Altered Carbon: Flawed and thought provoking [possible minor spoilers]


#1

What is a soul? What is consciousness? These aren’t new questions. They might actually be the oldest. Stories that ask these questions aren’t rare…but stories that provide a single definitive answer are (I think anyway). And Altered Carbon has made that answer the premise of it’s universe.


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This is the physical manifestation of your Ghost that brings a shell to life, or in this case a “sleeve”.

Cortical Stacks or just “Stacks” feel weirdly grounded and plausible in a day and age where questions like “Why Die?” are entering public discourse more and more. Part of what makes this feel so real and grounded is that it’s not immortality. It’s more like indefinitely extending people’s life spans. Death is still very much a reality and apart of life in this universe, but the relationship to it has changed drastically.

In the first episode we’re introduced to what are essentially Altered Carbon’s Anti-Choice street harassers. But instead of attacking women for going into health clinics that offer abortion, they attack anyone coming out of a police department where several people recently received new sleeves and were released. They’re called “Neo-Catholics”. They’re a specific branch of Catholicism almost entirely made up of converts, as their faith mainly revolves around the idea that people should only die once. So converts Stacks are re-coded in such a way that prevents them from being able to be brought back to life. As the show goes on we’re introduced to less zealous and more fleshed out characterizations of these people.

Humanity’s relationship to armed conflict (as of 5 episodes in) is one of the least (directly) focused on and most interesting aspects of this universe to me. If only because of how realistically horrifying and distant it’s aftermath is portrayed. It’s one thing for there to be a display case in a museum full of the dog tags of enemy combatants or their helmets. But putting the physical manifestations of the souls of enemy combatants in a display case in a museum, that’s driving a point home.


#2

I rarely found myself deeply invested in the story of altered carbon and saw it more as a fun cyberpunk romp where you didn’t have to think too hard about the plot, but I do think that the some of the themes and worldviews it presented were pretty interesting. I was especially interested in the idea of humanity no longer being bound by mortality which then caused all sense of morality to be thrown completely out of whack. It makes perfect sense that with Humanity evolving, so should our morals. The show pretty directly states that it doesn’t believe in such a change in ethics and morality. We are too beholden to the machinations of capitalism and with the only limitation for your own life being your wealth, we reach the logical conclusion of quite literally deifying the 1 percent who, as a consequence of losing their touch with humanity, are also the most immoral and inhumane characters on the show.


#3

I haven’t watched the show yet but I think it does need to be brought up that this is the first book in a trilogy. Hoping to make time to watch the show by the end of the month because there’s certain things in the book that I’m kind of interested in seeing how they tackle such as the really fucked up torture methods.


#4

Same here. I felt like it was a real expensive syfy channel show that I was watching mostly for the gratuitous violence and beautiful people getting some because the exploration of artificial consciousness was more concerned with looking cool than being interesting. As Heather Alexandra pointed out on twitter, Soma did all of these themes pretty much perfectly a couple of years ago.


#5

Yeah, and to be fair I don’t think it necessarily had to say anything new to be entertaining either. It seemed pretty well aware that it was treading on well worn ground and was confident in just delivering a hellaciously stylish cyber punk noir story with some interesting themes hanging out in the background. In short, it spends a lot of time being concerned with looking cool, and luckily it actually looks cool pretty much all the way.


#6

Maybe its the pessimist in me, but I do think the show and books are mostly right about this. I don’t think our morals and ethics will change too much when relative immortality is achieved and becomes a normal part of the human experience. If only because those in power now, tomorrow, and potentially forever won’t allow any drastic change like that to take place. It could very well be the end for them if they did.

