Somebody thought so highly of that phrase, altered carbon, they just couldn’t let go of it. Writers be like that.
I’m enjoying the Netflix show “Altered Carbon” as much as I failed to enjoy “Blade Runner 2049” and the two will remain linked for me for several reasons. One is of course that AC stole a lot of BR’s look (the original Blade Runner, that is) and essential milieu of extreme inequality and desperation. Another is the whole attempted Noir look and feel of the things. As a lifelong fan of Hammett and Chandler I’m a setup sucker for all that shit. I even give a pass on the word “dames”, which both features employ heavily though without the explicit naming. Lastly, they both make me think about the basic premise of science fiction and how and why it so often fails to live up to that.
The premise is “What If”. Science Fiction at its best posits some fundamental “what if” question and then attempts to answer it. Often the best what if’s are the simplest – take one small element of the world and alter it, explore the effects. Explore ALL the effects. Take the thing to its logical and illogical conclusions, and don’t get side-tracked or carried away off topic. Ursula LeGuin’s “Lathe of Heaven” is a successful example, I think. Here a man has the ability to change the world through dreaming, and his psychiatrist decides to use that talent to “improve” the world.
The what if that Blade Runner posits – what if we made slaves of androids – produces the logical conclusion that the slaves would rebel and their masters would hunt them down and try to kill them. Confessions of Nat Turner tells the same story and we call it American History. At the same time Blade Runner builds a whole world without any explanation as to why things are the way they are except, perhaps, because cool set design. All that is just background, though, and the gestalt works all right in that film. In the reboot, nothing works. An android got pregnant and had a baby. If the secret gets out then there will be more baby androids, and that would be an interesting story to tell only they did not tell that interesting story – instead we get a side story about one boring guy who thought he might actually BE the android baby but it turns out he isn’t. Anyway …
Altered Carbon, the main idea that people store their consciousness on floppy disks and insert them willy-nilly into bodies (a.k.a. sleeves) has a LOT of implications, and they do a fair job of sorting through a number of them – people with religious objections encode their floppy disks (ok, “stacks”) so they can’t be reincarnated, which fucks up some police investigations and family relationships. Other people are hacking the stacks to force that encoding onto unwilling victims. That’s a cool thought – and it gets cult-like hackers in there so we can has some cyberspace. Rich people have clones and fancy backup systems so they can keep occupying the same bodies forever and ever – which also means that anybody with access could impersonate them by stealing and occupying their clone body. Again, ok.
The show could have done without all the steamy sex, but it’s 2018 and there’s no TV show without random scenes in strip clubs and the couplings of various people as the go-to plot device to keep things moving along. In the end, as Sherlock Holmes was forced to say in the dreadful season 4 of the Steven Moffat production, “it is what it is”.
What works for me in Altered Carbon is that people are given this new technology and use and abuse it in lots of ways we likely would, but otherwise we all remain the same shit birds we’ve always been. In this respect, it works along the lines of a Black Mirror episode. What if we ran a cartoon character for parliament? Yeah, like that. As for the background, because cool set design etc … at least they spent a lot of money and it shows.
Often, a science fiction story will posit a What If and then nothing much comes of it. This can be quite realistic. Science, after all, is mostly tedious work! What if we colonized other planets? Then we’d be the same shit birds over there. What if we had wars with aliens? Then they’d be wars and wars are fucking awful. What if we made artificial creatures with super intelligence? Then they’d be smarter than us and either want to wipe us out (Terminator) or have nothing to do with us (my preference, as in my stories How My Brain Ended Up Inside This Box and Renegade Robot). What if you could go back in time? Then you’d be stuck there most likely, without any visible means of support or speaking the language, so you’d better bring a toothbrush and bone up on your survival skills. What if we built a Moon Base? The residents would probably live boring lives – have you checked out life on the international space station lately?
What if you set out to imagine a whole new world, other places, other cultures, other creatures? In that case you’d better get your thinking cap on and really do some thorough imaginings, because if all you’re going to come up with is Cowboys and Indians, or Medieval Warlords, or Sexy Computer Hackers (as if), then you’re in luck – you can probably sell that crap to HBO and make it big time.