With Altered Carbon, that great god of television glory—aka Netflix—has once again launched a binge-watching worthy series that’s smart, sexy, mind-boggling, bloody, engrossing, and, honestly, a total mind fuck. It crosses genres, subverts expectations, and sucks you in like damn and wow. It’s science fiction and romance and film noir and cyberpunk and futuristic and murder mystery and cop show and conspiracy action thriller all at the same time. It’s Max Headroom’s violent, sexual, mind-bendy grandchild. (Appropriately so then, Max Headroom himself, Matt Frewer, shows up for two episodes as Carnage, who runs a real death cage fight.)
Welcome to Altered Carbon.
WARNING: there will be mild spoilers ahead. I’ll do my best not to ruin the Big Reveals, because they should be experienced organically to properly appreciate the storytelling. But no promises.
THE STORY: In a cyberpunk future, the consciousness of every human being is now downloaded into a hard drive, called a “stack”, that is stored at the base of the skull on the brain stem. The body, now called a “sleeve”, has become merely the shell that encases the “soul stack” of a person. This means a person only truly dies, known as “real death” or “RD”, when the stack is destroyed, like a gunshot directly to the stack. It also means people can live for hundreds of years, changing sleeves along the way.
If the sleeve dies, a stack can be dialed up into a new sleeve, the person therefore inhabiting a new body. A person’s original body can be kept in cold storage while his or her stack is stored elsewhere, for example, when a man is imprisoned, he essentially “goes to sleep” for hundreds of years while his sleeve goes on ice. However, there’s no guarantee that sleeve won’t be used by someone else in the interim and possibly killed while being used, so that when you’re dialed up, it may not be into the sleeve in which you were born. Race, gender, height, weight, health—it’s all a lottery now. You get what you can afford. This is the same for damaged sleeves if you’re attached to your existing reflection. If your arm is injured and can’t be saved, you can get it replaced with an upgrade, bionic arm in moments—if you have the credits. People can also dial up “dead” loved ones, especially if those loved ones are “coded” not to be re-sleeve after sleeve death for religious reasons, and have them live again if, perhaps, not in the same sleeve in which they’d led their lives. (This makes for a hilarious re-use of a biker gangster as a Spanish grandmother and a Russian mobster.)
People can also “double sleeve”, essentially copying their stack and downloading into two different sleeves at the same time. While technically illegal, when you live forever and have unlimited wealth, the sky’s the limit. Literally so, if you’re one of the super rich.
Hundreds of years old, these “Meths” (aka Methuselahs), live far above the common man in sky palaces. Their wealth enables them to grown clones of their sleeves and constantly download themselves over the years into new sleeves that match their birth sleeves. They have a system that regularly uploads their consciousness into back-up drives that protect them against real death. They’re untouchable demi gods to which the lower classes only dream to rub shoulders against.
And one of them has just been murdered.
Enter Envoy detective Takeshi Kovacs who has been in stasis for 250 years and was just woken up by industrial magnate Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) to solve the man’s murder. From the moment he awakens, Takeshi is plague by the attentions of Detective Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a bad ass cop with a jones for catching Bancroft in what she is sure are corrupt and nefarious dealings—if only she can prove it. She also has a deeper connection to the sleeve Takeshi now inhabits, one that deepens the stakes for them all.
Tak was once a super soldier for the police force that menaces the outer worlds. When he’s betrayed by the unit to which he’d dedicated his life, he becomes an Envoy, a revolutionary operator with scary potent observational and investigational skills. Envoys were renown for being able to be dropped in on any world, into any situation, and quickly adapt and manipulate the environment and the people to their own ends—until they were betrayed and wiped out. Tak then became a mercenary, one who eventually was apprehended by his former commander, earning him a sentence of hundreds of years for his crimes.
Until Bancroft wakes him up.
Once an idealist under his battle scars, Takeshi has awoken to a world he doesn’t recognize, on a different planet than the one he was on when he went to sleep, and with the people he loved long lost to real death. He is now a grumpy tool only in the job for himself and the promise of a fortune and his birth sleeve as a reward for solving Bancroft’s murder. Except Tak can’t fight his true nature, the core of him that still cares no matter how much he protests to the contrary. And the list of people worming their way into his circle of protection keeps growing…whether he likes it or not.
Clearly, there’s a LOT going on in the ten episodes of Altered Carbon. And fan as I am of the series, it I have to admit, it ain’t all good.
