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Netflix show ‘Altered Carbon’: A spoiler-free primer

The 10-episode cyberpunk-noir mash-up series is a retelling of Richard K Morgan’s seminal 2002 book

Image Credit: Netflix
Joel Kinnanman as Takeshi Kovacs and Martha Higareda as Kristin Ortega
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Altered Carbon, Netflix’s latest foray into original content, has caught the attention of hard-core cyberpunk fans around the world. Based on Richard K Morgan’s seminal debut novel of the same name, the story is set in the 24th century and infuses hardboiled cyberpunk with elements of detective noir. Think Blade Runner meets Watchmen. Or Matrix meets Batman.

The show is set in a world where humans don’t have to die when their bodies stop functioning. Through the adoption of alien technology, humans have learnt to transfer their personality/consciousness from one body to the other, effectively making them immortal.

Altered Carbon follows the story of Takeshi Kovacs (Will Yun Lee of The Wolverine fame), a former special forces soldier-turned-private eye, whose consciousness is forcibly transferred into the body of a white man (Joel Kinnanman, House of Cards and Suicide Squad) by Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the richest men on the planet, who needs help solving his own murder. With the help of Lieutenant Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), Kovacs must solve this mystery while keeping memories from his own violent past at bay.

Will Yun Lee and DIchen Lachman.Renée Elise Goldsberry.

It’s a mind-bending ride that promises to keep the thrills coming while you ponder deep existential questions about the soul, free will and human greed.

To help you get a basic understanding of this rich world, here’s a (spoiler-free) glossary.

Cortical stacks

Think of these as USB drives that can store human consciousness. Every human is given a cortical stack at birth, inserted at the back of their necks. When the body dies, either of natural causes or by accident, the stack can simply be inserted into a new body or ‘sleeves’ as they are called in this world. Humans can choose to continue their lives in any body they like, for as long as they can afford it and their cortical stacks are intact. Some religious groups think being ‘resleeved’ is an abomination, and choose to die at the end of their natural lives.

Renée Elise Goldsberry

Grounders vs Meths

‘Meths’ (a reference to the Biblical figure Methuselah who lived up to the age of 969) live high above the gritty, decaying world in skyscrapers in the clouds, called the Aerium. Each person’s consciousness is backed up onto high-security servers every 48 hours and put into ‘designer’ sleeves or infinite clones of their former bodies — which basically means even if their cortical stacks are destroyed, they can be regenerated, essentially letting them lead immortal lives.

James Purefoy and Kristin Lehman as Laurens and Miriam Bancroft

The less privileged are called ‘Grounders’ and live a hand-to-mouth existence on Earth’s grimy, dangerous streets. Some have their consciousness awakened to find they’re in a sleeve that’s been leased or assigned to a position of servitude — bodyguard, for example, or prostitute — or some others being answerable to the UN Protectorate, which oversees interplanetary law. Others find their minds placed inside bodies that are older or in damaged condition, the only ones available at their economic level. Children wake up in elderly sleeves; people see their loved ones in different genders or races.

Needlecasting

This technology lets humans travel faster than light between planets through sub-space transmissions. The digitally stored consciousness from the stacks is transferred through needlecasting from one location to the other at their download centres, where the consciousness is again dumped into a new body, essentially making inter-planetary travel a breeze. Again, this is only available to the wealthy and for those who can withstand the physical and mental disorientation that comes with resleeving.

The Envoys

Envoys

Envoys are members of the UN’s special elite forces, trained to fight in interstellar wars. Put through intense and gruelling mental and physical training, Envoys are capable of resleeving over and over again, with little disorientation. The sleeves of envoys are also lined with special neuro-chemical sensors that amplify the power of the five senses, intuition and physical capabilities to superhuman degrees.

Whitewashing problem

A point of contention that fans have grappled with since the announcement of Altered Carbon and its main cast is the fact that the lead character is a man of Japanese-Slovakian origin resleeved into a white man’s body. After the strong backlash received by Ghost in the Shell last year — where Scarlett Johansson played a Japanese woman placed in a robot resembling a white woman — Altered Carbon looked like it was ready to go down the same route. At least for those who weren’t familiar with the source book’s plotline.

In Morgan’s 2002 book, Kovacs is a Japaenese-Slovakian soldier who has been forcibly resleeved into a white man’s body. Why this works in the book is because the story is told through a first-person narrative. Through Kovacs’ point of view, readers learn about the character’s central discomfort with being put into a body that looks nothing like him.

Will Yun Lee as the original Takeshi Kovacs.

Transferring the essence of this conundrum to a visual format is obviously easier said than done. Viewers will have little access to Kovacs’ inner monologues, having to instead depend on Kinanman’s portrayal of an Asian man trapped in a white man’s body.

In an interview with Gawker Media’s io9, showrunner Laeta Kalogridis explains her decision to retain the white character as the central lead: “I did not want to violate that paradigm [from the book], because that is what the book is and it does actually matter,” Kalogridis said. “But one of the things I had the best time doing is — because he’s had multiple sleeves before then — I did something that I’m almost 100 per cent sure nobody has ever done before. You see this character in three different bodies: Two of them are Asian.”

She also goes on to say that up when the decision is left up to Kovacs to choose his sleeve, he picks an Asian body. “I take great pride in the fact that we have honoured the fact that Kovacs, up until the point he’s resleeved into [the white] body, he chooses people of Asian descent because that’s what he [prefers],” Kalogridis said. “I’m really really, proud of that.”

Don’t miss it

Altered Carbon is available to stream on Netflix from February 2.

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