This is an aspect of the show that I think is going to stick with me. The fact that defying the powers that be in this universe isn’t cause for death. It’s cause for a life of permanent purgatory and/or a personal hell. Our main character is a great example. He was a Revolutionary. He fought in an uprising against the power holders…and it failed. That’s not new Revolts fail more than they succeed in our world. But that’s not where the story ends. He survived the final battle of his Revolution only to have his soul kept around for another 300+ years until some rich guy decided to buy them as property. This definitely isn’t the first time something like this has happened in this universe, and it won’t be the last. It’s such a subtle final blow to any dissenters. It’s the ultimate counter-Insurgency. The sort of thing every modern powerful state on Earth dreams of being able to do one day. Putting down a revolt, not killing those who revolted. Just taking them out of the larger picture of humanity for a few centuries. Long enough to make sure 99% of people have completely forgotten who they were and what they were fighting for.

It’s the ultimate defeat.

Every revolution, every Jihad, every uprising, whatever you were fighting for completely lost to the sands of time. They won, you lost. Now go integrate into their society. And if you want you can try again and fail again, do it. And the process can be repeated as many times as it takes to make you realize how insignificant you really are.

That is truly dystopic.


#7

I think they handled it well. Really drove the point home about how it’s really the next level of “interrogation”. And how bad it’s described as being makes since when you think about how it would really work.


#8

I take umbrage with this. Soma by virtue of the story it was telling could only be a flash in the pan. You experience it once and you have no reason to relive it. I do agree that it doesn’t do nearly enough with the themes it presents, but at this point I get excited at them getting presented in the context of a galaxy-spanning society period. For as limited as the show (and maybe the source material) is, I can stay up all night thinking about how these concepts work in a society. I can’t do that with Soma.


#9

It looks like there’s gonna season 2. Here’s hoping they actually explore these ideas now that they know people have a Cyberpunk itch that this show is at least scratching a little.


#10

I think it’s unfair to Soma to dismiss it purely because of its form and structure. That may have been your experience with it but to generalise its ability to resonate with the player as a one-off says more about the buy-in required for games as opposed to passive media like TV.


#11

Yeah I dunno, my desire to watch Altered Carbon both comes from and is pushed away by the comparisons to SOMA specifically because that game did keep me thinking about its societal and personal implications for a long time, at least in part because of how it played into how players connect with games. From what I’ve been reading, this show uses its themes as more of a romp-backdrop that’ll just make me keep wishing for an effective SOMA-esque film or a larger-scale BR-inspired thing that remembers non-white people exist and gives them leading roles in the sci-fi that’s predominantly appropriated their actual struggles for entertainment for decades, maybe, possibly, someday?

Won’t do much for my utter disillusionment with Blade Runner, either. Though who knows, if it doesn’t cast its only PoC actors as implied child traffickers/cyber-magical blacks and isn’t terrible to women to look deep, then maybe this kinda romp’ll wash the foul taste of BR2049 out of my mouth! Sounds backhanded but no i would actually be down for that!


#12

I’d feel the exact same way if the mediums were reversed. I’ve actually been thinking about how Altered Carbon would work as a game since I started watching it a few days ago. Soma could have been a movie, a show, a book. There’s nothing about Soma that required it to be a game other than that’s the medium it’s creators chose. It’s a story about the end of everything. And that would turn me off regardless of it’s medium.


#13

Yo I despise nihilism but I never read SOMA as a truly nihilistic story, if anything it’s about finding something at the inevitable end of everything, setting out with hope in a largely hopeless world because there’s literally nothing else worth doing. There’s a coldly scientific bent to its horror that i don’t normally like (and speaks to the kind of ideals that lead to like, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s penchant for dunking on literal children) but even then it feels more like it’s saying no one person should become obsessed with transcending death. Hell, you even hear what it’s like when a character accepts their own death with a hope for a good legacy vs when they deny death under a flimsy pretense of immortality. The former sounds peaceful by their end, the latter is a hopeless wreck whose final memory is pettily screaming in denial at their supportive friend.

I also take a lot of umbrage with saying SOMA could translate directly to film and doesn’t do anything with its medium it couldn’t do elsewhere, but to keep this at all on-topic, i will say that Altered Carbon being purportedly not-nihilistic makes me more interested in seeing it. Cyberpunk and modern TV have a real fetish for trying to look woke that way and there’s a reason I’ve mostly stopped consuming either.