THE BAD STUFF:
While the show runner on this one is a woman, that doesn’t mean, in a Game of Thrones world where rape is an acceptable plot device, there isn’t a lot of violence and nudity in Altered Carbon. There’s a whole hopping lot of both, though violence prevails most of all. This includes a naked fight scene a la Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises, where Ortega engages in a bloody knife brawl with a number of cloned sleeves. This is one case of nudity in Altered Carbon, though, where the nudity is designed to be empowering and deliberately used as a manifestation of the character’s head self-perspective and how she sees her body as a tool, rather than objectifying her for the male gaze. For more on this, check out this interview with actress Dichen Lachman about that scene and her character, Rei, who is the naked combantant. Be warned, it includes series spoilers galore.
There’s an argument to be made that the prevalence of nudity stems not from producers’ desire to curry favor with permanently adolescent fans boys, but rather an outgrowth from a society that has made the human form an interchangeable commodity. How can modesty persist when your body may be interchanged with another’s at any time?
And yes, the violence is such that it may as well be another character in the cast. This is a world that uses virtual reality, where time has no constant, as a means of torture. Here, one can kill a victim over and over again in the most brutal and bloody of ways including chopping off limbs and removing innards, all virtually but while being connected to the physical body’s pain receptors, only to start a new VR session and begin again for a seemingly endless amount of time. A sleeve holds no inherent value; there are instances in Altered Carbon where people fight to the sleeve death for the promise of a sleeve upgrade as a reward. Naturally, that makes for an inherently violent world.
For a show with so much female bad ass representation, it’s still driven by a moody, growly, maladjusted white man, one who all the women he comes into contact with want to bone, no matter how badly he treats them. It’s a film noir construct, the Bogey hyper masculine hardliner disdaining all the Bacall femme fatales that rotate into his sphere but banging them nonetheless. Even in a futuristic society where the consciousness can be transported from form to form, women are still portrayed stuck in the past.
THE MAIN CAST:
Joel Kinnaman, late of The Killing and the forgettable Suicide Squad, anchors Altered Carbon with his big presence. Seriously, the guy is huge and his normally beanpole form is ripped and cut and beautifully bulked out for this role. Hoo. Shah. He broods and grumbles and bad asses through the entire series, but he also brings out Tak’s tortured sweetness, an idealism that even 200 years of cold storage hasn’t fully frozen out of him. It keeps popping up to conflict him when he wants to be a cold, ruthless operator, but he can’t quite keep his heart from getting in the way.
As Ortega, Martha Higareda plays the perhaps typical cop with a mission, but she does it by distaining a typical approach and instilling Ortega with a man’s attitude and vocabulary. She doesn’t play a lady cop; she plays a cop and has an attitude that would do John McLain proud. Ortega takes on the unlikeable heroine mantle with pride and spews ferocity and anger and complexity all over it.
James Purefoy, a personal favorite in everything he does, oozes through his scenes with smarmy confidence, exuding the charm and power of the wealthiest man on several planets, sprinkled with the comfortable arrogance of someone who genuinely believes himself to be a god. As in the TV series Rome, his…erm…talent is on display here, including The Purefoy, as I like to call it, once again making a casual on-screen, full-frontal appearance. No, I did not hit the pause button, nor did I screen cap it, and I’m sticking to that.
But truly, the one who steals the show is Chris Conner as Poe.
Once Tak accepts Bancroft’s case, he embeds himself at The Raven, a hotel run by an AI (artificial intelligence) named Poe, as in Edgar Allen. Poe hasn’t had any guests for hundreds of years, due to the AIs reputation of getting obsessively attached to their guests. Tak genuinely couldn’t give a shit about this and sets up shop at The Raven. Good thing too as Poe almost immediately proves his worth when Tak is attacked before he can even register as a guest.
Poe is an absolute delight. Snarky, smart, sweet, ruthless, loyal, dedicated, and oh so funny, he’s the land-locked sidekick/valet/butler Tak’s been missing in his life. Alfred to Tak’s Great Detective. As an AI, he’s tied to The Raven, but he can move about in VR (and does) and adds a rich depth and complexity to what’s nominally a bunch of ones and zeros. For a programable entity, he’s the most human and most humane one of the bunch.
Yes, there is romance. As mentioned earlier, Ortega has a prior connection to the sleeve that Tak is put into, which takes the idea of a love-triangle and really fucks with it. But Tak is also nursing a broken heart from this lost love, and his hallucinations, a side effect of being re-sleeved, keep her front and center in his journey. As Tak and Ortega get closer and the complexity of their connection deepens, the emotional risks of their relationship add texture and stakes to the on-going mystery and the threat of the enemies stacking up against them. It’s no surprise that in the end, Tak’s big heart, and not only for Ortega, is nearly both their undoing.
