Altered Carbon and the Oversaturation of a Genre

Haven’t you heard? Cyberpunk is cool now! Cyberpunk is what all the edgy, rebellious kids are into these days. All modern science fiction is, or wants to be, cyberpunk, until the mainstream tosses it away like a used tissue after rubbing one out. Isn’t this great news?!

I know I’m kinda coming out of the gate with a message that pretty directly contradicts what I was saying just a little while back, but damn, guys, it’s been a rough few months. You probably know all about Altered Carbon’s first season by now, but since we here at Neon Dystopia partook in some rigorous soul-searching, I’m ready to jump on the Takeshi Kovacs bandwagon months after everyone else has stopped talking about it. After all, we here at Neon Dystopia pride ourselves on staying on the cutting edge of cyberpunk news, but it’s hard to stay on top of all that from my cabin in the boonies where the Hughesnet is slow as molasses and I get all my ‘zines delivered to my doorstep on a bi-weekly basis via a three-hour hike. Am I safe from the conglomerates mining my data now?!

transmet spider jerusalem cabin mountains

Accurate portrayal of my current living conditions.

Anyways, my point is that cyberpunk is becoming something of a buzzword. And, at the risk of sounding as elitist as Ernest Cline, this may not be a good thing. After all, when the inbred universes spawned by Marvel and Star Wars inevitably come crashing down, what seems most likely at this point to take the science fiction throne other than cyberpunk itself? In terms of film, it and its imitators are already filling the spaces between the aforementioned super blockbuster franchises, nearly brimming over in the current sci-fi zeitgeist, seemingly beating out space operas, post-apocalyptic action flicks, and retrofuturism. Hell, I was originally going to run with this premise covering Black Panther, convinced by the footage of a nanosuit-clad juggernaut engaging in a high-speed car chase through the streets of Seoul, one of the most cyberpunk cities on the planet, that it would dig deep into cyberpunk tech and aesthetics while leaving the themes behind as Disney had similarly done with Tron: Legacy. Of course, Black Panther turned out to be a much different movie than I had anticipated, more closely adhering to the ideological concept of Neo-Africa.

Enter Netflix’s Altered Carbon, a show that proves cyberpunk is on the verge of being becoming a brand, a label for advertisers and studio execs to latch onto much better than any superhero yarn ever could (though there are some pretty decent turn-of-the-millennium examples). Altered Carbon shows us that cyberpunk has finally arrived and fully come into its own as a genre, no longer a mere subgenre of dystopian science fiction–but not for the reasons you might think.

Summary

Altered Carbon’s lore begins a hundred years or so down the line after humanity has begun to colonize distant planets. This leads to the discovery of the Elders–an ancient, seemingly-extinct alien civilization–and a resource that is soon of vital significance to the human race, the titular altered carbon. See, altered carbon has specific properties that allow the creation of cortical stacks, a technology that is essentially the same as Black Mirror‘s cookie and is inserted into the base of the neck. However, instead of inhumanely configuring these stacks to serve as mundane a reason as running a personalized smart house, stacks are used for a greater (and perhaps equally as sinister) purpose. Since a person’s memories and personalities are soaked up by stacks, which can easily be removed, death is now obsolete. A person’s body is rarely referred to as a “body” anymore–instead, it’s a “sleeve” that a stack can be inserted into in the case of death of nearly any sort.

Cortical Stack from Altered Carbon

But this is cyberpunk we’re talking about here, so this dangerous new technology has so, so many drawbacks. Since death in the world of Altered Carbon carries less weight than it does today, well, people aren’t afraid to get a little messy, Judge Dredd-style. After all, “killing” a person’s sleeve isn’t as egregious a crime as “slagging” a person’s stack, which results in what is referred to as “real death”. The real thematic meat of the story is a commentary on class division. The less fortunate, if they desire to be re-sleeved after death, can typically only purchase second-hand sleeves, and once a person’s mind is fully dissociated from their original body by swapping their mind into too many different sleeves, the result is assuredly insanity. Meanwhile, the rich can afford to clone their birth sleeves–which we’re told is a ludicrously expensive process–and keep them stored in a secure facility until it’s necessary to insert a sleeve into them, circumventing this unfortunate side effect. Furthermore, the more paranoid members of the 0.01% back up their stacks into offsite servers within a certain time frame, assuring that even real death is not part of their own existence. And since the richest of the rich can afford to live indefinitely, so too does their knowledge of the world (and by extension, their wealth) indefinitely grow. In this world, immortality has been privatized by the elite, who are referred to as Meths–a play on the name of the biblical character Methuselah, who was said to live for nearly a millennium.

