Note: This post started out as an answer on Quora, but I thought it deserved its own space.
Very minor spoilers below.
If you haven’t heard of it yet, Altered Carbon is a dystopian science fiction series on Netflix. It’s based on the novel of the same name, a particularly bleak look into the future by Richard K. Morgan.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Dystopian scifi? Again? Hasn’t that been done to death already?
No. Not like this.
First of all, this is a very dark show. I don’t mean dark like Blade Runner or Pan’s Labyrinth. I mean black. Black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch. This show makes Silence of the Lambs look like Happy Fun Times with Rainbows and Unicorns. I know folks who got 2–3 episodes in and couldn’t keep watching it.
The show’s central tenet is that shortly after birth, everyone is fitted with a “stack,” a device that constantly backs up your memories and consciousness. If you’re ever killed, your stack can be removed from your body and placed in a new body. You can travel to other places by copying your stack into a new stack somewhere else, like transferring a file over the Internet…no need to get in an airplane (or spaceship!) and haul heavy, fragile bodies around.
Instantaneous travel! Death has been conquered! The show takes those Utopian premises and uses them to build a society that is almost unbelievably twisted, cruel, and bleak.
Imagine a society where people like a young Bill Gates—not the current mellow, charitable Bill Gates, but the greedy, paranoid, Machiavellian Bill Gates of the 90s, the guy who was one part robber baron and one part Lex Luthor—never age and never die.
In this society, the wealthiest people don’t own 99% of humanity’s resources, they own all of them. They’re hundreds of years old, they’re redundantly backed up, and they own everything.
Which means they control…everything. A small group of the uber-wealthy control all the lawmakers, all the laws, all the police, all the justice system…it’s Citizens United taken to its gruesomely logical end. There is not one single aspect of human society that does not bend, in a kind of grotesque fiduciary tropism, to the will of a tiny handful of the most greedy, amoral, wealthy sociopaths all of humanity can produce.
Now, combine that with the idea that the death of your body means you don’t really die, and what do you get? Brothels where you can kill the sex workers. No big deal, if she dies you just resleeve her in a new body! (“Oh, he’s one of the good ones,” a sex worker says of a rich client who likes beating women to death with his bare hands, “if he breaks it, he buys it.”)
The return of gladiator combat! After all, if death is only a minor inconvenience, why not have entertainment where people fight each other to the death? In bodies with enhanced strength and reflexes, just to make it interesting? One character stages death matches at his parties—using a husband and wife team as gladiators, because he loves watching people who genuinely love each other kill each other with fists and knives. (Winner gets an upgraded combat body. Loser gets a downgraded body. They go home to their kids after the match and their kids don’t recognize them.)
Or hey, you want information? You can torture someone to death over and over and over again and still keep asking them questions!
Buckle up, that’s what you’re in for when you get on this ride.
If that sounds like the sort of entertainment you’re looking for, Altered Carbon is your bag.
It’s a brilliant show, brilliantly done. Everything about it, from the writing to the acting (at one point, we see a huge LA biker who has first an elderly Spanish grandmother and then a Russian professional assassin transferred into him—it’s some of the best acting I’ve ever seen) to the set design is just astonishingly well-done.
I’m serious about the set design, by the way. I’ve watched the entire show twice, and the level of attention to detail borders on obsession. There’s a lot of interesting background stuff you only notice the second time through.
The world of Altered Carbon is incredibly misogynist (there’s a scene in a cloning lab for the uber-rich where we see a custom-designed naked female body with the advertising slogan “Put your wife in me!”), but unlike Blade Runner 2049—another movie set in an incredibly misogynist society—it gives us female characters who aren’t victims or MacGuffins.
Yes, the characters are tropes, written in broad, bold strokes. They have to be. The show, for its dystopian technological setting, is noir. That’s one of the defining characteristics of noir.
And within those broad strokes, the show does some really interesting things. The sidekick is a brooding and occasionally homicidal AI obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe (he even calls himself “Poe”).
If there’s an overarching theme to the show, it’s the tedious banality of evil. Power corrupts; power accumulated over centuries corrupts in dark and horrifying ways. The most awful parts of the human psyche rise to the surface, where they’re polished to a high sheen.
Even when they’re not human. There’s a very minor character who’s an AI. It loathes and detests humanity. But not in a Skynet, “I’m going to exterminate humanity in a nuclear cataclysm and then build an unstoppable robot army” kind of way, oh no.
It runs a VR brothel, where people with a tendency toward sadism can beat and murder women without actually having to do it to real women. Unknown to its customers, it records the VR scenes using real women, “because,” it explains, “they scream better.”
That’s the world you’re getting into: a world where the most grandiose acts of evil are directed at the grubbiest, most tawdry ends.
Classic works of cyberpunk like Neuromancer are set in societies where the greediest people are struggling to control the fate of human society.
In Altered Carbon, they’ve won. They control society absolutely, and now have century after century to look for novel atrocities with which to entertain themselves.
10/10, highly recommend.