with filed talons. His face was seamed with scar tissue from the Freak Fights he had lost, and there was a cheap prosthetic magnilens screwed into one eye. His voice was surprisingly soft and sad sounding. – Page 141
The author burns a whole paragraph on detailed description of a nobody character that will be gone in a half page, because this description works double duty. We’re not seeing an individual, we’re being shown a stereotype of a criminal in this world. We learn that body modification is common for practical (Nakamura’s entire muscle-graft sales) and aesthetic (red illuminium tattoos) purposes. We learn that there are underground fighting competitions (Freak Fights) and we’re reminded that this world treats human beings like commodities, not caring about the toll this treatment demands (surprisingly soft and sad sounding).
So this is tip one: An opportunity to describe anything in your story is an opportunity to describe the whole world.
Richard Morgan, the author of Altered Carbon, is great at making his prose work double duty like this, particularly in chapter openings like the following:
I met my first lawyer when I was fifteen. …outside the juvenile court, he looked into my probably infuriatingly smug face and nodded as if his worst fears about the meaning of life were being confirmed. …The lawyers I saw there had about as much in common with the man who defended me at fifteen as automated machine rifle fire has with farting. – Page 215
In this intro, Kovacs, the protagonist contrasts the high powered lawyer in front of him in the present with some public defender who tried to get him out of juvie. Not only does this passage illustrate the considerably greater effectiveness of the lawyers that work for the big evil corporation, but we also get insight into Kovac’s young life as a delinquent and his own belief that he has changed in some way.
Morgan pulls this trick repeatedly and its super-effective.
Homesickness isn’t something a veteran Envoy should confess to. … Homesickness was what I felt when I stepped past the kitchen area of the Flying Fish, and the aroma of sauces I had last tasted in Millsport hit me like a friendly tentacle. … Back beyond that I remembered the moth-battered paper lanterns outside Watanbe’s on a Newpest Friday night. – Page 221
This is another scene opening that does double duty, providing backstory alongside immediate setting descriptions. The author could have stopped with “The kitchen reminded me of home.” but goes the extra mile to show what home was like and why the memory is so strong. This emphasizes how far from home Kovacs is and humanizes him. This is a great example of “showing vs. telling”.
So this is tip two: When a character reacts to something in the present, the reaction is informed by the character’s background. Show that background.
Also “moth-battered paper lanterns”! Mwa! Beautiful!
Where Bancroft’s low lit womb at PsychaSec had spoken in soft, cultured tones of the trappings of wealth, where the resleeving room at Bay City Storage Facility had groaned minimal funding for minimal deservers, the Panama Rose’s body bank was a brutal growl of power. The storage tubes were racked on heavy chains like torpedoes on either side of us, jacked into a central monitor system at one end of the hold via thick black cables that twisted across the floor like pythons. – Page 232
Altered Carbon is a dense book, so reminding the reader of important locations is important, but the real lesson in this passage is this: Contrast is king. Also, the language is spectacular: spoke, groan, growl.
Tip three: Never just describe something when you can also contrast it.
Returning from the wide-open horizon of the beach virtuality was a shock. …I suffered a momentary flashback to Harlan’s World. Thirteen years old and waking up in a virtual arcade after my first porn format. …the thing that never changed was the stale smell and the tackiness of the ‘trodes on your skin when you surfaced afterwards between the cramped walls of the coffin. – Page 258
Contrast isn’t just about how things are different, but also how they are the same. Kovacs spends a lot of time thinking about his mis-spent youth. He’s a man filled with regrets, as every battered, noir detective seems to be. Using flashbacks to explain a reaction in the present brings that point home.
I don’t want to overburden my list of tips with a third entry, but history and politics are worth mentioning.
Infinity Plus’s review of Altered Carbon says “There are throwaway mentions of background details here that beg entire novels on their own; ubiquitous pieces of history dismissed in single lines that had my nose twitching, scenting something far bigger lurking, hidden beneath the surface.”
Here’s an example.
If they want you, a youngish Quell had once written of the Harlan’s World ruling elite, sooner or later they’ll scoop you up off the globe like specks of interesting dust off a martian artifact. -Page 326
Throughout Altered Carbon, the historical figure Quell is mentioned. She’s a sort of Che Guevara of this universe, long dead, but still discussed. Like everything else she serves multiple purposes. References to her failed revolution emphasize that the rich still stand on the backs of the poor, supported by the jackboots of government and military as they always have. Kovacs mentions that he likes her philosophy, which sets up a nice tension in his backstory since he also served in the revolution-crushing Envoy corps. Perhaps most importantly, Quell shows that this universe has a rich history that is well thought out by the author.
I don’t have any tips at present on how to incorporate the politics and history into a narrative other than to study history and study how other authors do it so I’ll end with my favorite Quell quote:
“When they ask how I died, tell them, still angry.”