- 1 Introduction
- 2 What is Altered Carbon about?
- 3 Visual cityscape in Altered Carbon
- 4 Immortality in Altered Carbon – (Re-)Sleeving Technology
- 5 Artificial Intelligences in Altered Carbon – obsolete technology or lurking in the shadows?
- 6 Virtual Reality in Altered Carbon: Heaven & Hell
- 7 Change of everyday applications – communication, data & financial tech in Altered Carbon
- 8 Other intrusive technologies in Altered Carbon
- 9 Conclusion
Since I have read Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy years ago, I have been asking myself when these astonishing works of cyberpunk literature will finally find their way into other forms of media. Last year, Netflix finally made this dream come true by announcing the release date of Altered Carbon, named after the first of Morgan’s novels in that universe.
As the release in February 2018 came closer and closer I grew quite nervous: Some changes to characters and plot were hinted on. Uh oh, for an enthusiastic fan of dark SciFi, who has seen other franchises go down due to lazy portations, I was not sure how this will go. Yet the previews and trailers were quite promising and all of the production staff involved seemed eager to keep true to the feel of the original source. Mixed signals and feelings for sure.
After binge-watching the complete first season I have to say that all my doubts got simply blown away. The quality of acting, the amazing sets and visual effects, the keeping of the novel’s spirit while taking some artistic freedom to convert it into this media format… All these aspects were done greatly and in a passionate way. Netflix and the Altered Carbon staff did an amazing job, especially when you consider that most other production companies thought of the Takeshi Kovacs novels as that kind of source material that is too hard to produce in other forms of media before1.
The main focus of this article lies on the future technologies presented in Altered Carbon and their inherent dystopian aspects. This gets accompanied by an overview of some of the main visual facets of the series and how they are inspired by other related dystopian cultural media works of the past.
If you look for an in-depth review of plot and storyline(s) you should look elsewhere – I am not going to spoiler any of Altered Carbon’s rich variances of twists and character progressions. In regards to this, I also appeal to you to rather watch it for yourself first than to look up full scale in-depth reviews on the net – Altered Carbon is an experience worth to watch without getting spoilered through too many lenses of critics beforehand.
To give you a better impression of the visual elements and technologies presented in the Altered Carbon, I also added various screenshots to this article. In the description of each image you will also find the episode number & title as well as a specific timestamp of when the scene happens in the episode (the format of the timestamps is [min:sec]) – just in case you want to take a closer look for yourself.
I would appreciate any kind of feedback regarding this article. If you see ways to improve it or if you want to see certain additions of content, feel free to comment and discuss below. You can also contact and follow me on Twitter. I hope you enjoy the read, have fun!
What is Altered Carbon about?
It is the 24th century, humanity has reached out for the stars: Long range space travel, ftl communications and other advanced technologies are common. Numerous colonies span across the galaxy, so does the influence of the (now interstellar) United Nations. As the “Protectorate” it shares its administrative might with various mega corporations. Mankind has also advanced its technological knowledge far enough to beat the final frontier of every living being: The triumph over the grim reaper – the achievement of immortality.
People are able to completely digitize their personalities by means of a small implant, the “cortical stack”, which is placed in the spinal column of every human being one year after birth. This kind of storage device holds the personality and all memories the individual person has gathered throughout their life, up until the very moment of death. As long as it is undamaged, the cortical stack itself or the data it contains (yes, a whole person) can be transferred to other / new bodies, which are called “sleeves”. This process of resurrection is called “resleeving”.
Whether that new body is purely vat-grown, synthetic or just made of classic organic nature does not matter for the resleeving. Affected persons resume their consciousness at the point they died. The only fears in regards to death that remain, are getting “RDed” (“real death”) by having the cortical stack damaged or destroyed beyond repair, having no backup of oneself or not being able to afford anything of that.
In this world, we accompany the main protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (portrayed by Joel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee)2. Grown up in a colonial world far away and as a former member of “CTAC” (“Colonial Tactical Assault Corps”) as well as ex-member of the Envoy terror organization3, he has seen a lot and came around many worlds. His stack was “on ice” / in storage for over 250 years. Till now: Takeshi gets a new sleeve on Earth by being hired by one of the oldest and richest people in the Protectorate, Laurens Bancroft (played by James Purefoy).
