Stray Thoughts on Altered Carbon S1:E1 – Out of the Past

This post contains spoilers for S1:E1 of Altered Carbon! Turn back now if you haven’t already seen it! The show is gearing up to be quick plot heavy, so spoilers are a big no-no with this show. I highly recommend pulling up Netflix and busting through the first episode before reading this post.

Synopsis from Netflix: “ALTERED CARBON is set in a future where consciousness is digitized and stored in cortical stacks implanted in the spine, allowing humans to survive physical death by having their memories and consciousness “re-sleeved” into new bodies.”

The premise of the stack & sleeves seems a bit flimsy. Backing up consciousness is a popular science fiction idea, and is also popular in Tran-humanist circles, but the execution in this universe leaves a few holes. First, if some company were to announce these stacks today, our own technology is already sufficiently advanced, that there would be no reason that cloud back-up wouldn’t be a day-one feature of the stacks. In the show, the big trillionaire has his stack backed up to a satellite every 48 hours, and this is seen as an extreme luxury. But given the existence of the stack, and assuming it works digitally, there would be no reason that cloud back-up wouldn’t be the default set up. I understand why they made that choice for the show, it raises the stakes in action scenes and is used as the main plot hook. But I think this pushes the show more towards the realm of fantasy, than science fiction.

Second, it seems that while you can be backed up, restoring you into a body is far more difficult. For some reason, they are unable to create new bodies for people to be restored into, instead they have to reuse bodies. It’s not clear where exactly the bodies come from, but I imagine that will be some of the world building that unravels over the course of the season. I’d wager right now, that it’s probably some sort of lower-class slave harvest. Again, as a purely dramatic, I can understand why they would do this, but from a technology standpoint it doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’re already way closer to 3d-printing bodies than we are to transferring and storing consciousness. Presently we can 3d print some simple organs, I’d wager that a body isn’t a crazy long shot from this, especially when contrasted with the stack technology that is present in the show.

I know that these are made to be crucial to the show, but these sorts of issues make it difficult to suspend disbelief. On a similar note, they have flying cars but not self-driving cars. I just have a difficult time buying the technological progression that’s taken place in this universe.

Moving onto some unrelated complaints, all of the characters in this show seem like they’ve been pulled straight from our time and culture and popped into this world with the added acceptance of the technology. The stack and sleeve technology (and the hundreds of years that have passed) seem to have caused almost no cultural evolution. The vibe that I get from this universe is a sort of a poor-man’s Blade Runner or Firefly. Notably, western and eastern cultures have been (barely) fused. Though, unlike Blade Runner and Firefly, this seems to actually come across merely in the world itself (characters are written on signs, and characters occasionally pull out other languages), rather than influencing the motivations and attitudes of the characters themselves. Outside of a select few changes, it seems like the society portrayed hasn’t been shaped by the technology and future it is portrayed alongside. This is a massive failing in my opinion, as science fiction should principally exist to explore how the ideas portrayed would affect the people and societies who exist alongside them. The absence of that leaves this first episode feeling rather hollow.

On the positive side, I like seeing the few ways that the technology has shaped the characters of the show. One of my favorites is how casual death and murder have become. This is of course most noticeable in the main plot thread, where a trillionaire hires our protagonist to investigate his own murder. But more subtly, when the protagonist’s partner is gunned down in a flashback, we initially see no reaction from him. It’s not until her stack is destroyed that we see him become truly upset. Additionally in the hotel lobby we see another two instances of this, the first is the absurd arsenal that the hotel wields against the protagonists foes, and the second is in a comment made by a supporting character about the policewoman “shooting people over much less.” This is a really cool idea that I hope receives the attention it deserves over the course of the season.

Flaws aside, it looks like I’m in for the long run on this show.