In February, Netflix will begin streaming an ambitious adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s debut science fiction novel Altered Carbon. The novel is a cyberpunk mystery that delves into issues about wealth and power, and it’s the perfect source material for a prestige television series.
Set in a future where people can trade bodies on a whim, Altered Carbon is the first of Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (it’s followed by 2003’s Broken Angels and 2005’s Woken Furies). Its cynical take on human behavior puts a cyberpunk face on the idle excesses of the super wealthy, a theme that feels more relevant than ever in 2017.
Minor spoilers for the novel ahead.
Hardboiled detective mystery
In Altered Carbon, Morgan introduces readers to Takeshi Kovacs, a former soldier living 500 years in the future. Humans have developed a technology called a Stack, which allows people to digitally copy their consciousness. This effectively makes people immortal — if you can afford it. Murder victims can testify against their assailants, travelers can jump to distant planets if they have a body waiting on the other side, and the super-wealthy keep a bank of clones on hand to stay the same age. Those who can’t afford a bank of pristine bodies? They’re driven to selling themselves in high-tech brothels, or renting out their bodies to someone else while their minds are in storage.
Kovacs was once an Envoy, a type of soldier who was trained to jump from body to body. But after a shootout with security forces on a distant planet, he’s put “on ice” for centuries as punishment. When he wakes up in a new body on Earth, he’s offered a fresh start, so long as he can help Laurens Bancroft, one of Earth’s wealthiest citizens, figure out who killed him.
Bancroft was found murdered by his own gun, and police ruled the case a suicide. Bancroft, obviously, disagrees, and points out that this doesn’t make sense: he has plenty of extra bodies on hand, and his consciousness is automatically backed up every 48 hours. But law enforcement has given up on the case, so he hires Kovacs to look into the incident.
Like much of the cyberpunk genre, Altered Carbon is steeped in the noir tradition, with familiar tropes like the reluctant detective, the femme fatale, and a case that’s more complicated than it seems. As Kovacs begins digging into the case, he discovers that his human “sleeve” was a corrupt cop, and plenty of people harbored a grudge against him — something that could tie into his case in unexpected ways. And Kovacs has to contend not only with the case at hand, but his own past and his tendencies towards violence.
How people cope with technology
But it’s not just the mystery that makes the pages fly by in Altered Carbon. Neon cityscapes and gritty cyberpunk lowlifes were well-worn tropes even in 2002, but Morgan’s book captures the edge that top-tier authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling honed in their own formative books.
The Stack “sleeving” technology is part of the book’s landscape, and it ultimately drives every part of the action. Morgan deftly explores both its intended and often egalitarian purposes, and the ways in which it’s abused. Sleeving allows humanity to travel across the galaxy, allows individuals to cheat death. But the cheapness this creates around human life also means that prizefighters can now go to brutal new lengths in the ring, while brothels offer up sex-murder packages to those seeking to indulge. People can even simultaneously put their consciousness in multiple bodies, causing both existential and investigative problems.
Indeed, Altered Carbon feels as much a cautionary tale about the unfettered use of a game-changing technology as it is a mystery. While Kovacs sets about investigating an improbable murder, Morgan points out all the ways that this high-minded technological innovation isn’t so much an advancement for humanity, but another outlet for people to express their depravity.
Extreme Wealth Inequality
Looming over the murder plot and technological landscape is Morgan’s final cynical point about humanity: that those with power will go to great lengths to hold onto it. Where traditional cyberpunk stories often depict a bleak future in which massive corporations hold the power, Morgan puts a human face on wealth inequality. The long-lived, super-wealthy individuals of the world are derogatorily referred to as Meths — a reference to the Biblical figure Methuselah. Bancroft and his wife Miriam live lives of luxury, but after so many years together, they descend into depravity while looking for new outlets to stave off boredom.
Morgan presents the other side of the equation as well: the poor who are driven to indulge the whims of the wealthy through prostitution or worse. If they’re murdered, their families can’t afford to bring their loved ones back with a new body, and live in a state of limbo as to whether or not they’ll ever see them again.
The extreme gaps in wealth are an integral part of Morgan’s world, and reading the novel in 2017, it feels like an honest depiction of the state of the world we live in. Companies and their founders earn obscene amounts of money for frivolous apps, while private equity firms squeeze money from their holdings while the masses live in poverty. Despite its release date in 2002, Altered Carbon is very much a book about the present, which makes Netflix’s upcoming adaptation something worth looking forward to.