#14

I completely recommend giving the show a try, but you deserve a warning and some explanation. It’s not gonna wash that taste out of your mouth. And the reasons why seem more obvious here than do for other works in the Cyberpunk/Post-Cyberpunk genres. I’m not making excuses for this show or it’s source material. I just think that understanding why it is the way it is is a good place to start if we’re gonna learn from the mistakes of media we want to like.

This happens a few times. One of which is so blatant it feels like parody. And of course it’s done to a sex worker.

This first season is based on a the first book in a series. It came out in 2002. And the show seems to be pretty faithful to the books. This is why a lot of the “Science” aspects of this Science Fiction story feel insanely outdated. Like for some reason paper money, physical bank notes exist in this universe still. I’m not sure where things like Blcokchain or money transfer apps were in 2002. But in the year 2018, we’re on the cusp of getting rid of physical currency (for better or worse).

And I’m not sure how good or bad the politics of the books are. If I had to guess they’re no better or worse than the politics of Bladerunner. Which set the bar extremely low.

This show could be so much better if they just got a good writer to take the premise and run with it. But on the brightside, more people with an interest in Cyberpunk who are parts of marginalized groups being into Cyberpunk and loving it in spite of the flaws of titles like Bladerunner and Altered Carbon can only be a good thing. I think anyway.


#15

I like Altered Carbon a lot.

But it feels like It’s the Legend of the Seeker to Blade Runner’s Game of Thrones.

Like, philosophical stuff aside… the show is really hammy and over the top. At one point dude literally grabs and uses the sword from Highlander the series in a sword fight.


#16

As someone who isn’t super into Game Of Thrones I’d say that the hammy nature of Altered Carbon is probably the thing that makes me like it more than GoT. Game Of Thrones seems so self serious to me and it is viewed with such reverence that I almost feel like it should take some more time to acknowledge just how silly it tends to get. Part of what makes Altered Carbon work for me is that along with all the neon colors, gross violence, noir tropes and philosophy it still seems accutely aware that at it’s heart it is still a pulpy sci-fi noir with shoot-outs and brain transfering.


#17

Maybe I should have clarified that I don’t think any of that stuff is bad. Like, I’d honestly rather watch Legend of the Seeker than GoT on a given day. But there’s room for both absurd over the top nonsense and self serious sci-if. I love both for different reasons.

I think that Altered Carbon the series is less interested in being an exploration of its philosophical themes and instead wants the viewer to roll around in the garbage with it.


#18

One thing I haven’t seen in discussions about Altered Carbon is the lack of any real reference to sexual orientation/race/even gender in any meaningful way. At first I felt like this was pretty glaring, but as more of the universe was revealed I realized these social constructions ceased to have meaning in a world where bodies are a mostly throwaway thing, so maybe it was deliberate. A friend pointed out to me one construction that still has meaning is age (early first scene where a young girl is resleeved in the body of an older woman).

I found really interesting that when Ava was sleeved in the biologically male body she wore her hair similar to as in her original sleeve.


#19

I don’t know how much of the show you have seen but they do hint at some sort of “racial dysphoria” (If that makes sense?) in the later episodes, like basically it’s saying that even when we’ve reached a point in human evolution where the bodies we are born in should be utterly inconsequential to our identity, it is still a part of us that is pervasive enough to exist.

There is also some pretty overt racial overtones with the black attourney trying to engratiate herself with the meths who are all almost exclusively white, and how she is obviously jealous of Tak as well who is in a white body and part of the Meth inner circle. There is a point where another non-white, non-meth character literally tells her “You will never be one of them”.


#20

Mmmm that’s right I forgot about the attorney! That’s a real good point. Tak’s white body is a whole thing to unpack I still don’t know what I think about it. He’s in this body and part of the meth inner circle, yet obviously hates meths, but derived all these benefits from being part of that system (even if he ultimately took a chunk of it down).