There’s always worry within the sci-fi fan community whether enduring works of the genre can be adapted accurately to the screen.
Richard K. Morgan’s dystopian novel, with its epic scope and commentary on everything from immortality, culture, justice, and crime set in a world where people no longer need to die because of breakthrough tech, was a big one for Netflix to tackle when the news dropped.
It is thus with much authority and no small amount of gladness that we can report how many things have gone right with the series, its 10 episodes capturing the grit and over arcing bite of the book with not only confidence but much sympathy for the source material.
Here’s a brief guide to the world, the tech, and the characters you will encounter in the world of Altered Carbon.
A Cyberpunk Adaptation
Morgan’s novel was published in 2002 and won the Philip K. Dick award for Best Novel the year after.
Many have speculated about how the limited running time of a movie would likely not cut it for the kind of ideas and metaphors that Morgan’s novel held. That is, until writer and producer Laeta Kalogridis came along and decided that streaming TV, 10 hours of it, would do just nicely.
Kalogridis was the screenwriter of Shutter Island, Terminator Genisys, and the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel. It is through her efforts to realize Morgan’s world, teaming up with Skydance Television and Netflix, that Altered Carbon has at last made the leap between mediums.
“Television was starting to make leaps into shorter seasons that were more cinematic, that had a very different kind of energy,” said Kalogridis. “And that allowed us to create a story that truly felt like an extended movie.”
Clones, Sleeves, and Stack Tech: Every Body Can Live Forever?
300 years into the future, the main premise of the world of Altered Carbon is that people have spread among the stars and are already able to have their minds and memories stored on discs in their necks through a technology called “cortical stacks.”
The software that powers the “stacks” is called Digital Human Freight (DHF), and like a USB port, each stack can be transmitted, swapped, and input into different bodies. In the amount of time it takes to back up one’s mental data in a satellite cloud, a person is literally ready to live life again.
Because the hardware of a stack is well nigh indestructible, people’s minds can thus be “stored” and then resurrected through new “sleeves” of human bodies the next day, the next month or centuries later.
“It’s a very serious sci-fi story about a technology that allows life to be extended indefinitely,” Kalogridis said. “Yet in no way was the story removed from completely identifiable human emotions. It has all the bells and whistles of great sci-fi, but at its heart is a very human story. The book also beautifully redefines human beings’ relationship to our physicality. In the Altered Carbon world, you can exist in any body. It’s a fascinating idea that humans will have evolved over millions of years to exist in tandem with our physical body.”
The New Immortals: Eternal Life is Only for the Rich
What the inventor of stack technology and the scientists who perfected the DHF software could not predict was humanity’s propensity for greed.
Enter the burgeoning market for cloning technology where you can grow and store an almost infinite number of your original sleeve bodies or keep your favorite ones on-hand to play in. a number limited only by your bank account.
Even though stack tech has democratized the ability o live forever, the expense of immortality is only truly available to the rich. Society has been transformed and consciousness can be digitized; human bodies are interchangeable; death is no longer permanent’ but only the wealthy can truly live forever.
This has given rise to an extremely small upper class called The Meths (short for Methuselah), who are like unto gods in that they control almost everything, possess unlimited resources, live among the clouds in vast floating and palatial structures, and cannot die.
“One very consistent element in the Altered Carbon world is the continuation of the societal divide, and how it grows ever greater,” explained Kalogridis. “ The future here might be lovely for the people at the top, as they acquire and can do more and more, but the people below – those whose existence involves less and less – will have a much more nightmarish existence. That’s especially true in this world as the people at the top can never be removed, and can never die.”
Digital Poe and the A.I. Race
A corollary technology that was developed adjunct to the cortical implants at the base of the skull was the perfection of Artificial Intelligence and their branching into a separate race. AI personalities now single-handedly manage or run businesses like underground fight clubs, restaurants, and hotels.
The Raven Hotel, where our hero Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) stays, is run and personified by a digital Edgar Allan Poe AI, whose acerbic humor and wry sense of fun inform his décor and relationships with his guests.
Who Killed Laurens Bancroft?
Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) is not Earth’s wealthiest man. He is one of the wealthiest men in all the Settled Worlds. Bancroft has been alive for 375 years old until someone killed him and vaporized his cortical stack.
So, who killed Bancroft? It is because of this mystery that the Methuselah mogul has paid to have Takeshi Kovacs’ consciousness and skills implanted in a new sleeve: to solve his murder. See, someone appears to have killed Bancroft’s previous sleeve and made it look like a suicide. Now he wants the singularly talented Kovacs to find the person who did it. It’s been 200-plus years since the mind of Takeshi Kovacs was imprisoned or “put on ice.” Now Bancroft offers Kovacs the chance to live again, and if Kovacs solves the case, he will earn his freedom.
Lt. Kristin Ortega and Sci-Fi Law Enforcement
One of the best characters in the series is Detective Lieutenant Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda).
A smart, tough Lieutenant of the Bay City Police Department, she is immediately intrigued by Kovacs’s mission especially since the ancient Envoy is sleeved in the body of Ryker, Det. Ortega’s former partner, lover, and a disgraced police detective whose DHF stack has been put on ice while he awaits trial.
Ortega is also part of those who have “religious coding” in their DHF stack, which means they have chosen to never be “spun up” again. It also means that she only has one body and one life to live, and that her consciousness will never be put into another body, based on her ethical and religious beliefs.
In a world where immortal is the new normal, Ortega and those of her religion are an increasingly anachronistic albeit altruistic bunch.
The Legend of Quell Falconer
Quelcrist “Quell” Falconer (Renee Elise Goldsberry) is the stuff of legend. She is the fierce leader of the Envoys that Kovacs eventually bema a part of. Envoys are elite interstellar warriors, trained in the ways of intuition, combat, and survival against the new world order.
The Envoys are considered freedom fighters by some, terrorists to others, but both sides consider them dangerous opposition to the totalitarian rule of The Meths and the Protectorate and, eventually of the idea of immortality itself. It is in the lush, forest-filled Harlan’s World that Kovacs trained with the Envoy leader, Falconer.
It is Falconer’s name and story that, Kovacs will discover when he is spun up hundreds of years later that will be named in songs, made plays out of, and narrated in museums depicting the ferocity and eventual demise of the Envoy order.
They Don’t Make Heroes Like Takeshi Kovacs
Who is our anti-hero with the strange name of Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman)?
He is the lone survivor of the group of elite interstellar warriors named Envoys, who were defeated in an uprising against the new world order. Centuries ago, Takeshi “Birth Kovacs” (Will Yun Lee), and his sister Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lechman) were born on a planet settled by Japanese and Slavic workers, and they eventually both became killers for hire, and transitioned to revolutionaries under the Envoy banner.
When he is spun up from the imprisonment of his consciousness Takeshi Kovacs discovers in his first weeks back on Earth that nearly 250 years has passed. The Envoy resistance fighter has been re-sleeved in a hulking Nordic body and haunted by the ghost of Quell Falconer, the love he lost over two centuries ago.
Joel Kinnaman, despite having solid performances in House of Cards, another breakthrough Netflix series, acquits himself well with a sci-fi setting and breathes life into the angsty, violent, and choleric Kovacs.
“Working with [series creator] Laeta Kalogridis has been an exciting experience,” said Kinnaman. “I read the book, and I sort of had one vision of Kovacs, while Laeta saw the character differently. And then when I understood her vision of it, and we sort of met halfway, and it created something that I think neither of us had imagined.”
Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix on February 2, 2018.