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A Political History of the Future: Altered Carbon


This is a guest post by Abigail Nussbaum.

In this installment of A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs the politics and economics of its worlds, we discuss Richard Morgan’s 2002 novel Altered Carbon, and the 2018 Netflix series adapting it. Spoilers for both book and TV show follow.

Richard Morgan (published in the US as Richard K. Morgan) is an author I often struggle to sum up. Of the eight novels he’s published since 2002, (a ninth is forthcoming this fall) I’ve read four. Two of them I consider to be utterly disposable. The other two are, to my mind, essential examples of 21st century science fiction. But even having said that, Morgan can be a hard author to recommend. He writes hyper-violent thrillers that often verge on self-parody, the kind of books where it can be hard to tell whether you’re meant to be turned out by the sex scenes or the fight scenes, and where the descriptions of women’s bodies are often indistinguishable from descriptions of weapons.

At the same time, it’s clear that Morgan has at least some awareness of these facts, and is trying to engage with them. Long before toxic masculinity became a common pop culture buzzword, it was the focus of his best work, and in the midst of his novels’ orgies of violence his emphasis is often on how that violence twists and dehumanizes his protagonists. His fifth novel, Black Man (published in the US as Thirteen), which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2008, is about a world where genetic engineering has allowed the creation of people with exaggerated traits, including men with a tendency towards hyper-masculinity, who are perceived as obligate killers. Altered Carbon, Morgan’s first novel, is similarly about a man whose training was designed to suppress any impulse towards empathy or the mitigation of violence, and how that impacts his humanity.

(This, to be clear, should not be taken as saying that Morgan is a feminist writer, and in fact his novels are a rare example of the gap between taking the problems of masculinity seriously and being interested in feminism. Morgan writes good female characters, but that is exactly what they are—good female characters for storiesthat nevertheless revolve around men. The problems of women in a hyper-masculinized world, and the way that women are victimized by toxic masculinity, are present in Morgan’s novels—otherwise there would often not be an impetus for their plots—but they are very clearly not the point.)

Altered Carbon takes place several centuries in the future, in a world that has developed the ability to store and transfer the human consciousness from one body to another. Every human is fitted at infancy with a “stack”, which sits at the base of the brain and stores memories and personality. Upon death, the stack can be transferred to another body—now referred to as “sleeves”—where it will override any existing personality and allow the stacked personality to continue living. Most middle-class and above people can afford re-sleeving insurance that gives them access to at least one or two more lives after their original one. Richer people can buy custom-grown, genetically-engineered sleeves, the ultimate in consumer luxury. The super-rich keep vaults of clones that they cycle through, and back up their personalities daily, making them effectively immortal.

It’s one of these immortals—known as “meths”, short for “Methuselah”—who kicks off the plot of Altered Carbon, hiring narrator Takeshi Kovacs to investigate his own murder, which the police have dismissed as a suicide. But why, insists centuries-old Laurens Bancroft, would he have blown his own brains out despite knowing that there was a backup waiting to be reactivated? Kovacs, a soldier-turned-criminal last seen getting his sleeve ventilated by the police on one of humanity’s extra-solar colonies, is transmitted to Earth, fitted into a new sleeve, and “leased” to Bancroft for the duration of his investigation. His steps are dogged by police detective Kristin Ortega, who closed the Bancroft case, but whose interest in Kovacs turns out to be personal—the sleeve he’s walking around in used to belong to her lover, Elias Ryker, a disgraced cop whose name Ortega still hopes to clear, and she’s afraid that in the course of his investigation Kovacs will damage or kill it. That concern quickly turns out to be justified, as Kovacs is embroiled in several violent encounters that suggest that there is more to the Bancroft case than meets the eye.

Morgan probably isn’t the first writer to combine cyberpunk with thehardboiled detective story, but he’s certainly one of the finer practitioners of the form. His violent set-pieces in Altered Carbon may be something of a cliché, but they’re also extremely well done. The mystery aspect of the story is a little less successful, but this is well within the tradition of the classic detective stories—insert obligatory “Raymond Chandler forgot to explain a murder in The Big Sleep” reference here—and not really a problem since the appeal is more in the detective’s cynical, disaffected voice and how they interact with the privileged, screwed-up, secretive people their investigation brings them into contact with. In Altered Carbon, the appeal is also in the world, and in the concept of stacks and resleeving.

Morgan’s focus in describing this world is on crime, punishment, and restitution. The existence of stacks has changes the way the world in his novels perceives crimes against the person. Injuring and even killing a sleeve is considered “organic damage”, while destroying a stack is referred to as Real Death. Murder victims can be spun up to testify against their killers, and can then sue them for the cost of a new sleeve. An important subplot revolves around a branch of Catholicism that refuses resleeving, and won’t even allow murder victims back to testify. Which frankly strikes me as inconsistent with Catholic theology, but ends up being important to the plot.

The penal system, too, is changed by the existence of stacks. Sentenced criminals aren’t imprisoned but put into data storage for years, decades, or even centuries. Their bodies become the property of the state—Ortega, we learn, was trying to keep up with the hefty mortgage on Ryker’s sleeve despite his two hundred year sentence—and are the pool from which newly-released convicts get their sleeves once their sentence is up. In one scene, Kovacs observes a young black family struggling to accept their just-paroled father, resleeved in a middle-aged white body. Another parolee describes sleeping with her husband in her new body, and says that it felt as if he was cheating on her.

