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This article is about the 2002 novel. For the 2018 Netflix series, see Altered Carbon (TV series).
Altered Carbon is a 2002 science fiction novel by British writer Richard K. Morgan. Set in a future in which interstellar travel is facilitated by transferring consciousnesses between bodies (“sleeves”), it follows the attempt of Takeshi Kovacs, a former U.N. elite soldier turned private investigator, to investigate a rich man’s death. It is followed by the sequels Broken Angels and Woken Furies.
The book was adapted as a Netflix television series, also titled Altered Carbon, in 2018.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Reception
- 3 Television adaptation
- 4 References
In the novel’s futuristic world, human personalities can be stored digitally and downloaded into new bodies, called “sleeves”. Most people have cortical stacks in their spinal columns that store their consciousness. If their body dies, their stack can be stored indefinitely. Catholics are not, as they believe that the soul goes to Heaven when they die, and so would not pass on to the new sleeve. This makes Catholics easy targets for murder, since killers know their victim may not be re-sleeved to testify. A UN resolution to alter this legal position forms one strand of the novel’s plot, to allow the authorities to sleeve a deceased Catholic woman temporarily to testify in a murder trial.
While most people can afford to get resleeved at the end of their lives, they are unable to update their bodies and most go through the full aging process each time, which discourages most from resleeving more than once or twice. So while normal people can live indefinitely in theory, most choose not to. Only the wealthy are able to acquire replacement bodies on a continual basis. The long-lived are called Meths, a reference to the Biblical figure Methuselah. The very rich are also able to keep copies of their minds in remote storage, which they update regularly. This ensures that even if their stack is destroyed, they can be resleeved.
A Meth named Laurens Bancroft has, apparently, committed suicide in Bay City (formerly San Francisco). When he is resleeved and his destroyed stack restored, its 48-hour back-up schedule means he has no memories of the previous two days. Convinced he was murdered, Bancroft hires Takeshi Kovacs to investigate.
Kovacs is an ex-Envoy, a military unit formed to cope with the challenge of interstellar warfare. Faster-than-light travel is only possible by subspace transmission, called needlecasting, of a digitally stored consciousness to “download centers” where resleeving into physical bodies can be carried out. Transmitting normal soldiers in this way would severely inhibit their effectiveness, since they would have to cope with a new body and an unknown environment while fighting. To combat this, Envoy training emphasises mental techniques necessary to survive in different bodies over physical strength, and the sleeve they are transmitted into has special neuro-chemical sensors that amplify the power of the five senses, intuition and physical capabilities to superhuman degrees. The effectiveness of the Envoy Corps’ training is such that Envoys are banned from holding government positions on most worlds. Kovacs is persistently wracked by his memories of the action taken by the Envoy Corps in a battle on the planet Sharya and especially by the military debacle on Innenin, in which the Corps suffered extensive casualties after their stacks were infected and driven into self-destructive insanity with Rawling 4851, a virus that corrupts digital information.
Kovacs, killed in the novel’s prologue and stored in digital form, is downloaded into a sleeve formerly inhabited by Bay City policeman Elias Ryker. The plot unfolds through Kovacs’ narrative. Kovacs eventually solves the mystery, but only after a great deal of violence, including torture in virtual reality, which he is able to bear only because of his Envoy training.
Describing the book, Kirkus Reviews said that “The body count is high, the gadgetry pure genius, the sex scenes deliriously overwrought, and the worn cynicism thoroughly distasteful: a welcome return to cyberpunk’s badass roots.”
The book won the Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel in 2003.
Main article: Altered Carbon (TV series)
A television adaptation was announced in 2016. An initial 10-episode season had been ordered by Netflix. The first season premiered on Netflix on February 2, 2018.
Extensive and significant changes to the source material were made in the adaptation.
For example, in the Netflix series Envoys are presented as having been trained, deployed and led by Quellcrist Falconer as part of a revolution (called “the Unsettlement”) that she leads on Harlan’s World (Kovacs’ home planet). Kovacs is shown as having been trained as an Envoy by, and serving as a revolutionary under, Falconer. The Quellist Revolution is crushed by the Protectorate (the established, inter-planetary government) in an apocalyptic assault. Kovacs, the only survivor, is presented as the last Envoy.
By contrast, in the books, Envoys were and are the elite forces of the Protectorate (which would have been fighting against the revolution); Falconer died long before Kovacs was born; Kovacs trained as an Envoy under a different woman; and the Envoy Corps is still very much in use by the Protectorate and remains widely feared.
The makers of the show have also chosen to expand the roles of many characters, particularly females.
At least one of the series’s departures from the books was the result of legal issues. In the book, the hotel in which Kovacs stays while investigating Bancroft’s murder is themed after Jimi Hendrix. Since the Hendrix estate would not approve this for the Netflix series, the show was obliged to make another choice. They chose the figure of Edgar Allan Poe instead.
On November 8, 2018, Netflix announced an animated companion series set in the same universe and exploring new elements of the story mythology.
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