Bancroft is a so-called “Meth”. People like him are named after Methuselah with good reasons: They have lived for multiple centuries already and were able to amass incredible amounts of wealth, influence and therefore power in these multiple lifetimes. The reason he seeks help from Takeshi Kovacs? He wants him to solve a murder case as an unconventional detective. His own murder. As Takeshi has not many choices other than getting thrown back into cold storage for an indefinite amount of time, he starts his grim journey into a deep web of conspiracies and power games. On a future world, that is so unknown to him due to location and lost time, he tries to survive and solve the riddles presented to him.
At this point I’m not going deeper into the story for the sake of your own entertainment. As promised, I’m not going to spoil it for you. If you like to see some footage without major spoilers, have a look at this amazing trailer:
In the next sections of this article we will take a closer look on the different visual themes and the technologies in Altered Carbon in regards to their dystopian nature together. Oh and btw: If you are interested in more information about the literal source of this magnificent series, you can find my short review about Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy here.
Visual cityscape in Altered Carbon
Altered Carbon is set in the 24th century version of the San Francisco Bay Area, yet there are not many recognizable features left. The city area grew vertically as horizontally by multitudes. The whole scenery consists of Blade Runner’esque skylines and streets: Flying cars and other air transportation dominate the sky among the countless installations of holographic projections. They show digital ads of numerous sizes in and on almost all buildings. This gives the city the futuristic “neon lighting in a dark, dirty coat” vibe, we know from classic dystopian works of fiction, especially in cyberpunk.
Various tube installations between almost all buildings seems to be used for either fast travel and / or transportation of goods above ground level. These interconnections do not only remind of current plans for future transportation technologies like the HyperLoop-System but also of the historical high rise buildings of the Kowloon Walled City, which were also all interconnected to each other but in a more chaotic as well as conventional sense.
One of the mantras of cyberpunk, “High Tech. Low Life.”, sees its visual revival in Altered Carbon. The concept of dark & dirty street levels among futuristic illuminated towers are a common theme and can be seen as inspirations, drawn from Blade Runner, Brazil and more. However, to see one of the ancient bridges in the Bay Area as favela-like Ghetto, full of poor people’s shacks on multiple levels, is new in regards to cinematic experiences. A huge inspiration for this, but I haven’t found sources on that yet, seems to be William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, in which the Bay Bridge gets used as a shelter for the poor masses after a huge earthquake devastated the western US.
Since the appearance of dystopian themes in cinematic works, the visualization of the vertical order of society – from the bottom to the top – has always been an important part of the visual aesthetics. As seen in the high position and location of the magnate Johann Fredersen in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, to the corporate headquarter and residence of Dr. Eldon Tyrell from Blade Runner: The powerful tend to live above the rest of society. A theme that is even older than most of the media we tend to consume, especially in regards to the common mythological roots related to the Tower of Babylon and the cultural impact it had on media works over the centuries.
In Altered Carbon the vertical order of society gets (literally) pushed to new heights: Meths like the Bancroft family reside on the highest level of buildings, far above the clouds and above the polluted city areas beneath them. Their organic-like towers with beautiful mansions on top, huge gardens full of art and clean air, are the biggest visual contrasts to the city’s life under the clouds. Compared to Fredersen & Tyrell, Meths like the Bancrofts don’t even have to look down on the masses, the thick white clouds underneath them cover up that view as consistently as gracefully.
Immortality in Altered Carbon – (Re-)Sleeving Technology
In the section “What is Altered Carbon about?” you already learned about the basic premises of Sleeve technology: Immortality through digitalization of the human mind. People are able to completely digitize their whole personalities, their memories, themselves, by the means of a small implant in the back of their neck, the cortical stack. Placed in the spinal column one year after birth the device records everything up until the moment of death. As long as it is undamaged, the person it contains can be transferred to a new body, a sleeve.
This resleeving process is a costly one though, as is the new sleeve body. The pricetag depends on many factors. In this world there is no free ride and no free services that are considered premium. The society portrayed in Altered Carbon is ultra-capitalistic, and people just get what they can pay for. Yes, there is still some token basic social care and supposed legal security but that doesn’t guarantee good care either. Just a small example: A 7 years old child got violently raped and murdered, by UN Protectorate law and regulation she has the right to a new body and she gets one. Too bad, that her new body is – to her own’s and her parent’s horror – that of an old drug addicted woman. Why? Because that sleeve was the next one available in the inventory and they would have to “pay for an upgrade” according to the re-sleeving facility’s heartwarmingly caring staff.4
Takeshi Kovacs, however, has the (bad?) luck of having a more than wealthy donor with Laurens Bancroft. His sleeve comes with military grade upgrades like “neurochem” & “muscle-memory abilities”, both of which give him advanced capabilities for any fight he wants to pick. This even includes precognition abilities that are quite useful in many combat situations, although even those have their limits. Besides these military and combat focussed upgrades, sleeves can be modified in all kinds of ways.