In the first episode “Out of the Past”, we’re introduced to Takeshi Kovacs, a half-Japanese, half-Slavic rebel fighting for a dying cause against the increasingly-controlling United Nations Interstellar Protectorate. In the series’ first scene, we witness Kovacs’ sleeve death after what seems to be the rebellion’s most crushing military defeat. 250 years later in an evolved, expressionistic version of San Francisco (re-dubbed Bay City), Kovacs is re-sleeved into the body of the Swedish equivalent of Will Smith. We soon learn that Kovacs is an Envoy: an individual with what appears to be supernatural abilities, but are in actuality the results of rigorous mental training. For instance, Kovacs appears to have the ability of foresight, but is actually an advanced form of pattern recognition, manifesting as an enhanced ability to predict another’s behaviors with a minimal margin of error.

We also discover that he has been revived not because his “prison sentence” of sorts is up, but because one of the wealthiest Meths in existence, Laurens Bancroft, has pulled some strings in order to solve his own apparent murder. Shortly prior to his stack’s 48-hour backup (and thus depriving him of the memory of this event), Bancroft was found dead in his study, shot through the stack with his own gun. He offers Kovacs his freedom and a sizeable paycheck in exchange for answers to this riddle.

Takeshi Kovacs and Vernon Elliot from Altered Carbon

What ensues is a blood-soaked hard-boiled detective tale, complete with burned-out PI-type in the form of Kovacs. The series’ second and third episodes, “Fallen Angel” and “In a Lonely Place”, serve to lay more groundwork for the worldbuilding and its characters as Kovacs follows up on leads, coming in contact with shady friends and expensive foes alike. However, episode four, “Force of Evil”, is where the series begins to really heat up–after being ambushed at the end of the previous episode by a hitman known as Dimi the Twin (stealing the show with cyberpunk veteran Tahmoh Penikett in his role), Kovacs finds himself in a virtual interrogation chamber, a tactic commonly used under the Protectorate’s iron fist. In this simulation, Kovacs is subjected to various unthinkably painful methods of torture by Dimi, only to be revived long after he would have died in reality. Eventually, seemingly through willpower alone, Kovacs breaks free of the simulation and personally slaughters everyone involved with the torture simulation facility of dubious legality.

Once the police become involved, Bay City detective and tiny badass Kristin Ortega tracks down Kovacs, revealing in the following episode, “The Wrong Man”, that the sleeve Kovacs inhabits originally belonged to Ortega’s former partner and lover, currently on ice after being framed for murder by Dimi 2 for investigating Mary Lou Henchy’s death. This episode also provides interesting commentary on the nature of charity–in one scene, Kovacs meets with Bancroft in a quarantined encampment filled with a destitute group of people descended from those with an immunity to a near-instantly-fatal bioweapon. Bancroft is here to deliver gifts and goodwill to this settlement of hopeless survivors, becoming infected and soon dying thereafter. In response to this supposed act of kind heartedness, Kovacs calls Bancroft out, stating that this is a purely theatrical gesture, as Bancroft denies these people a chance at new lives by buying them uninfected sleeves. Bancroft, who lives in a literal ivory tower above Bay City’s polluted skies and constantly compares his position to that of a god, says in kind that he cannot fix everything.

Ortega, meanwhile, with the help of a few trusted confidants in the BCPD, begins following leads that she believes will lead to the truth behind Bancroft’s murder, which results in a brutal attempt on her life. In “Man with My Face”, Ortega receives a bionic arm to replace her extensively damaged one by Kovacs’ request. He deduces that Ortega’s precinct captain, Tanaka, accepted a bribe from a Meth to look the other way while the attack occurred. After some gentle interrogation with the help of her new arm, Ortega discovers the rendezvous address that Tanaka shares with a mysterious benefactor in virtual, but while she and Kovacs investigate, they’re ambushed by Dimi 2, who is now reskinned in a reproduction of Kovacs’ old sleeve. Abducted, they’re taken to Fightdrome, an arena where genetically-modified combatants gore one another (and owned by the eccentric Carnage, played by Matt Frewer in his most eccentric role since Max Headroom). Before their untimely demise, however, Kovacs’ presumed-dead sister Rei swoops into their rescue, scored by a cover of White Zombie’s “More Human than Human” (which I personally found superior to the original).

