Feature Article

What Altered Carbon’s Future Says About Our Present Day

It's not looking good.

Science fiction is always about the present day. Highly advanced technology or aliens aside, sci-fi authors are always telling stories inspired by the world they live in and where they see it going in the future. Altered Carbon, both Richard K. Morgan’s book and Netflix’s adaptation, is no different.

The story’s introduction is as bewildering as most sci-fi--the audience’s attention is whipped around, trying to figure out the rules of the fiction as we’re thrown from an otherworldly vista of flying cars zipping between glowing neon skyscrapers to a naked man flopping out of an amniotic sac, alive and in a new body centuries after his apparent death. Once Altered Carbon establishes its ground rules, though (immortality is possible now, thanks to “stacks” that contain a person’s mind and can be transferred from body to body), the confusion fades. And it starts to feel more than a little familiar.

The characters, mainly former elite soldier Takeshi Kovacs and police officer Kristen Ortega, don’t seem too different from real people, despite their familiarity with virtual reality worlds, the communication tech built into their eyes, and acceptance of the unnatural rules guiding the ways in which life and death function in this world. They still love and hate one another just as people have always done. They still fight for money or various ideologies. They’re still human, for all the good and bad that represents.

The world they inhabit, too, may look unlike our own, but only on a surface level. Still, hundreds of years into the future, people murder each other for petty reasons, scramble for economic and political power, and recreate age-old occupations like hired killer or sex worker, even if the ways they do so are different than the present day. It’s here, on the larger scale, that Altered Carbon makes its feelings on the future known.

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In the TV show’s second episode, Kovacs monologues: “Technology advances, but humans don’t. We’re smart monkeys and what we want is always the same: food, shelter, sex, and, in all its forms, escape.” As the plot advances, this point ends up feeling like the cornerstone of the story’s understanding of humanity. Readers and viewers follow a mystery that details enormous class disparity, the wealthy enjoying access to immortality on a far greater scale than the poor. It also shows wars for control over how stack technology is employed, guerilla groups fighting government forces for ideological and religious reasons. We see, too, the sex trade continue, even as it takes a horrifying new form that pushes beyond the limits of the human body.

Each of these plot elements is easy to compare to our real world. Even though the technology involves switching bodies throughout centuries, the influence money has on Altered Carbon’s world is only a sci-fi extension of modern day inequality when it comes to health care access (we already live longer if we have the means to afford it). Though we don’t travel from planet to planet to fight, our world is full of wars meant to acquire territory or propagate various worldviews through political power. Modern sex trafficking doesn’t involve all the complexities of sleeve switching, cloning, and virtual reality, but it does, as in Altered Carbon, consist of exerting power over vulnerable women and turning human beings into chattel.

Over centuries of humanity, we haven’t necessarily progressed as much as found new ways to exercise our base impulses. Altered Carbon says that even though the way its characters do so may look wildly different from our present day, our behavior remains the same. It’s an honest, if pessimistic, vision of where we’re going as a species.

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Though history does show instances of actual breakthroughs in advancing human rights, it’s still not a linear process that has led us to total enlightenment. At our darkest moments, basically, it’s hard to believe the message, quoted most famously by Martin Luther King Jr., that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” More often it feels like the world is shaped, as Kovacs says, by smart monkeys chasing the same things we always want, no matter the cost.

Altered Carbon says that this is a process that will continue on far into the future, beyond death itself. Even if we advance to the point that we craft ways to overcome the limits of natural life, humanity will still remain the same as we’ve ever been. This makes its fiction fairly dystopian--a grimly cynical look at where the promises of technological breakthrough will bring us.

Despite this darkness, though, Altered Carbon is also a story about people who, beaten down by the worst of their world, try to overcome inequality and wanton violence by working toward something like justice. In that, there’s still the faintest glimmer of optimism, no matter how dark everything surrounding it may be.


Check out GameSpot's Altered Carbon review; 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.

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