Our Bodies, Their Selves

In Netflix’s Altered Carbon, the 1 percent can live like gods, as long as they have new bodies to live in.

Still from Altered Carbon.
Joel Kinnaman in Altered Carbon. Netflix

Altered Carbon, a maximalist cyberpunk series arriving on Netflix this Friday, is the story of Takeshi Kovacs, a half-Japanese, half-Slavic fighting machine who, after being unconscious for 250 years—more on the logistics shortly—is revived in the body of a white cop. This is a particularly complicated version of whitewashing, the Hollywood habit of casting white actors in historically nonwhite roles, insofar as Altered Carbon is based on a novel by Richard K. Morgan, in which an Asian man is stuck in the body of a white man and not happy about it. “I stared into a fragmented mirror at the face I was wearing as if it had committed a crime against me,” Kovacs says in the book, after seeing his new visage for the first time. Altered Carbon is not Ghost in the Shell, the boondoggle of a film in which a (cybernetic) Asian character was played by Scarlett Johansson. In flashbacks, Kovacs is played by the Asian actor Will Yun Lee, and in future seasons the character may be played by a nonwhite actor. But in the midst of the Great Awokening it is not a great look, even though Kovacs and the body he’s inhabiting are both played by the swole Swede Joel Kinnaman, who has spent eons in the gym in order to look great.

There is no way for Altered Carbon to get around the discomfort of its basic premise, and so it does not try. Instead, it heaps information and invention atop it: scads of William Gibson, mountains of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, dashes of Blade Runner, hints of The Matrix, Gaspar Noé visuals, Die Hard one-liners, Agatha Christie premises, Stormtrooper types, Hunger Games names, star-crossed lovers, star-crossed siblings, terrible Asian tattoos, silly mustaches, violence, penises, near-Tourettic cursing, interplanetary flashbacks. The sheer amount of imagining, both borrowed and original, accumulates into a vast, dirty world and gives Altered Carbon the feel of a proper cyberpunk novel: big, baggy, ambitious, trashy, funny, gruesome, clever, cheesy, and hyperactive. Its concerns about tech, which are vast, come in Technicolor. It starts slowly—with narration and ultra-violence and nudity; prestige snooze with sci-fi doohickeys—and it goes on way, way too long, but a couple episodes in, when I finally understood that the phrase “Re-sleeve your stack” was not describing something involving quarters and a dirty shirt, I realized I was into this ridiculous show.

The plot is a beast, so bear with me. Altered Carbon is set in approximately the 26th century in the Bay Area, in a future in which humanity has developed a technology that allows us to be digitized—we can back ourselves up, including all of our memories, in a coin-size device called a “stack” that slots in at the base of the head. Your body can die, but so long as your stack is intact, you can live on, in another body, known as a “sleeve,” or in virtual reality. The consequences of violence have been muted; violence has responded by getting much, much louder. Fights to the sleeve-death are a form of entertainment. Brothels permit Johns to stab, maim, and murder prostitutes, who can themselves get new sleeves. Minds are imprisoned in virtual reality torture chambers and killed over and over and over again.

Bodies are commodities and, as with all commodities, not everyone can afford them. Re-sleeving is expensive. The hoi polloi really die, or keep their stacks in limbo until their families can afford a new sleeve, while the rich live forever. The 1 percent, known as Meths—short for Methuselahs—have access to infinite sleeves, clones, and regular remote backups of their stacks. They rule the universe from abodes in the sky, wealthy, immortal, and, as the show points out, all but indistinguishable from gods, in the Greek mode: powerful, yes; virtuous, no, no, no, no, no.

Kovacs is resurrected into this world at the behest of the Meth Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), who has been murdered. Or rather, one of his sleeves has been murdered, taking with it the last 48 hours of his memory. Laurens, with all his backups, is still alive and well but keen to know what happened. He tasks Kovacs, who has a special set of skills he developed while fighting as part of a failed revolution—I swear, I am trying to keep this concise—to find out. Kinnaman’s Kovacs smokes cigarettes and emits deadpan one-liners like a Scandinavian Bruce Willis while tangling with the salty Latina cop Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), who love-hates him. He also enlists the help of the former soldier Vernon Elliot (Ato Essandoh), whose traumatized daughter Lizzie’s (Hayley Law) broken psyche is living in virtual reality, and an A.I. in the corporeal form of Edgar Allen Poe (Chris Conner), who doesn’t just run but actually is the hotel Kovacs chooses to stay at. (This is just a small portion of the large cast, which is populated by many actors who have memorably appeared in previous TV series, heightening the sense that everyone is a familiar person walking around in a new sleeve.)

Various members of this hodgepodge crew find themselves at swanky dinner parties where the entrée is tiger, fight clubs to the death, whore houses called “jack-it,” virtual torture chambers out of which Kovacs must bust like Neo, and quarantine zones, all to solve a mystery that blooms into a vast conspiracy involving Kovacs’ past, the original identity of his sleeve, a long-ago rebellion, the neo-Catholics’ refusal to be re-sleeved (apparently there’s still a Pope), and the corpse of a dead girl fallen from the sky. At some point the plot becomes so absurdly, obtusely dense and jargon-laden that I gave up on the specifics and just let the gist wash over me. The show was pretty much always headed to the same place anyway: a fight scene.

Altered Carbon is a high-octane dystopian romp compared with The Handmaid’s Tale’s sober, dystopian warning, but both shows use their diverse casts as a kind of amulet against digging into racial questions, even as they dig hard into sexist ones. Altered Carbon’s unraveling mystery turns again and again and again to misogyny and the sexual mistreatment of underclass women, the Meths’ bedrock sin. But race is everywhere and nowhere. The series is about an Asian man in a white man’s body whose soulmate is a revolutionary, legendary, dead black woman (name: Quellcrist Falconer, played by Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry). Kovacs flirts and banters through the entire series with Kristin, a Latina so fiery it borders on stereotype, while being helped by Vernon, a black man married to a white woman who is stuck in the sleeve of a white man. (The book was not nearly so diverse: Vernon and his daughter Lizzie, for example, were minor characters, and both white.) The show is “colorblind,” which is to say it is full of people of all different colors, but not particularly interested in racism, which has seemingly faded away.

It’s too bad, because one of the most galvanizing things about Altered Carbon is that, otherwise, its futuristic setting seems plausible(-ish), absent the absent effects of climate change. Yes, there’s space travel and immortality, but the series is about the human monsters born of “progress” and steroidally malignant trends in our own time: misogyny, the growing gulf between the rich and the poor, the commodification of everything, the unintended consequences of miraculous tech, which includes the development of an ultra-rich Silicon Valley caste. And its world, for all its gewgaws, has more than a vestigial resemblance to our own: Police stations are still dingy and have no windows; cars fly but also crash; people still eat and drink real food, speak existing languages, and gather together to celebrate Halloween—even if Grandma attends in the body of a burly thug, the only sleeve on hand for her yearly reanimation.

That scene, in which Kristin’s abuela drops by her neo-Catholic family’s holiday celebration and makes jokes about having to pee standing up, is funny and bizarre. It ends with a saccharine but probably true lesson about life: It’s death that makes it meaningful. Altered Carbon is not the first, or 50th, work of fiction or philosophy to come to this conclusion, but it delivers its lesson with goofy verve to spare.