Good news, everyone! In the future, we’ll have flying cars! And the world will be deeply multicultural, a melange of different ethnicities, all working side by side, with equal status. That’s the bright side of the science fiction universe in Netflix’s Altered Carbon.
Now the bad side. The key innovation in this story is the ability to upload and download minds. Everyone is walking around with a little disk in their neck that archives their mental state and memories continuously; some people also have a kind of brain wifi that allows them to periodically upload everything in their head to a remote backup. This means that if someone dies, they can just cut out that disk, insert it into a new body, and voila, you are revived! Unless someone shoots you in the neck, unfortunately; destroying the archive is Real Death. If you’ve got the wifi option, you can also restore from the last backup.
Wait, what’s so bad about that? It’s effective immortality! That’s where the series is most interesting, in exploring the consequences of radical new technology. One of those consequences is that income inequality skyrockets off the charts; imagine if Jeff Bezos were immortal, and could hang onto and build his wealth for centuries. It also creates new opportunities for strange situations. Is it justice if you abolish the death penalty, and instead just freeze bodies and extract their minds and store them for centuries? How about if you use the bodies of convicts to temporarily implant other people’s disks, so that people who’ve lost their bodies can be reanimated? What if one way to punish people is to restore their minds to a body not their own: a little girl wakes up to find herself in the body of a middle aged woman, or a woman finds herself in the body of a man (there are some potential positives to explore in that part of the story, but this show doesn’t really get into them)?
This is not a technology that will ever be achievable, just like those flying cars, but it’s provocative to think about it, and the series does take advantage of a lot of the weirder possibilities and complexities, so there’s a cerebral side to it all.
There is, unfortunately, a downside to the implementation, the problematic part. It’s taken a hint from Game of Thrones, and there is gore and gratuitous nudity galore. One minute you’re thinking about the implications of being able to shuttle minds from one body to another, and the next there is a bloody gunfight, with an additional twist: in the aftermath, you get to graphically gouge out the mind disk from the necks of the casualties and crush them to make them really dead. There are many scenes of torture and bodies getting hacked up (it’s OK, kiddies, the victim’s minds are being preserved while all the horrors are perpetrated). It was…distracting, to say the least.
Similarly distracting: if a young woman is playing a significant role anywhere in the story, it’s pretty much guaranteed that she will appear naked, full frontal, before the end of the series, and will probably be in a sex scene. Offhand, I can think of only one exception. The male protagonist and a few others will also get a nude scene or three, but it’s almost an iron-clad rule that the significant female characters are going to have to flaunt everything at some point. It reaches peak absurdity in one scene where the hero stumbles into a clone bank, and a woman downloads her mind into her clone, jumps out stark naked and unarmed, and tries to fight him…he guns her down. So her mind reanimates another clone, she stupidly jumps out starkers again, and he blows her away. Repeat that half a dozen times, to no purpose at all, except to splatter the room with blood and fetchingly undressed corpses. It’s kind of peak misogyny.
Buried deep in this story, there is a fascinatingly twisty, dystopian tale with some intelligence to it, but it’s so thoroughly swaddled in blood and breasts and bloody breasts that I just don’t think it’s worth the effort to extract it. It’s a shame that such an interesting premise gets lost in mindless gore and sex (I don’t object to gore and sex, if it advances the story or enriches the world — this doesn’t). Read the book instead. It’s violent too, but at least the imagery won’t stupefy you.
Boy, in the future, people sure do get naked a lot, and commit a lot of murders, nothing like the present. Unless I’ve been attending the wrong parties and the wrong gunfights.
The book was full of nasty sex and violence too. The story line is muddled and altered from the book in a number of ways and borrows from other the books in the series. I still enjoyed its but not a patch on the book. People can still die if the stack is destroyed, but generally the fact you wont die forever is part of the reason for the violence levels.
I’m presently reading the book. (recommended by Steve Gibson) So far its a pretty good read. Remarkably deep for a first novel.
I wasn’t nearly so offended by the nudity and violence as you, but it is a good point to consider. Mostly I just found that by the second episode I was profoundly bored and I think that’s because Joel K performance was rather dull and one dimensional. It would’ve been much better if they could’ve stuck with the first guy.
PZ Myers says
It wasn’t about being offended. It was about the willy-nilly flinging about of irrelevant distracting superficial skin and blood that actively interfered with the story.
I could imagine what would happen if Bezos were immortal and could hang on to his wealth for centuries, but I could also see what happens as the estate tax gets destroyed, assuming any of his children ended up sufficiently similar to him.
You can argue that when you can switch bodies like we switch clothes, caring about being naked would be a bit silly.
The clone bank scene however, that’s just stupid.
I am not too interested by the descriptions to want to go and see for my self so i will take the word of others and say it does not sound like anything I would be very interested by.
