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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Altered Carbon: Roads, Spit, and Immortality



Critics who've said that Altered Carbon, the 10-part series I just binged on Netflix (based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan, which I haven't read) is not as good as Bladerunner, which it strives to be, are myopic - or to put it bluntly, completely wrong.  That's because Altered Carbon is at least as good if not better than the two Bladerunner movies (certainly the second), which it not only exceeds in scope and variety, but plain-out doesn't resemble in crucial ways.

Both are hardboiled cyberpunk, to be sure.   Both therefore entail murder and sets that look like Tokyo on speed.  Both have have sardonic investigators who crack wise.  And both are about the extents and limits of human and human-like minds in human and human-like bodies.

And there the similarities, impressive as they are, end.  Bladerunner is about androids, or artificial, flesh-like beings, with artificially created minds.  Altered Carbon is about transferring human minds to "stacks," composed of a crystal-like substance found on an alien world somewhere out there in space.  These stacks can be put into bodies ("sleeves") that look nothing like the body that housed the original mind, including different genders, and even an adult stacked into a child.  They can also be put into an identical body - "double-sleeved" - or cloned, with the clones having completely identical consciousnesses until the moment of the sleeving and stacking.    The possibilities for love and death (sleeve death of just the body, so the stack can be implanted in some other body vs. "real death" when the stack is destroyed, too) are almost endless.  Freud would have loved it.  I did.

Planets far from Earth are not just a backdrop. Important parts of the narrative occur there.  The characters have a media ecological sense of how minds and bodies intersect (see Human Replay for what that means).  They also understand the pivotal role of media in human history.  Quellcrist (a central character) notes that Rome went from a city to one of the most powerful empires in ancient history because of its "roads" - an observation that comes right out of Harold Innis's Empire and Communications.

The stacks in effect make humans immortal, and in one of the main threads of the story, Quellcrist heads a team of rebels who want to return humans to their pre-stack mortality.   (I like the character, but disagree with her on this, btw.)  Takeshi Kovacs is one of the team, and he's the prime protagonist in this story, which includes solving a murder ("the dead can now accuse their murderers," he aptly says), fighting off potent villains of both genders, and wending, usually fighting, his way against all manner of physical and digital constructs - if he doesn't embrace them - including an AI hotel named the Raven with an Edgar Allan Poe as its concierge avatar.

Joel Kinnaman puts in his best performance on the screen so far - and it's fine indeed - in this role, sometimes even looking a little James Dean.  He spits on a sensor which expected to get his DNA in another package, and is compassionate and brutal as need be.  Convincing acting, too, by Martha Higareda as Ortega, Renée Elise Goldsberry as Quellcrist, Dichen Lachman as Rei, Chris Conner as the aforementioned Poe, and how could I not give a shout-out to Tamara Taylor from Bones.

Slight quibbles: the story is set hundred of years in the future, but the ambience on Earth seems more like just decades away.  And there's one scene in which someone tries to elude attackers by pretending to be dead amongst a group of corpses, but wouldn't the attackers in this far-future scenario be able to digitally scan the area for any signs of life?  But these quibbles are small indeed.

There's plenty of violence (which has received some criticism) as well as nudity of all kinds (I haven't seen any criticism of that) and I think both are right and work well for the series.  There's room for a sequel, which I hope is made (Morgan published two additional novels in this saga).  Laeta Kalogridis gets the "Created by" credit on Wikipedia, and there's a full house of directors, producers, and writers in this powerfully rendered series.  All deserve kudos.





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