Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Altered Carbon (2018) review

    Altered Carbon is one of my all-time favorite cyberpunk novels and is probably one of the few which I rank up with Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and Blade Runner. It's a sci-fi noir with blackmail, sex, murder, and an antihero protagonist who verges on being completely psychotic but never quite crosses the line into villain (at least until the second or third book). So, I was incredibly exited about the announcement of a series being made by Netflix. Netflix, like HBO, is one of the few networks I know who could do a proper R-rated genre story.

    I was also excited about the cast members of Joel Kinnaman (Robocop, Suicide Squad) and James Purefoy (Rome, The Following, Solomon Kane) being among the cast. Dichen Lachmen (Agents of SHIELD), Michael Eklund (Wynonna Earp) Hayley Law (Riverdale), and Will Yun Lee (Sleeping Dogs) also add a huge benefit to the show's star power even though those are mostly things only geeks like me would like. I didn't know Martha Higareda before this show but her role as Detective Ortega makes me want to see her in anything else she does.

Nice bits from the book.
    The premise of the books and the show is the future has successfully conquered death. Sort of. There's no guarantee it's "you" who is reincarnated but your memories and personalities can be stored on discs called Stacks.  If you die without your Stack being destroyed then you can be put in a new body and some rich people have their consciousness backed up every 48 hours. Takeshi Kovacs is an anarchist-inclined criminal and former supersoldier who, after being "killed", finds himself awakened two centuries later by the absurdly rich Laurens Bancroft who puts him to solving the ultimate case: who "killed" him and make it look like a suicide.

    So, was it good? Yeah, sort of. No, let me be fair, it's really-really good. However, it's a good which isn't as good as the novel because it goes off the rails toward the end due to the fact they want to streamline the story as well as improve it in places. This isn't always a bad thing as I consider Blade Runner to be far better than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Here, however, all of the changes basically seem to be designed to make the story more personal when it didn't really need to be personal at all. Its changes can be likened to changing the Maltese Falcon to having Gutman turn out to be Sam Spade's long lost brother and making sure the villains get locked up at the end. You can do it well but it's a bit contrived, to say the least. It isn't a spoiler that fans of the books will find Takeshi Kovacs much-much closer to the events of the setting than he is in the books and this is annoying single time it happens.

Martha Higareda is gorgeous and tough at once.
    For example, in the show continuity, Takeshi is an Envoy in the service of the Quellist Revolution. Quellcrist Falconer is his lover and his sister is Reileen Kawahara, who is also a member of the revolution. Quellcrist Falconcer is the inventor of sleeving technology and believes it's innately evil so that people should only have one life. If you're a fan of the book, you'll know where all of this is deeply wrong and throws a lot of later canon deeply out of whack. Particularly of note, in the third book, Takeshi is searching for the stack of his one true love and she's permanently killed in the opening seconds of the show.

    Generally, though, this is very much in the spirit of the books and is all about the class struggle and misuse of technology by the super rich. In the future, most of humanity lives in squallor and while Methuselah (those who are centuries old) engage in their most depraved fantasies. Deprived of any fear of death or judgement by the apparent immortality which Stacks provide, they have all seemingly become evil psychopaths. That's a bit blunter than the books where Laurens Bancroft is a dirty old lecher but not the monstrous deviant he is in the show but hammers on the themes of the book--which is money is a trap that all of society has fallen into.

Miriam is a bit disappointing.
    The show has a lot of excellent world-building, sets, and character development that unfolds in mostly believable ways. I bought the Takeshi Kovacs/Kristine Ortega romance better in the show than I did in the book. Indeed, so much that I want to see more of it despite how against the books themes it would be. There's a bunch of great action sequences spread throughout the story and they're both vicious as well as bloody. You really come to buy Takeshi as the most badass man alive while never completely entering the world of Arnold and Stallone.

    There's a couple of weak links in the show like Kristin Lehman who has the unenviable task of trying to portray the World's Most Beautiful and Desirable WomanTM. That's a heavy task in itself but is also coupled with the fact she's supposed to be a genius and incredibly dangerous but never rises above petty in her scenes. There's also a few unnecessary subplots which seemed designed to make us care about characters right before they're killed. The series also seems very skeptical of Sleeving technology, which is weird since the books aren't even though it is very off-kilter technology (and amounts to mental cloning writ large).

He needs to get to work on Sleeping Dogs 2, stat.
    There's copious amounts of nudity in this series, mostly but not exclusively female, and it is sometimes extremely appealing while other times not. It's a noir story with the exploitation of women as one of the themes so it's appropriate. Still, I would have preferred more use of it during the "sexy" scenes with Miriam, Kovacs, and Ortega than just thrown out randomly left and right.

    In conclusion, I very much enjoyed Altered Carbon the series but it didn't hold itself together for all ten episodes. The show is entertaining but tried too much to make it entwined with Takeshi's personal life and past when it was perfectly serviceable as a murder mystery he's roped into. In any case, I recommend it to all cyberpunk fans but note it's not perfect.



  1. There probably won't be a Sleeping Dogs 2 as the studio that made it went under.

  2. Also, after finishing the series you can tell it was written in 2002. Even just 16 years later some of the stuff that is plot relevant wouldn't be an issue given the current trend of technological innovation.

  3. 3D printing bodies instead of using other peoples or clones for example. We are beginning to grow cloned organs for transplant right now. The next step is to 3D print them and then of course we begin to 3d print more complex organs and organ systems until we can do a whole body.

    Its not like human tissue is a complex thing we know what it is made of.

    1. Well, it's not an actual 3D printer but a biological construct creator. A clone would be a copy of a person which would be a baby when this would presumably make a full reproduction at the proper age.

    2. Exactly. No reason for that technology to be banned and it would presumably be quicker and cheaper than keeping clones around long enough for them to mature. That is where medical technology is going today.

      I didn't like some of the changes like the Envoys being rebels instead of Green Berets for instance.

      Also, everybody was a complete sociopath. Killing someone is a hugely traumatic experience even for trained soldiers. I just don't think there would a large enough market to make anybody much money out of it. The number of sociopaths is a small fraction of the population and the number of sociopaths that are violent much less have fantasies of killing someone is infinitely small. We are talking dozens out of a a population of billions. Not that the villains plan made much logical sense in the first place given the technology of the setting but that is beside the point as it was clear that they were more than a bit unhinged.