On February 2, 2018, Netflix will release their latest sci-fi saga in the form of Altered Carbon. Based on the novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, the show will seek to harness the complex world created by Morgan back in 2002. A world that won Morgan the Philip K. Dick Award in 2003, quite the feat for a debut novelist. A lore dense piece of fiction, Altered Carbon has about as many layers are the reader (or watcher) is willing to dig for. Below I’ve collected a spoiler-free primer for anyone who wants to know more about the world of Altered Carbon before diving in headfirst to a place where nothing — and no one — is what they seem.
Let’s Talk Sub-Genre
Altered Carbon is a “cyberpunk” story, through and through. Merriam-Webster defines cyberpunk as “science fiction dealing with future urban societies dominated by computer technology.” Specifically, Altered Carbon heavily borrows visuals and narration shorthand from Philip K. Dick’s classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, better known by its film adaptation, Blade Runner. However, where Altered Carbon differentiates itself is in the technology itself. While Blade Runner has flying cars and moral quandary of realistic androids, the technology feels gritty and lived-in. The tech of Altered Carbon’s cyberpunk future is the sterile and medical by comparison, and takes the ethical quandary of “What is a soul?” to new and interesting places.
The World Of The Story
Set in the far-future of the 26th century, death is practically a thing of the past. Breakthroughs in medical technology mean that, at birth, every single human is fitted with a “cortical stack” — colloquially know as the “stack” — which immediately begins recording your memories, your skills, your intelligence, and the general state of your neural impulses which make up “you.” Should death befall your body, your stack is simply removed and placed into a new “sleeve.” The process is known as “re-sleeving.”
However, not all sleeves are created equal. The wealthy can afford seemingly infinite clones of themselves, spread across highly-secure locked vaults around the galaxy. The majority of people though do not pick their new sleeve but are merely assigned what is available. Which means you can have a child placed in an elderly person’s body or end up as a different race or gender. And where do these sleeves come from? The extremely poor. Re-sleeving costs money and if you can’t afford it (or go to jail), upon death, your stack is placed into sleep mode. Or, if your family can scrounge together the money, you’ll wake up in a Virtual Reality which friends and family can plug into in order to spend time with you. Either way, once your stack is removed from your body, the empty sleeve is no longer your property and is cycled into the re-sleeving system.
So why not just put stacks into synthetic bodies or androids? You can always opt for that, but the side effects are weird. Imagine if you woke up in a Barbie doll. Every movement would feel slightly off, so hardly anyone opts for synthetic sleeves. With such a burst in population, it’s unsurprising that humanity has reached for the stars, with colonies spread out across the galaxy. Humanity has even found a way to “cast” a stack via radio waves from one planet to another. Which means you can go on vacation to another world…in another person’s body.
The only way to permanently die is if your stack is destroyed and you don’t have a back-up. Or if you’re Catholic, as they refused to be fitted with cortical stacks at birth as it’s against their religion.
So What’s The Story?
Altered Carbon is the story of Takeshi Kovacs, a former special forces soldier who was part of the Enjoy project. Think of them as the Black Widow Program of their day. After a mission gone wrong, Kovacs went “down” into digital prison for over 200 years. He’s pulled from infinite sleep by Isaac Bancroft, a .00001% member of the elite. Effectively immortal, Bancroft is perplexed because he was murdered in his own home. Not that it mattered since Bancroft’s back up their stacks daily. The only problem? Isaac doesn’t know who the killer was. Whoever did it knew there was a gap time in the memory uploads and killed him in the blackout period to avoid detection. Only a former Enjoy would have the special skills to find such a dastardly fiend. Kovacs also has a deadline to solve the crime, all while dealing with working the cops, the shady business dealings of the underworld, sassy A.I., and someone who has a grudge against his sleeve.
Why It’s Tricky To Pull Off
The novel takes place completely inside the mind of Takeshi Kovacs. Born on Harlan’s World, Kovacs is half-Hungarian and half-Japanese. But once in the employ (or should I say possession) of the Bancrofts, Kovacs is placed into a white man’s body. There is at least one other instance in the novel where Kovacs is placed into the body of a woman. Neither of those is easy to play in a visual medium such as television. Casting Joel Kinnaman as Kovacs is a delicate balancing act as Kinnaman is a white man playing a Japanese man in a white man’s body. In an era of #OscarsSoWhite and #RepresentationMatters, getting the tone right is crucial. (Something Ghost in the Shell couldn't do.)
Books With Similar Themes
The main theme of Altered Carbon is the exploration of where the mind/soul ends and the body begins. Put your stack into three different bodies and you’ll have three different pheromone reactions to an attractive person, three different subconscious ticks, three different physical addictions. If you want to explore similar ideas, there’s always the classic Neuromancer by William Gibson. Another great, if far less known, take on this subject comes from Tanith Lee in the form of two novellas which combined are called Biting The Sun. If you’re looking for something more current, author Alastair Reynolds wrote Chasm City in 2001, a year before Altered Carbon was released. Or you could try Richard K. Morgan’s other science-fiction universe with TH1RTE3N.
The first season of Altered Carbon hits Netflix Friday, February 2
- The incomplete history of Cyberpunk movies
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