Altered Carbon, like Max Headroom and Firefly and Blade Runner before it, builds its world on an Asian heavy multiculturalism. Set in a re-envisioned San Francisco, called The Bay, there are flying cars and neon signs and prevalent blinking screens that never turn off, pummeling the eyes with images and adverts that recall pretty much every science fiction show of the last 20 years. People speak all kinds of languages and understand one another. There’s no Farscape-esque universal translator either. Ortega speaks to her partner in Spanish and he replies in Arabic. There are subtitles; we can read them. There is no spoon feeding required. Tak’s Japanese/Croatian lineage speaks to the show’s inherent multicultural nature too, even if the tone-deaf move of folding an Asian character into a white man’s sleeve stomps all over that same multiculturalism with a pair of Kovacs’ combat boots.
The storytelling is complex and deep, but so well paced. Nothing is revealed too soon, but once the revelation is made, one can look back and see the layers being laid in past episodes. That’s bloody hard to do and especially in a visual platform as rich as this show where there’s always something to see on the screen, nothing is wasted, no image thrown away in building the rich texture of this show. One of the appeals of the Harry Potter franchise from a craft perspective is how deftly Rowling plots the series over the length of the seven books; events happen in book five for which Rowling lays the groundwork in book two. Altered Carbon does that too, enough so that when I finished the series, I wanted to immediately watch it again so as to see those touchpoints again, this time with the benefit of foreknowledge of what was to come.
Accompanying this deep plotting and detailed planning is a respect for its audience that is rare to find in entertainment today. In Romancelandia, writers often debate the idea of dumbing down our storytelling, our writing, in order to reach a wider audience, a significant percentage of whom may not have a large vocabulary or an extensive reading and comprehension ability. I deal with this a lot in my day job where much of which we’re producing needs to reach an incredibly large audience, as in millions of people, whose lives may depend on being able to read and comprehend our message. As a writer, I think it’s my job to enhance my stories with complex writing, words that enrich as much as the story they form. If my readers have to look up a few words, then I’ve done my job right. (This is much less an issue in historical romance where a certain complexity of phrase and flowery language is expected.)
Altered Carbon doesn’t dumb down to its audience. The show presents complex word-building from the outset and it doesn’t waste time spoon-feeding the audience as to the nuts and bolts of things. We are plunged right into the muck of things and as the show presses on, it expects its viewers to keep up or catch up. That’s not to say it doesn’t give us a map; the trope of dropping someone new into the situation as a proxy for the audience is used in episode one to bring us all up to speed, but the information we need is parceled out as part of the storytelling without any recapping or “As you know, Bob,” retreads along the way.
Nearly a week after viewing, my mind is still buzzing with all the implications and raised by Altered Carbon. The show raises questions of the nature of the soul and the value of a bodily form. When a soul can be kept in a hard drive and uploaded at random, what then makes it a soul rather than simply more data? Morality reforms in a world where sleeves can be killed and then the victim dialed back up to testify against his or her murderer. Where a person can voluntarily agree to have his or her sleeve killed for sport with the promise of an upgrade for the trouble. Where death suddenly has several degrees.
It’s a referendum on torture and an examination of whether love can last over hundreds of years. It’s a dissertation of gender identity: when your spouse can be dialed up into a sleeve of the opposing gender, are you still attracted to each other. Do you still love that woman who is absolutely unchanged except for the fact that she now wears a man’s shell? Do you recognize her soul inside that sleeve?
What makes memory when that memory can be obliterated by dying before the next upload. Is any event truly real if the memory of it is destroyed before the backup kicks in?
Overall, I found Altered Carbon to be compelling television. Underneath its science fiction, film noir trappings is an exploration of identity and morality and the nature of self and the soul that still has my mind spinning right round, baby. Right round.
Follow Lady Smut. We’ll mind-fuck you in the very best of ways–but only if you ask really, really nice.
Kiersten Hallie Krum writes smart, sharp, and sexy romantic suspense. She is the award-winning author of Wild on the Rocks, and its follow-up, SEALed With a Twist. She is also a past winner of the Emily Award for unpublished novels.
A member of the Romance Writers of America, the New Jersey Romance Writers, and the Long Island Romance Writers, Kiersten has been working in book publishing for more than twenty years in marketing and promotion. At other times in her career, she’s worked back stage for a regional theater, managed advertorials for a commerce newspaper in the World Trade Center, and served as senior editor for a pharmaceutical advertising agency.
Writer, singer, editor, traveler, tequila drinker, and cat herder, Kiersten avoids pen names since keeping her multiple personalities straight is hard enough work. Born and bred in New Jersey (and accent free), Kiersten sings as easily, and as frequently, as she breathes, drives fast with the windows down and the music up, likes to randomly switch accents for kicks and giggles, and would be happy to spend all her money traveling for the rest of her life. Find out more about Kiersten and her books on her website www.kierstenkrum.com.
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