Sounds an awful lot like an enhanced video game with more sex scenes. I could not see the point of Game Of Thrones either other than as a frame work to hang all the sex and violence on.
waydude @ 3 wrote:
The weird thing is, there are a handful of quiet, subtle scenes where he kind of nails it… but then, as you say, he lapses back into dull, boring action-hero-man. Most of the time I found myself thinking Thomas Jane (anyone seen The Expanse?) would’ve been perfect for this role.
Don’t know if this has anything to do with story ,it is about another type of altered Carbon .
According toThe Guardian ,Bill- gold plated -Gates and a few of his chums are going to save
us all by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it in to clean diesel.
Is that possible ?
davidc1, I’m skeptical because it should be much easier to remove the CO2 from fossil fuel power plant exhausts where it’s present in higher concentrations. But people have been trying to do that for years and haven’t produced an economically viable system.
The laws of thermodynamics mean that it’d probably be a lot more energy-efficient just to convert the CO2 into carbon and bury it in a mine or something and concentrate on providing vehicles with clean electricity (WTF is clean diesel, anyway?).
Wasn’t that the gimmick in Zardoz? They didn’t blather about computers, but it was the same idea. Horribly, it sounds like Zardoz handled it better.
Rob Grigjanis says
davidc1 @9: There is such work afoot, and it seems promising.
Probably a long way off anyway…
I had about the same response as PZ from looking at one review and watching part of the preview on Netflix. Why does everything seem to have to have either loads of nudity, loads of violence, or both nowadays? Anything that doesn’t is literally a kid’s show. I like kids’ shows, but it’s hard to find anything that is interesting that isn’t full of one or both. Even some kids’ shows are ramping up the violence, which I don’t like either.
Reginald Selkirk says
Sounds like it was written by a system administrator. I hope you are al l backing up your stuff; and these days you should have an off-line backup in case of ransomware.
consciousness razor says
No, no and no. Just no. So, let me understand… season 1 episode 1, scenes 1-3, all of that’s totally settled, if it even had to be addressed in the first place … and then what happens for the rest of the series? You’ve established who the bad guys are, so the protagonist tries to beat them? What else is there to do with that?
I really don’t get what the appeal is supposed to be here. It sounds about as interesting as “exploring” questions like this: what if the South won the civil war and there were now super duper high-tech plantations where all of the slaves work? Okay, take your pick of technologies — maybe they’re monitored constantly, could be prevented from escaping, could be dispatched instantly with the push of a button, or whatever the fuck…. None of that has changed anything relevant about the moral issues, and they haven’t gotten any more interesting than they already were.
Either people should have bodily autonomy or they shouldn’t. There’s nothing “positive” about any of it. And if you wanted distractions from that, then you wouldn’t need sex or violence (which I’d say can enrich a story sometimes, in a way that things like dialogue can’t), because futuristic sciencey bullshit might play the same role.
Helen Huntingdon says
@4: At this point, everyone knows exactly why those weird and gratuitous nude scenes crop up everywhere — because somewhere in the power chain for that production, there was a creepy dude who got off on the idea that he could coerce women into being naked on his say-so. You read the Salma Hayek piece, so you know exactly how it works and why it’s there.
John Varley did it better, in the 70’s.
fusilier, SMOF, jg (ret.)
Helen Huntingdon, it sounds like you have a very low opinion of women. You’re basically implying than any actress who chooses to be “gratuitously” nude is some sort of weak-minded, impressionable drone.
Gregory Greenwood says
The series has some strong story elements and some good performances from the actors, though I agree that the level of violence and nudity is annoyingly gratuitous.I thought the actresses who played Kristen Ortega and Reyline (though the Reyline in the books was nothing like her character in the series, having a very different relationship with Kovacs and a different set of motivations) did particularly well, even though they probably were at risk from hypothermia half the time. While his character was totally different in the book (the hotel in the book was called the Hendrix and was themed after the famous guitarist), I also rather liked the quirky character of the AI Poe.
The book is unarguably better, not so much because there is less violence and sex (there is a whole lot of that in the book too), but because the book takes more time fleshing out many of the concepts under discussion, and doesn’t take the relatively easy way out that the series does by implying…
… that the problem with the Meths and their behaviour is simply their extended lives corrupting their humanity (in the books, the Envoy Corps weren’t an anti-life extension terrorist group, but were actually Protectorate interplanetary commandos of sorts. Quell in the books was also a long dead philosopher who had an issue with how the early settlers of Harlan’s world were treated by the colonial authorities. Quell also never even met Kovacs who was only born long after Quell had died. These are just a few of the huge numbers of largely unnecessary changes the series made form the book), but instead deals directly with the issue of class and extreme wealth in a society where the end of life doesn’t curtail the accumulation of wealth and power. In the books, it is still power and money that ultimately corrupts. Re-sleeving endlessly simply extends the period of time during which that corruption can eat away at someone’s humanity. The author is very clearly using the Meths as a way of pointing up the existing immorality of the hyper rich, and uses the Cortical Stack and remote backup technologies as stand ins for how capitalism in its most rampant, unregulated, and generally virulent expressions fuels the excesses of the modern day wealthy and powerful elites who see themselves as gods bestriding the world and crushing the rest of us underfoot like ants. It is perhaps unsurprising that a company like Netflix (answerable to shareholders after all) wasn’t comfortable leaving that kind of messaging wholly unattenuated in their take on the story, so they re-focused it onto how immortality through technology could harm a persons’s sense of their humanity.
