Netflix recently released its next bit of original content, a 10 episode adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s superb science fiction novel Altered Carbon. The story, which takes place 500 years hence, is of a world where alien technology has been used to enable individuals’ consciousness to be stored in discs, which are implanted into every human at age 1, and which allow people to literally change bodies. These discs are called stacks, and bodies are called sleeves.

The stack technology enables people’s minds to be loaded into virtual worlds, to be put into unconscious storage, to be backed up, and even to be put into multiple sleeves. As long as a stack is not destroyed, a sleeve can be replaced, and eternal life is thus possible (more on that in a moment). Morgan’s story does a nice job of exploring the consequences of such a fundamental change in how humans live.

The story is, at its core, a murder mystery. The society of 500 years from now is one where a tiny handful of infinitely wealthy individuals live (literally) in the sky, while the rest of humanity scrambles along in a somewhat dystopian ground-level existence. Think: Blade Runner and cyberpunk. That cadre of super wealthy people are the only ones who can afford to grow clones of themselves in order to pursue that eternal life, are are thus called “meths” (short for Methuselah, the biblical grandfather of Noah who lived 969 years). One meth, Laurens Bancroft, brings an “envoy” (a near-mythical combination of special-forces-level soldier and covert agent), convicted of crimes 250 years prior, out of eternal cold storage to solve a murder. That murder? His own. Bancroft had his consciousness backed up every 48 hours, and was shot through the stack (causing a “real death” rather than the recoverable “sleeve death”) just prior to one such backup. Thus, he lost 47 hours of his life, and does not have a recollection of how his stack and brains got blasted all over a wall in his office.

The envoy, Takeshi Kovacs, is the main character of the story, and he investigates an increasingly convoluted mystery, with multiple arcs, multiple players big and small, and a fair bit of back-story and reflection of his life prior to being put in storage. Delving too deeply into the plot would risk many spoilers, and so I won’t go further.

The writing is tight, the acting is generally strong (Joel Kinnamon, of The Killing, Robocop, and Suicide Squad, delivers as Kovacs, and is rapidly becoming an actor I look forward to seeing), and the visuals are absolutely superb. The plotting is well-paced, and there are enough twists and surprises to keep most of us guessing. I read the book years ago, and while my recollection isn’t what it could be, both what I recall and what I’ve read indicate that the adaptation is quite faithful to the source material.

A warning: the series would draw a hard-R, or perhaps even a NC-17 rating, were it a movie, for violence, gore, graphic sex, full-frontal nudity (both genders), and torture (being able to load a mind into virtual reality opens up an enormous, horrible realm of possibilities for torture).

From a philosophical, political, and sociological perspective, the stack technology is quite a monkey wrench. A standard science fiction trope is one of wealth concentrating in the hands of a very few (either individuals or corporations), and a devolvement of the living standards of the masses to a hardscrabble nadir. This runs entirely counter to human history and the track record of capitalism and free markets, but it’s a popular conceit among futurists who peddle peril. It also runs counter to an adage found in many cultures i.e. “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” but if we remove the factors that lead to the dilution and dispersal of a billionaire’s lifetime of accumulated wealth i.e. multiple kids, a lack of the same skills/talent/drive in subsequent generations, etc, by extending the billionaire’s lifetime to hundreds of years, we might find enough to support the concentration-of-wealth trope that Altered Carbon explores. That doesn’t translate into poorer masses, of course, because wealth is not zero-sum. The probabilities of a future evolving as Morgan predicted aside, it’s interesting to consider how those “meths” (and the groundlings they look down upon) behave, and Altered Carbon explores that in good detail.

Indeed, with physical death of lesser permanence, many things change. For some, at least. The religious and metaphysical ramifications of being able to transfer consciousness from body to body are profound. Some in Morgan’s future society reject the idea that this is a true transference, choosing their faith and belief in the soul over post-mortem storage of their stack data. Others, upon death, go into storage, and are brought back when their family can afford to get them new sleeves. Some, having lived long lives and having seen and tried all there is, reach a point where they’re ready to pack it in. And so on. All this serves as a philosophical background to a somewhat noir, somewhat cyberpunk, and fairly action-heavy thriller, with the protagonist using skills both physical and mental to unravel a complicated knot.

I give Altered Carbon a 9/10.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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