Peeking in between these crime story elements, however, are glimpses of a world in which your body has become just another one of your possessions, like a car or a phone. Something you can insure. Something you can trade up. Something the state can, under certain circumstances, lay claim to. Something the rich getbetter versions of.

Morgan doesn’t take this quite as far as he might have. We’re told, for example, that one of the decadent pleasures that meths like to indulge in is killing young prostitutes, who are reassured that they’ll be resleeved in a body of their choice (the truth, unsurprisingly, turns out to be less benevolent). But to me this feels like putting an extreme face on what could just as easily have been a more mundane sort of horror. Imagine being poor but beautiful, or poor but athletic. In today’s world, you might try to parlay your natural attributes into wealth and success—a modeling contract, a sports scholarship, a wealthy spouse. In the world of Altered Carbon, the solution might instead be to sell your own body to someone rich and live off the proceeds in a lesser one, or even a cheap synthetic. Hell, you might end up with a setting in which the poor live in virtual worlds, while reality is reserved for the rich and their hangers-on.

It’s interesting to note how often science fiction edges right up to this concept, and then backs away. Another semi-recent example is Joss Whedon’s fourth TV series, the fascinating but incurably messy Dollhouse (2009-2010). In that show, down on their luck people lease themselves out to a shadowy organization that installs neural architecture in their brains, allowing them to take on imprints with any personality or skillset. The show only briefly acknowledges the fact that the most obvious use for this technology would be for rich people to drive the young, beautiful bodies themselves, instead of hiring them out as bodyguards, prostitutes, and even midwives. And it very quickly sinks into a conspiracy thriller mode, which is probably easier to cope with than the idea of a capitalism that can reach all the way into your brain and overwrite your personality with that of a perfect worker. But as the critic Niall Harrison wrote at the time (in a conversation I can’t seem to track down anymore), the premise of Dollhouse represented the ultimate in alienating workers from their labor, and so does the world of Altered Carbon if you think about it for any amount of time.

I don’t actually have that much to say about the Netflix show, which looks amazing and is a lot of (extremely violent) fun, but doesn’t really try to grapple with any of the book’s more interesting ideas. It makes some substantial changes to the story, which for the mostpart I don’t have a problem with—since, as I said, the mystery is probably where the book is weakest, and in particular Morgan has a tendency to unnecessarily compound entities and bring in major players very late in the story, which the show wisely streamlines.

As a work of science fiction, however, Altered Carbon’s emphasis is on the entry-level reading of Morgan’s concept—the idea that rich people can live forever while poor and even middle class people remain ordinarily mortal. But the conclusion it reaches from this is not “capitalism is bad” but rather “immortality is bad” (particularly in a truly bizarre subplot in which Ortega’s entire family is slaughtered just so she can learn to respect their religious objection to resleeving). Which feels almost like a very on the nose joke about Hollywood’s inability to grok leftist politics. Or maybe there’s only so much you can expect from a show that also features a fight scene involving a dozen naked Dichen Lachmans.

One point on which I definitely feel that Altered Carbon deserves criticism, however, is its handling of female characters. As I wrote above, Morgan is not what I’d consider a feminist writer, but the show certainly works hard to make him look like one in comparison. Aside from Ortega, the two major female characters in Altered Carbon are both composites of characters from the book. Hamilton star Renée Elise Goldsberry plays a combination of Quelcrist Falconer, a long-dead revolutionary-poet from the early years of Kovacs’s world’s settlement, and Virginia Vidaura, his combat instructor from his years as a soldier. Dichen Lachman’s character combines elements of the mercenary Trepp, who sometimes fights Kovacs and sometimes saves his ass, and the crime boss Reileen Kawahara, who he used to work for.

What’s significant here is that while, in the book, these women are all important to Kovacs, they’re important for professional, often impersonal reasons. He admires and frequently quotes Quel, thinks of Vidaura as a mentor whose teachings he often recalls, sees Trepp as a frenemy, and despises Reileen as a sadistic psychopath. The show instead makes them people who have a personal connection to him—Quel turns out to be the great love of his life, while Reileen is his long-lost sister, so obsessed with him that she even tries to seduce him while wearing Ortega’s sleeve. I don’t begrudge Goldsberry and Lachman their meatier roles (especially sinceputting women of color front and center is one of the ways in which Altered Carbon addresses the central issue of having an Asian character who is played by a white man), but it feels very much as if the show doesn’t think women can be important to its story unless they have a deep personal connection to the male protagonist. This is exacerbated by how the show changes the power dynamic between Kovacs and Ortega. In the book she’s in charge from the first minute, constantly jerking Kovacs around. In the show, he very quickly puts her on her back foot, and she spends the rest of the season chasing after him.

To bring this back to our actual topic, however, Netflix’s spin on Altered Carbon feels very much like a gloss on the book’s most interesting ideas. As much as I sometimes hesitate to recommend Morgan, I definitely think that if you enjoyed the show (and even if you found it frustrating) you might want to check out the book and see the deeper, more varied take it offers on its central concept.

Next time on APHotF: we take the opportunity of Amazon announcing an adaptation of his work, and of a recent monograph about him, to discuss the utopian science fiction of Iain M. Banks.

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