JW Arlock says
I have a nit to pick… maybe two.
1. Your “It’s kind of peak misogyny” scene was actually woman-on-woman violence, there was no ‘he’ involved.
2. Nudity may have been extreme by US standards, but for the rest of the world, it’s just standard. Nudity that isn’t sexualised is pretty commonplace out in the real world (outside the Puritanical States of America)
Mrdead Inmypocket says
I remember thinking the 1950’s we might have flying cars in my lifetime. It’s now 2018 and it appears we’re trying to convince people not to eat Tide Pods. So I’ll admit, I might have shot a little high in my expectations.
Akira MacKenzie says
Personally, I enjoyed it greatly. “Altered Carbon” is one of my favorite novels, a cool blend of cyberpunk and Chandleresque detective fiction. The Netflix adaptation strayed from the book in several areas, but that’s to be expected and overall it was pretty good.
I have been reading your blog for years and this is the first time I’ve disagreed with you so strongly that I felt the need to write a comment. I just finished the series last night and I couldn’t disagree with this assessment of it more. I thought Netflix’s adaptation of the books was spot-on and might even have surpassed the source material. It has flaws but they certainly aren’t in the “gratuitous” (and we’ll get to that) violence and sex.
I’m gonna spoil some stuff here. SPOILERS. Do not read if you haven’t read the books or whatever.
First, and most importantly, the tone is exactly the same in the books. You even give this a nod in your rant, but only to say “at least the imagery in the books won’t stupefy you” – but part of the magic of the adaptation is that it slams me in the face with the imagery my brain was doing a great job of glossing over in the books. The series is about the objectification of human bodies, full stop. That’s literally the entire premise of the series, and the (female; not that women cannot create problematic things, but at least they are less likely to do so without full knowledge of the broader context) showrunner has said as much in interviews. And the imagery even pulls punches! There is a lot of sexual violence in the series that we _do not see_, it occurs off screen. We are spared from actually witnessing it. This is more than I can say for, say, Game of Thrones, which is similarly slavish to its source material and horrifying because we have to watch the sexual violence play out every time it happens. At least here all the sex we see on screen is consensual (unless you want to nitpick about what Bancroft’s Merge9 does to Takeshi). They even avoid showing you what the Ghostwalker does to the children but still manage to get across that it was horrific, by instead showing us that it was enough to make the police chief vomit (which, you assume he’s seen Some Shit, so something that could make him do _that_ is mind boggling).
But in general the show (and book) is just entirely _about_ what happens when we turn human bodies into objects, into “sleeves”, things to be worn and discarded at a whim. We get hints of this throughout the series (the married couple that comes home as strangers to their young children every couple of weeks comes to mind) but nowhere does it strike home more than when Rei steals Ortega’s sleeve and talks to Takeshi in the climax. She stands up out of the bath naked and the actor sells every second of this scene, walking as though this sleeve is just a thing for her to show off, just another tool to get what she wants. She looks like she is objectifying _herself_, because in a very real sense she is. This is a theme throughout the series. Of course we see every actor naked (and the fact that we get to see Takeshi/Riker shirtless or less so consistently throughout the series is a lovely touch and also essential) – they’re all _objects_. Not a single human in this series actually owns their own skin, and this message is shown and told to us throughout with the objectification themes.
You can’t tell me that the future where we, as in the society that exists _today_, gains this technology (from aliens, not by developing it ourselves, even) doesn’t look a lot like this. Inequality massively exaggerated. Death, the great equalizer, taken off the table if you have the money. Fantasies too dark to even imagine, now possible and sold without a second thought because what does it matter if you destroy this body? I can always buy a new one.
_Yes_, the future does have a lot of people dying and having sex. Nothing has changed from today. That is the essence of the cyberpunk genre. It’s hopeless, a boot stamping (from the skies) on the face of the underlings, forever. If it’s not a dystopia with dirt and blood smeared across neon and chrome, humans owned by corporations – it’s not cyberpunk, it’s something else. They nailed it.
Did you think the scene with Rei’s many clones was excessive? Well, in the book, one of Takeshi’s doubles goes to that island that Bancroft hinted at and just has a lot of (gratuitous!) sex with all of her clones. We don’t get to see that one.
There is a fine line between media that is problematic, and media that is about problematic subject matter. This falls neatly into the latter category and does so superbly. You can decide that it’s not for you, that you’d rather not watch such things, but it is a fantastic exemplar of what it is supposed to be.