The seventh episode of the season, “Nora Inu”, divulges Kovacs’ backstory as he recovers from the brutality of Fightdrome in Rei’s care, chronicling their separation as children, to their reunion and subsequent joining of the scrappy Envoy rebellion on the distant moon Harlan’s World to its bitter conclusion as it’s eaten from the inside by a virus that is downloaded into every member’s stack, driving them insane.

They’re about one holographic table away from planning an attack on the Death Star.

Then, before the Envoys’ most crucial mission has the chance to be carried out, the Protectorate sends a devastating surprise attack by downloading a virus into its members, leaving no survivors, save for Kovacs. This, it is soon revealed in the series’ present, was engineered by Rei, whose devotion to the cause was questionable at best. She trades the lives of her comrades for a small fortune, which, after being revived, she builds into Meth-status wealth, choosing to use her influence behind the scenes like a true puppet-master.

“Clash by Night” picks up where “Nora Inu” leaves off. Rei explains that she pulled the strings that enticed Bancroft into wanting an Envoy to investigate his murder, casting some covertly incestuous sentiments as well as a whole lot of crazy her brother’s way in the process–worried that Bancroft is catching on to her role in his death, she threatens Kovacs with his friends’ torture in exchange for throwing the Meth off the trail. In order to mock up a passable explanation for Bancroft’s death, Kovacs recruits Vernon Elliot’s wife, Ava, who had been put on ice for hacking and has been resleeved into the body of a man. With Vernon and Poe’s help, she recreates the virus that caused the Envoy rebellion to collapse in order to do the same to a depraved virtual brothel specializing in simulated assault and fabricate footage of Bancroft entering said brothel. In a slight variation on the whodunit’s detective-tells-all scene, Kovacs uses this falsified evidence to frame a close associate of Bancroft’s for his death by causing him to contract the Rawling virus. Afterward, however, he realizes that his convincing lie is merely a few details away from the reality, with all signs pointing to a skyhook brothel that Rei owns. Ortega, meanwhile, is searching for Kovacs and finds herself hot on Rei’s trail, soon breaking into a vault filled with clones that the Meth owns.

However, this turns out to be a trap, and Rei extracts Ortega’s stack from her sleeve, holding it hostage while Rei, in the opening minutes of “Rage in Heaven”, uses Ortega’s body to toy briefly with Kovacs before he catches on to her true identity. After he does so, Rei divulges that, in return for destroying a number of her clones and becoming involved with her brother, she has sent Leung to slag Ortega’s family. Realizing that his sister is a lost cause, Kovacs hatches a plan to save Ortega from a life of virtual torture by cloning himself and double-sleeving his consciousness to sell the ruse that he’s decided to leave Bay City. What follows is something of a sci-fi twist on a classic heist plot as Kovacs plans to infiltrate Rei’s skyhook, Head in the Clouds, in order to make Rei confess to her crimes by corrupting her backup with the Rawling virus. In the process, we learn Head in the Clouds is a high-end brothel for Meths so dissociated from death that they pay good money to permanently kill a Head in the Clouds companion. These prostitutes are unaware that their stacks have been encrypted with faked religious coding, preventing their revival upon sleeve death–which is the fate Mary Lou Henchy has suffered. This all leads up to a final, katana-filled skirmish in the series’ blood-drenched final episode, “The Killers”.

