Altered Carbon is a TV show on Netflix adapted from a book written by Richard K. Morgan, who was a consultant on the show.
In 2384 people have a futuristic tech called cortical stacks (generally referred to just as stacks) embedded in their spines and hold the entirety of the human mind, lengthening the human length span. Just how long depends on how much money you have, only the rich can afford to live forever in optimal clones of themselves, called "sleeves". Everyone else gets only what they can afford, decanting into the opposite sex and sub-optimal perceived ages.
Takeshi Kovacs, an envoy that were all trained to be the bleeding edge of interplanetary warfare are now ostensibly killed, save Kovacs; decanted into a new body 250 years later after being killed on another planet for treason. A wealthy "meth" (the undying, ruling and rich elite of the world) by the name of Laurens Bancroft pays to have Kovacs solve his own murder in this cyberpunk pseudo-noir mystery.
To help him do this, he recruits an unlikely bunch: an A.I that is also a hotel building and hardwired to please guests, a man whose daughter may have been involved with Bancroft and seeks answers, a cross-sleeved (put into a body that is not your birth sex) "dipper" (hackers who download memories from people who backup their memories via satellite), a reconstructed formerly driven mad sex worker, and a detective with a hot streak.
During the course of the 10 episodes, the show makes pretty good use of the source material. The plot beats are preserved with only a few modifications being made to accommodate the change to media. The arrangement of the beats and the arcs are mostly satisfying and while the show is significantly dumbed down, it succeeds in so far as not being just another only action cyberpunk flick.
The show explores the nature of humanity, exploring what we might turn out to be like over a longer timeline. It extrapolates how capitalism is interacting with us now and shows a grim ass future. The 1% being revered as gods while those of religious faith are subjugated in a new way; by renouncing re-sleeving. Murders are up and they specifically seem to be targeting sex workers due to the fact that if they die, it's real death, "RD". While other sex workers would be spun up in a virtual reality when they die, pointing authorities to their killers, these people won't, due to religious preference to not be put in another body after death.
Ortega is the other lead in the show. She's a badass, tough cop with strong morals and a really dirty mouth. Her family is religious and her renouncing it is a way in which the show is able to explore some of the more interesting themes.
Another way is via flashbacks in Takeshi's past. We see him in various sleeves, showing us his heritage as a young boy to young man, to ultimately spanning his entire life as it leads up to his death at the start of the first episode. The cast has to be the most diverse I've seen of any TV show; in terms of cyberpunk, I am all but certain it has the most representation. TV show and movies both.
My favorite episode is one in which almost all of it is spent in a flashback of Kovac's past. The acting is great, seeing the envoy training is cool, throughout the entire show we see hallucinations of a compatriot of Takeshi who trained him, which we now get to spend more time with in this particular episode. She is by far my most favorite character and is the best actor in the entire series. She is phenomenal!
We see the dirt and the grit of the "grounders", people who can never hope to rise above the clouds where meths like Bancroft reside. Literally having homes so tall they crest well beyond the clouds; an ever-present and effective visual divide that reminds us of the status quo. The visuals are the best I've seen for CG work and the show forges a compelling cyberpunk aesthetic. Slums on the Golden Gate Bridge, virtual realities where people are tortured, and even other worlds! It all looks great and has high production values.
While the show suffers from some stilted acting and an over-abundance of nudity that could have been used in a sex-positive way and is instead mostly just a part of the aesthetic and fan service. Which, to be fair, all of the books also do. There is also a weird continuity error at the end of episode 7 that is within the same conversation being had at the end but isn't a big deal. Being a TV show it also does not get much of the philosophy so ingrained in the books effectively across, as mentioned. Sometimes Ortega overacts and makes for a pretty unbelievable character from time to time. But on the hand, the translation does also give us some nice, human moments that aren't present in the source material. In particular, I am thinking of Takeshi's past, which was not touched on as much in the book. The most favorite parts of the show generally are the events and characters in the past, not the present. Though, this may also be due to the worst actors being in the "present day" events.
If you like cyberpunk and like the premise, chances are you'll like it. I think there is enough exploration of interesting questions that it is genuinely interesting and a compelling watch. That, coupled with the awesome action and the amazing world the show presents, should grab just about anyone.
I Highly recommend it! I will also say, and as I'm about to expound upon, it is likely that fans of the source material will only like the show if they're able to see the show as inspired by the book and not trying to be a verbatim recreation of it. Read on if you'd like to know more about how it differs from the books and don't mind massive spoilers.
