I read Altered Carbon about five or ten years ago and was blown away by its brilliant combination of sci-fi novel and detective thriller, its post-cyberpunk future-world setting, its fast-paced hard-edged evocative writing, and its all-too-believable premise, given human nature. I thought it would make a fantastic movie, but would have to be 10 or 20 hours long, so, how?
Richard K. Morgan’s novel is about a world a few hundred years from now where people can store their personalities into “stacks” that can be fitted into “sleeves” (new bodies). The wealthy (the “Meths,” for Methuselah) can essentially achieve immortality while those of lesser means have to settle for whatever aging bodies and lifespans they can afford, and some people won’t re-sleeve on religious grounds. As a result, the chasm between rich and poor has never been greater, nor the rich more powerful—and decadent.
Takeshi Kovacs is a former Envoy, a military corps whose members have been trained to survive in multiple bodies and lives and through extreme combat, including real and virtual-reality torture. He’s hired by ultra-wealthy Laurens Bancroft to investigate Bancroft’s own death. Bancroft has been re-sleeved, thanks to a personality-upload backup—but has no memory of his last two days because of his 48-hour backup schedule. It looks like a suicide, but Bancroft wants to know if he was murdered and, if so, why. He hires Kovacs to find out.
Does the series live up to the book? Well, it’s an altered Altered Carbon.
Most of the book’s essentials are here, including the main characters: Kovacs—Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee, both utterly convincing as Kovacs in different bodies; Bancroft—James Purefoy in an understatedly chilling performance; his sensuous/heartless wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman); and detective/Kovacs-antagonist/ally Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda).
Altered Carbon’s visuals and cinematography are stunning, richly imaginative (although the dark, dystopian Bay City owes a lot to Blade Runner), and often hallucinatory, with the lines between actual reality, virtual reality, and flashbacks blurred. The sound is also excellent, with impeccable dialogue clarity and a superb audio mix.
Many of the settings—the extraterrestrial Harlan’s World, the sleeving company Psychasec, Bancroft’s above-the-clouds residence Suntouch—evoke the book’s descriptions and are spectacularly realized. (Head In the Clouds almost perfectly matched what I had pictured.) There’s a dazzling array of future drugs and tech: Combat-enhancing Neurachem, sex-enhancing artificial pheromones, intelligent weapons, “needlecasting” to remote locations, and much more. The series does a fantastic job of portraying it all. There was never a moment when I thought, nah, this could never be.
Conversely, there are entire storylines and characters that don’t appear in the book. Part of these alterations are beneficial, including a major subplot between Kovacs and—well, I don’t want to give it away, but it and other subplots really illuminate the characters’ motivations. Other aspects just seem like change for the sake of change.
Yet I know books need to be adapted to the very different medium of a TV series to play well on screen, which is why, for example, I can understand changing the nature of one of the key AI characters. And Morgan was a consultant to the series, and I doubt he was put into virtual-reality torture to agree to the final product. So I guess he’s OK with it.
So am I. Because the series gets the feel of the book right.
The tough, gritty, unrelenting feel. The dialogue. The tension. The fact that Kovacs has had huge swaths of human emotion bred out of him—but not all. The twists and turns. The violence. The nudity. (Since bodies are just sleeves, the nudity feels like part of the series’ texture, not gratuitous.) The flashes of humor. The sex. The scenes of brutal treatment of women-as-sex-objects, which has caused some online controversy—though the men aren’t exactly immune from this objectification either. It’s not all bleak, though—there are moments of tenderness, caring, empathy, and love. And hope.
Most of all, what Altered Carbon gets right is its portrayal of the rich complexity of still-human—and indeed all-too-human—emotions and motivations in a world that’s much more complicated than the one we live in and where a basic tenet of humanity—everyone dies—is no longer true.
Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.