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Altered Carbon’s Blade Runner rehash misses the point of cyberpunk

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An aesthetic isn’t the same thing as a world

Altered Carbon still Image: Netflix

Netflix’s new science fiction TV series Altered Carbon ticks all the boxes for a modern-day cyberpunk series. Based on a 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan, it’s about a hardboiled investigator named Takeshi Kovacs who lives in a world where human consciousness can be stored on a chip called a “stack,” and transferred between bodies (now known as “sleeves.”) The rich have effectively become immortal, sequestering themselves far above the gritty streets of futuristic San Francisco. The masses use flashing holograms to sell copious sex, drugs, and violence, beneath a perpetually dark and rainy sky. The series offers a Blade Runner-tinged aesthetic that many people adore, me included.

But that aesthetic, paradoxically, is why Altered Carbon fails, as both good television and good cyberpunk.

Altered Carbon Image: Netflix

Films like Blade Runner and classic cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer, helped transform science fiction by imagining how new inventions would intersect with existing culture, particularly outside respectable bourgeois society. Early cyberpunk posits that technology will shape humanity, but that ordinary people will also shape technology, and that much of the future will simply be a remixed version of the present. The specific tropes it’s associated with — like city streets inspired by Tokyo and Hong Kong, omnipresent advertising, and hardboiled mystery plots — emerged from these larger philosophical underpinnings.

As Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at The Daily Dot and Ryan Britt at Inverse have pointed out, though, modern cyberpunk is basically a kind of retro-futurism. It’s an often predictable genre that meticulously copies 30-year-old ideas of what tomorrow might look like — including dated gender roles; an ARPANET-era vision of computer use; and perhaps most importantly, a culture that hasn’t spent several decades imagining a cyberpunk future. Blade Runner’s groundbreaking visual style has been sanded down into a gorgeous prefab kit that’s applied to futures without any consideration for what makes a given science fiction society unique or distinctive. And in Altered Carbon’s case, that kit isn’t just derivative. It sabotages the genre’s truly timeless aspects, stretching out surface-level tropes like an ill-fitting skin.

Altered Carbon is a far future that looks inexplicably near. The exact date is ambiguous, but a description puts it at “over 300 years” from now, compared to a few decades in Blade Runner. Humans have colonized other planets, discovered the remnants of an alien civilization, and conquered death. They also favor fashion that looks like a noir-inspired H&M collection, back-alley brothels with tacky holographic signs, distinctly 20th-century skinhead tattoos, and grimy urban architecture. (Morgan’s novel Altered Carbon takes place even later. But as a book, it has the freedom to leave these kinds of details to the imagination, or pause to explain their backstory.) Kovacs wakes from a 250-year stint in a disembodied stack prison — the equivalent of a Revolutionary War prisoner jumping forward to 2018 — and his flashbacks are barely distinguishable from the main setting.

That choice could have been used for compelling worldbuilding. Altered Carbon’s neo-San Francisco is ruled by multi-centenarian “Methuselahs” or Meths, and it would make sense if they’d held onto nostalgic relics like some nightmare version of the Baby Boomers. But the show seems basically uninterested in the implications of body-swapping and immortality, unless it directly affects Kovacs’ journey, or advances simplistic social commentary. Altered Carbon doesn’t use anachronistic details to explore how we got from the present day to the 24th century. They’re just convenient narrative shorthand for “downtrodden prostitute” or “street tough,” or more generally, “dark and gritty future.”

This undercuts the themes of social division and class consciousness that Altered Carbon is supposedly exploring, and cyberpunk’s general penchant for vibrant, complex settings. The rich and poor seem so completely divided in this series that there’s no reason for all culture to freeze just because the rich are living in amber — or if there is a reason, Altered Carbon doesn’t make a case for it. In fact, the series would be much stronger if a high-tech but stagnant society of immortals periodically appropriated fresh pop culture from a short-lived underclass. It would combine present-day social concerns with strange new technology, while still letting Altered Carbon indulge in retro-futurism.

Altered Carbon Image: Netflix

But instead of treating stacks and sleeves as unpredictable forces, Altered Carbon depicts them as a cudgel that decadent immortals use against the helpless poor in dully predictable ways. There’s one piece of uniquely creepy depravity in the series: a woman whose pet snake apparently contains a human mind. Otherwise, after several hundred years of life, Altered Carbon’s Meths have settled on two hobbies: admiring the middlebrow neoclassical decor of their private sky mansions, and killing poor people. They’re not even particularly creative about it — apparently low-budget snuff scenarios and clumsy zero-gravity death matches never get old.

These temporary deaths are all horrible, of course, as is the Meths’ overall callousness. But there’s such a monotonous, unimaginative tread of cruelty that it loses any shock value or allegorical heft. Beneath its “serious grown-up science fiction” trappings of nudity and sexual violence, Altered Carbon is less incisive than the equally heavy-handed young adult series The Hunger Games, which mixed on-the-nose class commentary with genuine futuristic weirdness.

Part of the problem is that unlike many cyberpunk protagonists, Kovacs isn’t really part of Altered Carbon’s world — he’s a newcomer being handsomely paid to investigate a Meth’s (temporary, but mysterious) murder. Actual members of the underclass are rarely given goals or agency, unless they’ve been personally liberated by Kovacs and his infinite expense account. They’re doll-like bodies waiting to be smashed up, so Kovacs can either justify his rage or establish his good-guy status with paternalistic advice. (“You shouldn’t let anyone hurt you. You’re worth more than that,” he helpfully tells one brothel worker.) We know more about how the poor people of this society die than how they live.

Altered Carbon Image: Netflix

A couple of running subplots delve into Altered Carbon’s specific vision of the future, and unsurprisingly, they’re the best parts of the series. A sentient Edgar Allan Poe-themed hotel — which interacts with guests using an avatar based on Poe himself — offers a window into an intriguing AI service economy, including virtual poker nights with a labor union. Poe strikes up a friendship with a sleeveless woman, which emphasizes the fuzzy line between an artificial personality and a human who only exists on a chip. And Kovacs’ police officer partner Kristen Ortega has a neo-Catholic family that’s split over God’s view of resurrecting a loved one. In these cases, Altered Carbon pushes past its Blade Runner fetish and reflexive cynicism to find something human.

But when the larger world is so thin, it’s hard to put something like neo-Catholicism in a larger context. Characters have had centuries to get used to the idea of stacks. Why do so many still seem blindsided by their existence? And why do so few people, including the dour Meths, seem to be doing anything interesting with the technology?

Altered Carbon trades thoughtful writing and design for a blinkered focus on polemic and prefab dystopia. Instead of imagining what a future full of body-shifters would look like, the series seemingly starts with an aging visual style, adds the premise that rich immortals enjoy hurting people, and work backward from there. It has all the superficial hallmarks of a cyberpunk classic like Blade Runner, but it would have been far better cyberpunk without them.