Some modifications are quite obvious, some are more subliminal – literally as well as figuratively. Just a small example: The sweat of an advanced and expensive sleeve may also contain biochemical compounds, which secrete during body contact with other persons. That’s quite a fancy feature, used by wealthy people to spice up their love life by being a living drug dispenser during intercourse. Yet, depending on the compounds used and produced by the sleeve there is also the possibility to deliver all kinds of poisons this way – which gives the term “black widow” an even more accurate meaning (no spoiler, just a feasibility analysis).
While there are ethical and philosophical questions of all kinds related to the subject of (re-)sleeving or even immortality in general, there is also some faith/religious based component involved. Parts of the City’s population in Altered Carbon consists of so called neo-catholics, also known as Neo-C. These religious people oppose any kind of resleeving of themself. The UN Protectorate respects that and does not force them to do so. Quite on the contrary: It is forbidden to implant their cortical stacks into new sleeves or to even question them after death in VR environments – an aspect that gives law enforcement (and not only them) a headache in regards to solving a lot of cases. This protection is guaranteed by “religious coding”, an addition of the software the cortical stacks are running on.
Artificial Intelligences in Altered Carbon – obsolete technology or lurking in the shadows?
In the world of Altered Carbon, Artificial Intelligences (AIs) are a common, yet subliminal, part of the economy and society. One of the most visible AIs in the series is named Poe (incredibly well played by Chris Connor). Who is Poe the AI? Poe is the owner and manager of The Raven Hotel, the place which becomes the base of operations for Takeshi Kovacs. His name is based on Edgar Allen Poe, a 19th century American writer, known for dark and mysterious fiction in various forms.
Poe in Altered Carbon ist not only managing the hotel, Poe is The Raven Hotel and vice versa. His existence is coupled & fixated with the actual place, even though he is able to use local and global networks to communicate or to visit other places and gather intel.
The Raven Hotel appears as an almost abandoned and forgotten place. Poe and other characters mention that he had not a single guest for almost five decades as humans tend to evade AI places and consider them freakish. People seem to be afraid of the omnipresent artificial entities which might observe one like a stalker as soon as they are hardwired to a customer. The reason why the human population in Altered Carbon reacts so negatively to everything AI-related in this way stays in the dark.
The classic SciFi scenarios of crazy AIs trying to gain world domination or the enslavement of mankind do not seem to apply as reasons because there is no mention of historical events or hints on any past activities regarding this. Furthermore, the AIs of the past are still existing and have their respective licenses, managing their old companies or have moved on into other, a bit more lucrative, business ventures. Apparently there was a time some decades ago, when the use of AIs, especially in the hotel business, was a common and even popular thing.
The existence of the virtual “AI Management Union” (former “AI Hotel Union”) underlines this. This virtual AI meeting place gets visualized in the form of a digital pub / poker club visited by Poe and various other AIs to exchange information, to gossip about humans and to gamble against each other. However, a few of the AIs shown in Altered Carbon look at humans as parents and to serve them to the best of their abilities, some are reserved about this topic and some even have acquired an anti-human approach. These more negative ones see humans as lesser creatures and themselves as the next step in the evolution of conscious beings. An approach that should sound more familiar to anyone interested in fictional AI-scenarios.
Yet, even in this regard it seems unclear why the latter faction of AIs haven’t tried to get rid of humanity or grabbed more power. This may be due to regulations and constant observation of their computing and network power. The limitations of their capabilities to upscale may also be caused by their binding to places in the real world like the hotel. An AI “out in the open” does not appear in Altered Carbon after all.
Another possibility: The profits that some of the AI make by fulfilling the often darkest desires of their human clientele may be easy enough for the moment. The AIs with dark malicious intentions could try to play a long game in this context and keep themselves covered, who knows – there’s a lot of room for speculation.
Virtual Reality in Altered Carbon: Heaven & Hell
The use of Virtual Reality is also quite common in Altered Carbon. Within the UN Protectorate, VR gets used in many ways. To link into a virtual scenario it doesn’t even matter if the person is technically alive. As long as the data from a cortical stack is intact, anyone can be uploaded into a VR environment for any purpose. For example, this makes occasional family reunions possible, if the family is not able to afford a new sleeve body for their lost loved ones. Of course there is also a variety of applicable cases when VR gets used by police and military forces as well as criminals – for interrogation and torture purposes alike.
