A Quick Guide
to The World of Netflix’s
By Karl R. De Mesa
There’s always worry within the sci-fi fan community whether enduring works of the genre can be adapted accurately to the screen.
Richard K. Morgan’s dystopian novel, with its epic scope and commentary on everything from immortality, culture, justice, and crime set in a world where people no longer need to die because of breakthrough tech, was a big one for Netflix to tackle when the news dropped.
It is thus with much authority and no small amount of gladness that we can report how many things have gone right with the series, its 10 episodes capturing the grit and over arcing bite of the book with not only confidence but much sympathy for the source material.
Here’s a brief guide to the world, the tech, and the characters you will encounter in the world of Altered Carbon.
A Cyberpunk Adaptation
Morgan’s novel was published in 2002 and won the Philip K. Dick award for Best Novel the year after.
Many have speculated about how the limited running time of a movie would likely not cut it for the kind of ideas and metaphors that Morgan’s novel held. That is, until writer and producer Laeta Kalogridis came along and decided that streaming TV, 10 hours of it, would do just nicely.
Kalogridis was the screenwriter of Shutter Island, Terminator Genisys, and the upcoming Alita: Battle Angel. It is through her efforts to realize Morgan’s world, teaming up with Skydance Television and Netflix, that Altered Carbon has at last made the leap between mediums.
“Television was starting to make leaps into shorter seasons that were more cinematic, that had a very different kind of energy,” said Kalogridis. “And that allowed us to create a story that truly felt like an extended movie.”
Clones, Sleeves, and Stack Tech: Every Body Can Live Forever?
300 years into the future, the main premise of the world of Altered Carbon is that people have spread among the stars and are already able to have their minds and memories stored on discs in their necks through a technology called “cortical stacks.”
The software that powers the “stacks” is called Digital Human Freight (DHF), and like a USB port, each stack can be transmitted, swapped, and input into different bodies. In the amount of time it takes to back up one’s mental data in a satellite cloud, a person is literally ready to live life again.
Because the hardware of a stack is well nigh indestructible, people’s minds can thus be “stored” and then resurrected through new “sleeves” of human bodies the next day, the next month or centuries later.
“It’s a very serious sci-fi story about a technology that allows life to be extended indefinitely,” Kalogridis said. “Yet in no way was the story removed from completely identifiable human emotions. It has all the bells and whistles of great sci-fi, but at its heart is a very human story. The book also beautifully redefines human beings’ relationship to our physicality. In the Altered Carbon world, you can exist in any body. It’s a fascinating idea that humans will have evolved over millions of years to exist in tandem with our physical body.”
The New Immortals: Eternal Life is Only for the Rich
What the inventor of stack technology and the scientists who perfected the DHF software could not predict was humanity’s propensity for greed.
Enter the burgeoning market for cloning technology where you can grow and store an almost infinite number of your original sleeve bodies or keep your favorite ones on-hand to play in. a number limited only by your bank account.
Even though stack tech has democratized the ability o live forever, the expense of immortality is only truly available to the rich. Society has been transformed and consciousness can be digitized; human bodies are interchangeable; death is no longer permanent’ but only the wealthy can truly live forever.
This has given rise to an extremely small upper class called The Meths (short for Methuselah), who are like unto gods in that they control almost everything, possess unlimited resources, live among the clouds in vast floating and palatial structures, and cannot die.
“One very consistent element in the Altered Carbon world is the continuation of the societal divide, and how it grows ever greater,” explained Kalogridis. “ The future here might be lovely for the people at the top, as they acquire and can do more and more, but the people below – those whose existence involves less and less – will have a much more nightmarish existence. That’s especially true in this world as the people at the top can never be removed, and can never die.”
Digital Poe and the A.I. Race
A corollary technology that was developed adjunct to the cortical implants at the base of the skull was the perfection of Artificial Intelligence and their branching into a separate race. AI personalities now single-handedly manage or run businesses like underground fight clubs, restaurants, and hotels.
The Raven Hotel, where our hero Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) stays, is run and personified by a digital Edgar Allan Poe AI, whose acerbic humor and wry sense of fun inform his décor and relationships with his guests.