Altered Carbon is a 2018 Netflix television series from Laeta Kalogridis (Alexander, Shutter Island) based on the 2002 novel of the same name by author Richard K Morgan. The first season of the series and first novel of the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy are about a dystopian future set in 2384 where consciousness and memories are kept on small metal discs, called cortical stacks, that are implanted into the stem of the vertebrae in humans when they are young. When any human dies, their cortical stack can be put into another body such that the human consciousness can live on, but if their stack is also destroyed, this would result in a permanent death. However, this also means that certain humans with enough wealth can effectively live forever, through the use of human clones and uploading their consciousness to a cloud server via satellite. These elite god-like humans are called Meths, in reference to Methuselah who according to the myth lived 1000 years.
The series centers around Takeshi Kovacs, the last remaining elite soldier of the envoys, a rebel group who were defeated in trying to rise up against the new world order. The the story starts when one particularly wealthy meth, Laurens Bancroft, decides to take Takeshi’s stack out of prison storage and put it into a new body 250 years after the uprising, so that Takeshi may solve the mystery of Laurens’ own (body) death.
Fortunately, Morgan was very active in the creative process of making the Netflix series a reality, as he worked very closely with Kalogridis. Morgan was actually an ESL teacher for over a decade before he wrote and published his novel, and upon its success he quit to become a full time writer. This kind of life experience is something that I aspire to have one day as well, and is indeed quite inspiring since I’m currently an ESL teacher myself.
I should start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed both the novel and the series, and I would recommend reading the book first before watching the movie, as there are some significant differences in both and I feel like the original should be what gives you the first impression of the story. I also feel like it’s always better to create an image of a story with your own imagination, before having someone dictate that vision for you with a visual medium.
Morgan writes very well, with a great handle on pacing and with excellent action and story line to keep you hooked. Be warned, however, because the plot will be a little confusing (at least, it was for me) as the mystery slowly unfolds itself and will keep you guessing who murdered Laurens. I should also mention that this is definitely an adult book, with some surprisingly graphic sexual scenes written in, which is something new for me in reading a science fiction novel.
The TV series is also very good, but I felt personally that it leaned a little too hard on violence and sexually explicit scenes. It also chose to critically change some main characters which leads to a significantly different ending, one that I felt wasn’t as strong as the novel, but also that somehow was more fleshed out if that makes sense. In some ways the TV series feels like 1.5 books, compared to the 1st book by Morgan, which actually makes sense since Kalogridis decided to put more content in the first season out of fear that the series wouldn’t be renewed, and because she felt there was too much good content to ignore in books 2 and 3 from Morgan.
If you’re a fan of this genre, but feel like you only want to either read it or watch it, I would urge you to reconsider and do both for one main reason: the influence of Netflix on our society is undeniable, and that influence shouldn’t be underestimated when a big series such as Altered Carbon ends up being the big hit that it has been. The series has already gotten a myriad excellent reviews (although not being perfect), and the greenlit second season and subsequent seasons will naturally be drawing from its source material, the books, as well.
So what does this all mean?
It means that Netflix has made Altered Carbon a culturally relevant modern TV series, and subsequently also is bringing Cyberpunk into social awareness and consciousness. The stylistic choices, colors, setting, and film noir feel of Altered Carbon (both the series and the books now) are creating a new modern perception of the Cyberpunk genre for our society in real time. I would venture to say it even has more of an effect than standalone movies such as Blade Runner 2049 or Ghost in the Shell, although the recent increase in Cyberpunk movies just further points to the growing trend that Cyberpunk is quickly becoming mainstream, something that industry favorite Neon Dystopia is quick to mention here and here.
So take the time to enjoy a great series and a great book. I am still trying to get my hands on book 2 and 3 of the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy. Altered Carbon tackles some great existential themes, such as the effect of money on society and the meaning of identity in a world where bodies are expendable sleeves, consciousness can be copied and downloaded, and laws grapple with religion and justice (such as it being illegal to put a stack of a Christian into a new body, even if the previous body was murdered and only that stack can pinpoint who the murderer was in a court of law).
Futuristic weapons, culture, and society, confused senses of identity and self as they relate to new technology, cyber enhancements, neurochemical stimulants, drugs, gangs, Artificial Intelligence and immoral business practices, Altered Carbon is the modern Cyberpunk series that our world needs. I give the novel 10/10, and the TV series 9/10, notching it one point for its gratuitous sexual scenes and violence.
If you’ve read or watched them, please let me know what you thought in the comments below!