Analysis

Altered Carbon is one part sex-saturated detective neo-noir, one part gritty science fiction, and one part hyperviolent killing spree, the perfect recipe for a cyberpunk cocktail, making it the most essential experience for fans of the genre so far this year. Most of the series is impeccably scripted, acted, and produced. While one could argue the visuals are lifted directly from Blade Runner–and to be fair, it has its fair share of bicycle gangs, flying cars, and neon ads in various languages–but it manages to retain its own sense of identity. In fact, Altered Carbon has the best production value out of any show that I’ve ever seen, with lovingly crafted, massive sets, surprisingly well-done CGI, and costumes that would make the most fashion-savvy of us green with envy. It’s about one ambitious cinematographer away from being a (roughly) 10-hour-long movie. Joel Kinnaman, despite complaints of GitS 2017-level whitewashing, feels like the right choice as the nihilistic and violent Takeshi Kovacs and is surrounded on all sides by talented actors. Martha Higareda, who plays Kristin Ortega, gives up a good fight as the sardonic, tough-as-nails, yet occasionally-vulnerable homicide detective, while James Purefoy plays the regal-yet-unscrupulous Laurens Bancroft as well as he is wont to do, mirrored exceptionally by Kristin Lehman‘s femme fatale, Miriam Bancroft. And, of course, Chris Connor as the darkly-comedic AI hotel owner Poe adds a dash of necessary charm to an otherwise morose world.

Of course, none of the above actors’ performances (along with the many others I fail to mention here) wouldn’t be nearly as compelling without the jaded dialogue and one-liners behind them (“Some people just need killing,” nonchalantly rattled off by Kovacs early in the series, remains one of my favorite lines). In fact, the show’s writing in general, while perhaps not reaching the thematic standards of Breaking Bad or Mr. Robot, stands far above the quality of, say, that show that’s only kind of about zombies anymore. In fact, the extensive summary above doesn’t even manage to cover all of Altered Carbon’s moving parts, though some are much more interesting than others. While the show takes liberties with its source material, most of the new developments manage to weave this long-form narrative into something arguably just as strong as the classic by Richard K. Morgan, as opposed to the filler material seen in other shows adapted from novels or films. Altered Carbon’s showrunner, Laeta Kalogridis (who you may also recognize as the screenwriter who also penned the screenplay adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island) seems to have a handle on her crime and science fiction knowledge. And, fun fact, each episode title is named after a classic noir, which I personally felt was a nice touch.

Poe from Altered Carbon

However, my praise for this show only goes so far. Altered Carbon is a flawed gem, and let me tell you, the flaws become glaringly obvious about halfway through the eighth episode. This is the point at which, inexplicably, the quality of all the above pieces begins to drop rapidly. Much of the ninth and tenth episodes are filmed in nondescript hallways on board Head in the Clouds, somehow leading directly from the landing pad to Rei’s suite despite the station’s immense volume. But this is the least of Altered Carbon’s problematic details; in the book, Rei is not related to Kovacs, which is where the Netflix series’ writing begins to go wrong. Even Dichen Lachman‘s clout as an actor can’t salvage the half-baked motivations behind Reileen. (And as a brief aside while we’re touching on the subject, I realize that the characters’ names are holdovers from the book, but come on–Reileen? Mary Lou Henchy?? Quellcrist Falconer?!)

Rei becomes increasingly sadistic as the show presses towards the conflict’s peak, claiming to be looking out for her brother’s best interests (and possibly wanting to bang him) despite all her actions seeming to be directly designed to affect him in profoundly negative ways. The dialogue spirals out of control, littered with ineffectually over-dramatic lines like, “No more dead children!” or a monologue delivered as a storybook retelling of the exact story we just watched unfold by Kovac’s hallucination of Quell as Head in the Clouds crashes into the bay. Also, in “Force of Evil”, cross-sleeving is established as common practice in Altered Carbon’s world when Ortega spins her grandmother up in the sleeve of a hardened male gang member, which is done in an effective manner. However, when ex-con hacker Ava Elliot is introduced in a male sleeve (though Ava’s actor, Cliff Chamberlain, does a fine enough job in her shoes), it somehow feels like a clunky choice that misses the mark. And, unfortunately, the role played out by Ava’s daughter, Lizzie, in the final episode as a literal deus ex machina falls flat, largely due to some underwhelming acting by Hayley Law. All of these unfortunate elements that come into play so late in the game work to undermine the season’s ending, resulting in a resolution that largely feels weak and unsatisfying.