Fuck is it ever cool to see a sunjet in action!!
Alterations From The Book
I'm going to go into full spoilers and talk about the changes that were made, some I agree with others...are a little weird.
The major difference is the overarching main antagonist, Takeshi's sister: Rei. Granted, it's been a while since I've read the book, but I don't recall him ever even meeting his sister. In the TV show, she serves as a character that does two things: to take on the undesirable characteristics of Takeshi's character in the book that is not depicted in the show and to be the big bad. In the book he works alone, making it a true noir detective hardboiled novel. In the show, they've made him much more likable since he's the showrunner. There is some of the old Tak cynicism, sure, but... overall the truly horrifying aspects of his personality and what war and the system and his home planet did to him, are all placed in Rei; making her the vehicle in which we learn about many of the possible horrors that come with long life being extrapolated with the worst traits of humanity. In the book, Rei trains Takeshi but is not related to him, and certainly does not end up being Quellcrist Falconer. Whaaaat.
Quellcrist Falconer in the books, as far as I recall, only appears in the third one and has never met Takeshi at all. All the fantastic philosophical quotes in the book and in the TV show originate from the writings of Quellcrist.
Where Sarah at, right? We see what we assume is her character get RD'd at the start of the book and Kovacs is pissed off when his commanding officer, also...not really a character in the book, shoots her in the stack. But never again, oddly enough. I guess they felt they had enough going with the whole Quell/Nadine/Rei thing going on.
The hotel (The Raven) and A.I (named Poe), was changed from The Hendrix, a hotel inspired by rock music and the good ol' days, and of course, Jimmy Hendrix. I like the change for the TV show because the idea of a white actor having probably a black dude A.I being wired to meet Takeshi's needs at a base level, even being analogous to sexual gratification in the book and show, feels gross. Thumbs up~
He shops for weapons in a back alley type-thing with Vernon Elliot, who is mostly a footnote in the book to show how shitty humanity is via his daughter, Lizzie (who is also not a focus of the story). In the book, he shops for guns in a curated, stylish establishment akin to the scene in John Wick 2, where he shops for guns and is helped by a tailor, as though crafting the perfect suit was akin to getting the perfect loadout. Kind of a whatever change, in my book anyway.
Lizzie herself is also a positive change. I liked the cyclical nature of Lizzie's arc and her being able to get revenge and become empowered while also calling into question the method in which this is done, neato!
Ortega being more fleshed out than in the book is also a new development. We see her family and her relationship with her mother. She is also used as some comic relief, I assume to again try and keep both characters likable and for the audience to be able to project themselves onto either character, respectively. It mostly works. Mostly.
Sun Touched House is also different, rising above the clouds and missing the massive oak that tells the reader exactly what kind of a person Bancroft is with his epic speech. It's one of my favorite parts of the book and I was a little sad it was missing, but, it is what it is.
Of course, Bancroft's son is also mentioned only in passing and used as a red herring in the TV program and to showcase just how removed from humanity he is, as well as to draw a connection between Takeshi's own abusive father and Bancroft, whom he now serves after being literally purchased like a commodity.
Without the benefit of the first person narrative, the book benefits greatly from, contextualizing the future and philosophy integrated into the main character as well as the narrative; the TV show makes due with trying to embody these things in various characters. It falls short because of the media, but it does try.
Sticklers, however, will not enjoy the many changes; particularly during the middle of the show where much of it is lengthened to make the 10-ish hours last and be interesting. I bet there will be a lot of folks who feel the TV show misses the mark because a lot of the real "soul" of Takeshi as a character is found a way in, episode 7 in particular, I think. That's a while to wait if you're not digging the initial direction so I can't begrudge anyone who disengages before then.
There are other changes too. Bancroft himself is a bit different and has a larger role to play. Takeshi is less competent than in the book, more at the whims of the world and less reverent of taking a life. When he inflicts RD in the book, it is chilling. In the show it happens so often it becomes normalized quickly, a pity really. One of the best things about the book is the importance it places on death; it does not translate into the show. This is probably the biggest point against it, for me.
Other than some more minor changes those are the big ones. There are a lot of changes that are beneficial to the change in medium. It is not perfect by any means but the heart and soul of it are in there, it just needs to be enjoyed in a different manner and with an open mind. The pacing makes it difficult to see if you will get that payoff, should you know this story really well, but it is there. It's a work inspired by and that makes use of the plot points, arranging them in a different manner.
Overall, not too shabby at all.