As a writer, cyberpunk is one of those genres I was hesitant to explore because there is a lot to unpack. You cannot just have cyborgs, super-corporations, and hacking and call it cyberpunk. There is more to consider in terms of how those things affect the setting and characters, as well as a mystery aspect with other prerequisites. I am actually writing my own cyberpunk story and going through a similar learning process. With the release of Blade Runner 2049 we are on the cusp of a resurgence of the genre. Last year we got a cyberpunk horror game called Observer, Duncan Jones’ Mute will be out soon, and Alita: Battle Angel is months away. For now we have Altered Carbon, a serialized adaptation of author Richard K. Morgan‘s cyberpunk classic.
After waking up in a new body 250 years after his death Kovacs, played by Joel Kinnaman, is hired by the powerful Bancroft, played by James Purefoy, to solve the mystery of his apparent suicide. The investigation takes Kovacs to the darkest corners of Bay City, an overgrown metropolis that used to be San Francisco.
Carbon feels like it belongs on television. The look, structure of each episode, and even the actors and sets scream Sci-Fi Channel Original Series. However, given Netflix’s loose restrictions and freedom afforded to creators, Carbon is like an HBO show with the budget of Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1. If that sounds like a deal-breaker, keep reading; it is not as bad as you think.
The story is a noir style mystery with all the tropes you expect. The femme fatale, hard-boiled protagonist, some corrupt cops, and a ton of red herrings. There are many details that do not appear connected until all the clues come together at the finale. With that said, it is difficult to keep track of everything going on. There are ten episodes, each an hour long, and the amount of information throughout is overwhelming. It is hard to focus on one thing when there are 15 other clues from three episodes ago.
This is not a knock against Carbon because the real star is the world. The dilapidated, neon bleached, dystopian environments are full of physical details that make the world feel real. You get this sense of how centuries of progress and growth have contributed to a mass degradation of humanity and believe it. People take drugs in the open, sell their bodies, and have an apathetic outlook on life. Corporations and the super-rich are a major influence, but we see life at the ground level in all the nooks and crannies.
The premise of the show informs not only the world, but also the mystery. Sometime in the distant past, humanity figured out how to download the contents and consciousness of the human brain onto a stack, a data storage unit the size of a vertebra. It is even possible to transfer yourself onto other stacks and control the respective body or “sleeve.” Everyone has a stack and they have been a part of humanity for about a thousand years. This allows people to be immortal because they do not technically die. Sleeves can be replaced if there are available bodies and live for how ever long the body will last. You can go on for centuries without a body and wake up in a new sleeve like it was a dream, but if your stack is destroyed, you are dead forever.
Because you can get a new sleeve if you are ever killed or hurt, violence and murder is treated with a nonchalant attitude. Blood sports are a common occurrence, but regulated. Murder is still prohibited, but it is referred to as “sleeve death,” and bodily harm is called “organic damage” that gets you a slap on the wrist. The Neo Catholics of Carbon regard the stacks as an affront to spirituality. They believe when your body dies, you are dead for good, and avoid “re-sleeving.” With Kovacs, he used to be an Envoy, a soldier that can transfer into other sleeves to wreak havoc or conduct military operations. As for the mystery, Bancroft has a backup system that copies his stack every 48 hours and he killed himself ten minutes before the process took place. He cannot account for the two days before his death, leaving Kovacs to pick up the pieces.
Carbon is not all mystery and world building. Breaking up the slow noir are nice doses of action throughout. Sparse and delivered in quick bursts, the action scenes stay within the realm of reality. Most are gunfights with hand-to-hand combat in between. One scene takes place in an artificial gravity well and another in a cloning facility where copy after copy is woken up and sent to die. The action is well shot, choreographed, and fairly brutal in some cases. The fifth episode has an elevator fight that will make you cringe.
The possibility of a resurgence in cyberpunk gives me hope for the future. It is a unique genre and it deserves as much exposure as possible. Both Blade Runner movies are a great introduction, but Altered Carbon is so complex and fully realized that it doubles as a cyberpunk bible. If you are interested in exploring the genre and understanding its nuances, there is no better show to get started.
(Muh book: http://a.co/gR6nlr7)