Reviews of Altered Carbon (2002) and related work
Altered Carbon (2002)
Richard K. Morgan (writer).
Read in 2020.
This is cyberpunk in the weak sense of using a future capitalist society to comment on a contemporary one. Like Gibson, Morgan uses the tropes of gangster movies, heist movies, hardboiled fiction and film noir. Unlike Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy but like the more similar Blade Runner (1982), Morgan has a high concept instead of low-concept broad extrapolation, in this case a kind of limited hypertechnological immortality.
The person-on-a-chip technology (“cortical stacks”) is a pretty good idea, and the execution isn’t bad. Morgan evidently considered where to draw the line between the nervous system of the body and whatever is stored on the chip, though it isn’t explained. He does a pretty good job pulling out the materialist metaphor of real bodies as the disposable bodies of his fiction, largely avoiding the philosophical trap of mind-body dualism. It’s not simply an imitation of Dixie Flatline in Neuromancer (1984) or earlier SF on digital immortality. However, the cultural extrapolation doesn’t work. The metaphor takes the upper hand, sometimes bordering on allegory.
Immortality’s only major effect on Kovacs’ society is to cement economic inequality. He quotes Donne (“O death, where is thy sting?”), but his culture has not adapted. Making a threat, he says “I’m talking about real death”, because all people are still irrationally afraid of death, despite hundreds of years of acquaintance with it, where generation after generation of people have grown tired of living.
Violence is central to the story, which is another contradiction of its concept. There is technology (a virus) to corrupt the chips, but when you want to know what somebody else knows, you apparently can’t read off these chips even with physical access to them, so instead, people are manually tortured in virtual reality, fully aware that their suffering has no effect beyond the scene. Gibson never got quite so crude.
Ultimately, the story is that of a superhero, a cynical asshole with a heart of gold like The Stainless Steel Rat (1961). Kovacs is too shy and gallant to watch a tearful reunion (“I took a mild interest in streetlamps up and down the promenade”), and he makes himself the people’s champion: “someone was going to pay” for the misdeeds of “corporate vampire[s]”. This is quite unlike Gibson’s Case and much more narcissistic. The detective aspect of the plot also turns out to be surprisingly prosaic in the end.
Like the immortality stuff, the rest of the setting is nicely rendered but not very creative. There’s convenient FTL communication, Kovacs is prejudiced against “machine coffee”, material shopping is still popular, the Internet is not more popular than it was in 2002, and the Hendrix-themed hotel’s host AI has trouble identifying figures of speech. That AI, the species-swapping and the prominent sex scenes reminded me of Time Enough for Love (1973) where the future offers nothing more exciting than computers becoming hot women.
‣ Altered Carbon (2018)
Seen in 2020.
This review refers to the first two seasons.
Instead of having been reawakened perodically throughout his imprisonment, Kovacs is brought back after 250 years of non-existence. He initially rejects Bancroft’s mission, he’s Kawahara’s brother, and as for Falconer, not only did he meet her: In this version, she invented the central technology of the franchise, he fought for her as a revolutionary against that technology, and they were also lovers.
The plot is not improved. Though at first he seem even more cynical than the book version, the TV version of Kovacs turns out to have been an idealist, which is only more dramatic, not less narcissistic. His relatively sudden return to society is a convenience for a wider audience to identify with him, just like the extra fights and cable nudity are intended to appeal to a common denominator.
The worldbuilding is worse. The added AI version of Edgar Allan Poe is a fun character, but his card-playing local AI business council is nonsense, and the second season only humanizes AI further, with both love stories and a long subplot on health concerns. As in the book, robots are conspicuously absent, except that—unlike in the book—Ortega gets a superhero-level prosthetic arm that lets her punch people so hard her own bones ought to break.
The visual presentation starts out good for a Blade Runner imitation with oversaturated colours. Alas, there are lots of flickering fluorescent lights instead of LEDs in the far future. When people are backed up remotely, they blink their eyes a lot, which is also dumb.
Poor worldbuilding aside, the writing falls down the hole of US TV, spending practically all of its time with a handful of core characters on cheap interior sets, not out in the world. In the second season, Quell kills the founders of Harlan’s World not because of her generic naturalistic-fallacy anti-establishment conviction or because she’s nonsensically bonded to a vengeful extraterrestrial metaphor for colonized peoples, nor even because she’s like the infantile late Casca of Berserk (1989) at the time, but to generate melodrama in her romantic relationship with Kovacs. The budget wasn’t there for much else, despite an almost completely human-centric plot.
The VR torture at Wei has Kinnaman continuing to play Kovacs, whereas in the book, he’s a premenstrual woman for receptivity to pain and, apparently, despair. Showrunner Laeta Kalogridis explained, in a 2018-01-17 Gizmodo article by Beth Elderkin, that this decision was motivated by a supposedly categorical problem with the medium. According to Kalogridis, a faithful adaptation would have been “torture porn” where the book version is not. This is spurious, a matter of skill rather than medium.
The weightier reason why Kinnaman plays Kovacs in VR is the second one cited by the showrunner in the same interview: Kalogridis did not think that Kovacs’ vengeance would have been emotionally satisfying to the audience without the visual continuity of the actor. Besides showing a lack of faith in the viewer, this is a self-contradiction: Pretending to avoid torture porn by making the violence feel good. The same hypocritical logic underpins the amped-up fights throughout the series, including the silly choice to cure Lizzie Elliot by making even her violent.
Fortunately, Ortega’s reckless decision to borrow Kadmin’s body for the Day of the Dead in the first season is a good substitute for the genderbending aspect of the original scene at Wei. The second season replaces Kinnaman altogether, which is ultimately a good choice. The way it’s done feels a bit like a superhero retcon, and Mackie doesn’t preserve enough of Yun Lee’s or Kinnaman’s styles to sell the identity, but it’s still a bold move for such a big TV production, and the story required something like it.
The funniest little failure of the production is one mispronounced word spoken by Tibetan-Australian actor Dichen Lachman in the first season, playing a Japanese character: She says oyabun with an ʌ sound, like a bread roll, instead of an ɯ sound, like the Japanese say it. New actors do better with the language in the second season.
References here: Upgrade (2018).
‣ Altered Carbon: Resleeved (2020)
Seen in 2020.
Awfully lazy. The stack design is the same as the 2018 TV series, Kovacs and Kawahara are both in it, Poe from the TV series is replaced by Mori Ōgai, the Hendrix/Raven deus-ex-machina lobby battle scene is adapted again, Kovacs’s new sleeve has a cigarette habit again. More problematically, the script does not make sense, the mocap CGI is ugly, the action is poorly directed, and the levels of moral dichotomy and pointless grotesquerie are higher than both book and TV series. It’s textbook adaptation decay, but Kovacs’s sleeve does have an amusing resemblance to Chirico Cuvie from Armored Trooper Votoms (1983).