Furthermore, as a sort of affordable entertainment for everyone, VRs recreational use is comparable to the use of video games in our own present. Like with every activity associated with pleasure and entertainment, the problem of addictive behavior should also not that uncommon to us. The 2384s Bay Area restaurants, that have basements filled with VR junkies who pay by time to get their digital fix and lie in their own dirt, is not that far away from the problems some communities in our present world have to face. Especially if you look at the regular news about internet cafés in Asia, where people just keep playing till they are dead.
In regards to benefits of VR tech in Altered Carbon the educational purposes cannot be underestimated, especially considering the time dilation features (more on that later). As for health issues VR environments get used in Altered Carbon to treat psychological issues. If a person is seriously psychotic or got heavily traumatized due to events in their live or due to having the 10th different sleeve body: Virtual Reality can help to set up the perfect environment for a patient so that the inner wounds can heal and be dealt with without risks.
The possibilities of this kind of VR seem to be endless, especially if you consider the additional time dilation features that VR applications can offer. Just an example: While being in VR for months, in the real world just minutes might pass, depending on the scale and level of activated time dilation.
This is an amazing way to advance progress of any kind, almost detached from temporal issues. Imagine you could complete a degree course of study not in years, but in a much shorter period of time, without any loss of quality. The whole higher education system would be even more outdated than it already is (I have no bad intentions with this message, there are still one or two fields of work which actually need an academic degree and actual university attendance, ok). Even a vacation could extend from just one week to a full sabbatical, without being more than just the week away in real time. Very nice thing. But it’s also the other way around: Imagine you were raped by bizarre beings in a digital swamp for decades, tortured and dissected alive. Over and over again, until your mind goes batshit insane – while in real time maybe only a few days could have passed. Doesn’t sound so nice anymore.
Therefore, VR technology is a tool that has endless possibilities in the way it has been portrayed in Altered Carbon – good as well as bad ones, depending on user, context and intend.
Change of everyday applications – communication, data & financial tech in Altered Carbon
Handling phone calls, instant messages, navigation, etc. – the applications that you got used to have still exist in Altered Carbon’s vision of the future. Compared to other SciFi series, like e.g. “The Expanse”, there is a big difference though: There is usually no need for people like Takeshi Kovacs to really hold a device. The people tend to use eye implants that provide a sort of contact lense screen, so that the interface sits directly in the user’s eye.
Telephone calls, instant messages, navigation system, etc. the handling of all these applications, which you should also be quite familiar with, are also included in Altered Carbon’s vision of the future, of course. In comparison to us but also to other sci-fi series, like “The Expanse”, there is a big difference though: People like Takeshi Kovacs usually do not need to hold a device anymore. Instead, implants are used in the eyes, which can be described best as a kind of contact lens screen. Basically, the interface sits directly in the user’s eye.
If the interface requires additional input that cannot be delivered by eye movements and / or voice commands (or if voice input is just inappropriate), a wristband similar in size to today’s fitness trackers may be used. This wristband allows input commands to be specified more precisely. The device also includes a holographic projector that allows the user to project a 3D user interface into the air. This allows all types of visual data to be displayed in the air on a 3D desktop. The software also enables filtering, organizing and arranging of content, as well as reviewing sources and cross-referencing and cross-checking with additional online sources.
However, in the world of Altered Carbon, you do not even need gadgets like that fancy bracelet for your daily payments. Payments are made via electronic purses linked to the specific DNA of the sleeve you are wearing. You touch the DNA scanner (or spit on it, spray some blood on it, whatever, the main thing is that the DNA gets checked by that damn scanner) and the payment is done – as long as your credit rating is alright. If not … well, hm. There still seems to be some kind of paper money, but it’s unclear how you can get it or if it’s an official and regulated currency – Takeshi Kovacs never uses an ATM and has not seen a bank from within. Moreover, as this paper currency is almost exclusively accepted in brothels and similar underground facilities, it could simply be a black market currency in the Bay Area.
Regarding paper: Even the most common classical forms of information exchange and advertising are digitized. All flyers that you get pressed into the hands by protestors & marketers in funny costumes as well as all other forms of everyday papers seem to be basically ePaper. Very thin and foldable electronic devices that are able to display animations and which always get updated content and are also ready to capture user interaction via touch interfaces.
