|Finally, the future looks as diverse as it will be..|
This is the best first season of a Netflix drama since The Crown debuted in 2016.
If there really are no new ideas, as Mark Twain once theorized, and the best we can hope for is a kind of kaleidoscope effect made out of the same old shapes, then Altered Carbon at least renders the resulting impressions in violent, trippy technicolor.
Adapted from the 2002 novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan, the new Netflix series is replete with ideas and images from sci-fi works past and present. Can you download a human soul? What are the consequences of immortality? If you give humans more power, what kind of excesses and atrocities will they be capable of?
The show touches on income inequality and classism. It delves into misogynistic power structures and the nature of identity. It touches on just how much of our morality is driven by the fact that we die and what might happen if death suddenly stopped being an endpoint and, instead, became a minor stopgap in an ultimately immortal life. It even touches on environmental issues in a few sidelong glances.
Altered Carbon pays homage to only the best possible sci-fi sources. Everything about its production design — endless rain, bright neon, dark and crowded city streets — screams Blade Runner, while its interest in questions of what happens when consciousness is disconnected from the body are straight out of the sci-fi movement known as cyberpunk. The cyberpunk work you’re likely most familiar with is the Matrix trilogy, where humans are trapped by machines in a simulation and hackers are our only hope, but the movement also contains a lot of great novels by writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.
The smartest thing Altered Carbon does is blend all of these sources into a stew that draws heavily from its individual inspirations but also has a flavor all its own. It’s a detective story, like Blade Runner, but it’s also set in a world where humanity has more or less conquered death, where your consciousness, stored on a chip, can be “resleeved” in a new human body, should you so desire.
While watching Altered Carbon — even the stuff I didn’t like all that much — my primary critical reaction was, “This is so RAD!!!!” Imagine me sitting in the back of eighth-grade study hall, filling my notebook with scrawled images from this show (that my parents don’t know I’ve seen, because if they did, my Netflix consumption would be seriously questioned), occasionally clicking over my four-color pen to red to write the word “RAD” in all caps in the margins.
We are, perhaps, not the literal property of rich overlords — not yet, at least — but Altered Carbon makes its own argument for the idea that those deciding our fates from high up among the clouds might imagine themselves gods, but they’re made of flesh like any of us. And flesh bleeds, sometimes in great gouts. The world can be renewed, but it’s going to take a lot more than hoping it might get to a better point.
Altered Carbon is streaming on Netflix.