Which brings me to my next point: for all its thematic elements, weaving religious imagery in with its commentary on class division, Altered Carbon seems to take a great many science fiction concepts at face value. At times, the show does hold the audience’s hand, but never spells things out in a painfully obvious manner, which seems to imply that its audience is at least somewhat familiar with the subject material it deals with. Rarely does the story slow down to ruminate on how bizarre and alienating its world is. Even Kovacs, who has missed 250 years of history, seems unfazed by the disorienting world around him after being revived (although the fish out of water element of tales like these is a well-worn trope and, in my opinion, would have merely subtracted from Kovacs’ jaded character). The characters never seem to reel at anything, taking all of Altered Carbon’s technological marvels, from 3D printers that can flash-clone someone’s body to AI that can download incredibly complex medical procedures in the wink of an eye, for granted. The very concept of identity in a world where the human mind is digitized and constantly shuffled between bodies that are treated like used cars is never even so much as mentioned, much less explored. While this feels like a somewhat realistic element (after all, how often do you see anyone that’s constantly bewildered into the fetal position by our current state of technology?), it seems to say something about how modern audiences view cyberpunk nowadays, though they might not know it by name.

An Altered Carbon poster displaying a packaged sleeve.

It’s almost as though cyberpunk is–dare I say it–on the verge of selling out. Altered Carbon certainly cements cyberpunk’s role as its own genre, correctly making the assumption that its audience is well-acquainted enough with the tropes that it can move the story along without needing to explain concepts thoroughly. But, like what Touch of Evil did to the classic noir, Altered Carbon might mark a long, slow death of the cyberpunk genre. Noir films that were released after Touch of Evil were either so contrived and tired that they’ve been lost to the sands of time, or otherwise made an attempt to subvert the genre’s clichés, forming the foundation of the modern neo-noir. I fear the same might be happening to the cyberpunk genre–soon, we might see an avalanche of properties that can be defined as cyberpunk and toy with gritty futurism, transhumanist concepts, and dark, dystopian environments, while utterly failing to say something original and meaningful until the genre wears itself out and its audience grows weary of the constant rehashing. Hell, even Disney, the corporation that thrives by never challenging the status quo, will probably try to stake their claim if they ever produce a sequel to Tron: Legacy. In an ironic reversal, as has been seen time and time again with dead and dying genres of art across the spectrum of different media, what makes cyberpunk cyberpunk may be stripped away, leaving us with some dull and lifeless husk. After all, punk rock has always thrived in the underground–once it hit the mainstream, well, that kinda defeated the whole point. And why would cyberpunk be any different?

But there’s hope yet–as I’ve touched on before, the death of cyberpunk may already have happened. In the mid-to-late-90s when cyberpunk initially garnered mainstream attention (albeit on a smaller scale), the popularity of The Matrix spawned two sequels that burned out their audiences, as well as imitators like the hilariously awful Ultraviolet and other pretenders that missed the point. After such a monumental and conceptually complete film took audiences by storm, certain filmmakers saw only the style, not the substance behind it. Others took cyberpunk’s pessimistic outlook and futuristic concepts and spun them into staples of the post-cyberpunk genre, designing them to deconstruct first wave cyberpunk’s grim, terrifying visions of the future. Even this current wave of cyberpunk, starting at the beginning of the decade, seems to have stemmed from more visually-realistic properties like 1995’s Ghost in the Shell. While my fear is that this time, executive meddling might put the genre into some state of suspended animation that prevents it from evolving, the shape of cyberpunk in the underground is always changing. Even if post-Altered Carbon properties manage to kill the things it once stood for, it’ll only be a matter of time before they’re resleeved.

Altered Carbon – 8/10


You can find Altered Carbon on Netflix, or you can find Richard K. Morgan’s novel that inspired it here.

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Written by shadowlink
shadowlink is lost in a sea of information. Cyberpunk helps him cope with his constant future shock.
2 Comments
  1. “And, at the risk of sounding as elitist as Ernest Cline, this may not be a good thing”

    Good Gods, that’s a risk well worth paying attention to…

    (…and one I think you avoided, ftr)

    Reply
  2. loved your article, I agree altered carbon is a flawed gem, however most TV shows have a shakey first season. Look at Star Trek TNG, it took them until the third season to flesh it out properly. And with the news they are renewed for a second season I have hopes it will only continue to develop and flesh out its shakier issues and bring us more cyberpunk awesomeness! 🙂

    Reply

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