Other intrusive technologies in Altered Carbon
Besides the obvious capabilities of cortical stacks to let people interface with machines and digital applications more easily, there are also some other – rather unpleasant – side effects: All kinds of regular and shady businesses are able to stream advertisements directly into the brain. If you walk down a street and past local broadcast projectors, these ads uplink to your cortical stack and deliver their ad messages in form of acoustic & visual hallucinations. Streaming of ads, brands and catchy jingles directly into the consciousness of a potential customer – the wet dream of every marketing-weirdo.
However, it’s not that people have no way to avoid it or get rid of this: Most people seem to be hardened and / or use broadcast blockers that are connected to their cortical stack to prevent this overstimulation of their senses by advertising. These blockers are like adblockers for internet browsers that we know. Because of these counter-technologies, most companies in Altered Carbon’s present also seem to have switched back to classic marketing tactics for quite some time.
Another quite intrusive use of advanced technology in Altered Carbon is the appearance of artificial insects as remote surveillance devices. Due to their small size, they enable the user to spy on basically anyone inconspicuously and get to whatever area and location, which is not completely and hermetically sealed. They are not portrayed without flaws though, their detection seems possible, depending on the amount of (counter-)tech available. Impressive devices, which are nightmares for advocates of personal privacy as well as for counter-espionage agents.
As I have covered most of the technologies and a lot of the visual styles involved in Altered Carbon, you can see how detailed this universe got presented. Almost every aspect in regards to possible dystopian developments that society and the use of certain technologies might take, is well thought of. Some of it thanks to the amazing work of Richard Morgan as the author of the source material, other new ideas and influences got adapted and integrated by an up-to-date staff. The following quote of Laeta Kalogridis (creator, screenwriter & executive producer of the Altered Carbon series) pretty much nails it to the head:
“We tried to imagine what a potential globalized future on Earth would look like, with a certain amount of technological change, a certain amount of technological familiarity and a very large degree of human familiarity.”
As a fan of Richard Morgan’s novels in general and specifically the ones featuring Takeshi Kovacs, I was eager to see if Kalogridis and her team would be able to fulfill these words. After the binge-watching of this first season on Netflix I have to say: Wow, Altered Carbon feels like shooting your worst enemy in the stack with a plasma gun while skydiving from the top of the burning Bancroft tower, just to get picked up mid-air by a screaming Ortega in a flying car, forcing you to down that damn bottle of whisky angrily5– one hell of a ride!
I’m more than amazed by what I have seen. The superb quality and performance of the actors involved, the astonishing sets in combination with great visual effects and a capable as passionate production crew, that remains faithful to the spirit of the original novel… What else could you want as a fan? As “burned child” regarding dystopian SciFi novel adaptations, I expected much less and got delivered so much more. I’m grateful for this experience and hope that we see at least 2 more seasons to get the original trilogy covered. Bring it on!
- The producer of the series, Laeta Kalogridis, first optioned the rights to Morgan’s novel soon after it got published at the beginning of the new millennium. The title was quite tough to sell to production studios though, especially as the base material was not tied to a well-known franchise. Due to its quite complex plot and the futuristic setting, which requires a lot of effort regarding special effects and film sets, the production costs were estimated as very high – too high, from the point of view of most producers at that time. The inclusion of a great deal of adult material in the novel also did not help to find production partners. Many years later, in 2016, Netflix finally had enough ambitions & courage to go forward into investing into the production.
- Joel Kinnaman plays Takeshi Kovacs in the parts in 2384, Will Yun Lee portrays him in the parts in the 2130s.
- One of the main differences to the novel: In the literal source the Envoy Corps is basically a special unit / division inside the UN protectorate structure. Psychotic and highly trained soldiers to get rid of any kind of uprising in the colonial worlds. In the series they are basically the opposite, as a kind of rebel group / terrorist faction, depending on view. However, the Takeshi in the series still shares a similar multi-faceted background with questionable changes of affiliation, due to his former time in CTAC.
- Of course, in these few moments of a casual scene, Altered Carbon shows a very emotional and socially charged case of extremes. It is clearly inspired by the endless debates in various countries (not just in the US and Europe) about how we are going to deal with public health now and in the future, as individuals and societies as a whole. But in a future like this, where humanity spreads beneath the stars, people who have lived for centuries have amassed incredible wealth and our species found solutions to most of the problems we face today… a 3D print as Replacement of this girl’s body would have been done in half a day or so, especially since the starting materials are hardly worth mentioning for a society like that. Details such as these make one think about human nature and the suffering we impose on each other, often without necessity. Great performance, especially for a series of this kind.
- This is – sadly – not a spoiler. Maybe some inspiration for season 2 content? ^^