A lot of the science fiction that's appeared on TV over the years isn't exactly what sci-fi fans would call "hardcore," from goofy procedurals with light futuristic elements to animated comedies like Rick and Morty. Altered Carbon doesn't have that problem.
Netflix's latest original show throws so many far out sci-fi concepts at you in its first 30 minutes, let alone across the whole 10-episode season, that it's often hard to keep track of what's going on from one scene to the next. But for those who stick with it, Altered Carbon is an engrossing show with fascinating ideas that it sees through all the way to the end.
The core premise isn't too hard to grasp: Thanks to an invention called the "cortical stack," humans are effectively immortal. Your personality and memories--everything that makes you "you"--exists in your stack, which nests embedded in your spine. If your body (or "sleeve," as the show says) dies, you can be "re-sleeved," as long as your stack remains intact.
The show follows Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), the last of a group of futuristic freedom fighters who gets woken up and re-sleeved 250 years after his arrest (no more jail--they just put your stack on a shelf for the duration of your sentence). Kovacs is tasked with solving the murder of one of society's elite, Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), a "Meth" (after Methusalah, a Biblical figure who allegedly lived to almost 1,000 years old). Bancroft's stack was destroyed in the killing, but thanks to his vast wealth and frequent backups he gets to keep on truckin', which (un)naturally adds yet more wrinkles to his murder case.
Altered Carbon is based on a book of the same name, written by Richard K. Morgan and published in 2002. It's equal parts Blade Runner and William Gibson--fully cyberpunk in every sense of the genre. It's a noir sci-fi/gumshoe thriller bursting with the trappings of both genres, from murdered prostitutes and holographic billboard ads to AIs who flit between the real world and some convoluted cyberspace (where they hold a regular poker game). Class differences (between the Meths and everyone else) are stark. We're far in the future here; space travel is routine, although besides flashbacks, the season is mostly contained to a single city.
This digital rabbit hole goes deep, and Altered Carbon's central mysteries are complex and enigmatic enough to keep the pace up through all 10 episodes. But what's most fantastic about this show is how fully it explores its central concept, the cortical stack. Imagine a society in which the richest people on the planet control a means of literal immortality, while the poor continue to scrape by, and the societal gap that would create. Now fill that gap with every conceivable depraved indulgence the 1% of the 1% might get up to if everyone's body was disposable and replaceable. That's exactly what Altered Carbon does.
Is murder still immoral if it's consensual, and the victim can be re-sleeved and back on the street corner within minutes? The police issue permits for spectacular deathmatches held in rich people's flying mansions, and husband-and-wife teams fight to the death as a party trick (the winner gets an upgraded sleeve).
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Meanwhile, the poor make do; a little girl who gets hit by a car is re-sleeved into an old woman's body, because that's all that was available. Neo-Catholics treat re-sleeving facilities like abortion clinics, protesting in droves. Their stacks are specially coded so they can never be revived, frustrating detectives who've gotten used to "spinning up" most murder victims to simply ask who killed them. Criminals spin up your stack in virtual reality and torture you to death over and over until you give them what they want, while the most notorious create illegal copies of their own stacks so they can be in two (or more!) places at once.
This universe is as dense as they come. Altered Carbon isn't hardcore sci-fi because it's set on a spaceship or there are weird-looking aliens running around; it's because the show recognizes that revolutionary new technologies don't exist in a bubble. They alter the fabric of the world, like cars, air travel, the internet, and cell phones have.
Altered Carbon never shies from examining exactly how an invention like the cortical stack would change our reality, and this future society appears far different from our own. Yet in many ways, it's really exactly the same--which is more or less the prime directive of great science fiction.
Check out what the show's cast and creators think Altered Carbon's best scenes are; our glossary of the show's weirdest terms and concepts; why we think it's the Game of Thrones of cyberpunk; the show's message, according to the people who made it; and the reason why there's so much violence and nudity.