In a violent cyberpunk future in which your consciousness can be downloaded into a machine in your neck and bodies have become interchangeable, convicted rebel and terrorist Takeshi Kovacs wakes up in prison, sleeved in a new body, 250 years after the rebellion in which he took part was crushed. He is released to solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft, a man rich enough to have survived his own death.
This review pertains to the first season only.
I have a rule for myself: read the book first. With Altered Carbon, I failed. I didn’t know it was an adaptation of Richard Morgan’s book, so I watched the first season of the series. Of course, I’ve got the book now – it sits on my shelf of shame, near the top of the list of to-reads (though I say that of everything on that shelf). When I’ve read it, I’ll come back to this review and see how the show stacks up against the book.
So, this show is not easy to watch. Right from the start of the first episode, it is filled with violence and nudity – bullets spraying, blood on the screen, breasts every five minutes. If that is not your thing, Altered Carbon might not be for you. Normally, it’d be a ding against the show for me as well. But in the case of Altered Carbon, it fits so well with the premise that it drew me in instead.
Altered Carbon takes place in a cyberpunk sci-fi world where your consciousness is saved to a stack, a small machine in the neck. Unless the machine is also destroyed, your body – derogatorily called a ‘sleeve’ – can die, but you will survive. The result is a complete shift in the way people – especially rich people – view bodies. The richest never die, resleeving in clones if their bodies age. The poor lose or sell their bodies to the rich. Grandma can come back from the dead, resleeved in a rented body for Christmas. The possibilities are endless and the show does a good job of exploring that premise and showing how it affects the characters.
The plot is perhaps a bit too complex for the show to fully capture (which makes me believe it might be a faithful adaptation of the book). The plot twists and turns, which is engaging but dizzying at times. At its core, Altered Carbon is an action-packed detective story, with plenty of time spent exploring the main character’s motivations. It is surprisingly thoughtful at times, though it is not exactly high art. The acting and production values are great, but there are so many storylines that some are bound to turn out worse. The flashback story about Kovac’s former life, for example, is not as well fleshed out as the main story, and just looks a little less good on the screen. Again, I haven’t yet read the books, but if the show would have been written for television I’d advise them to cut some of the storylines.
That doesn’t take away the fact that I thought Altered Carbon is a great show. Overall, I would recommend the show to both (i) fans of action-packed television and (ii) people whose interests are piqued by the interesting sci-fi concepts and can stand the violence and nudity.
I’m back again!
I promised to update my review once I’d read the book, so here I am.
Perhaps surprisingly, I liked the series better than I liked the book. I am sure this is heresy to some, but as I explained in my review of the book, I couldn’t bring myself to like book-Takeshi Kovacs much. I have seen people online complain about Joel Kinnaman’s acting, but somehow, he sold the character to me in a way that the book couldn’t.
Looking back, the show’s writers definitely made some interesting (and ‘interesting’) choices. I feel vindicated in criticising the flashback story, since most of that never appeared in the book. The show left out one of my favourite book character for no reason that I can discern. But I did actually like what they did with Reileen and Takeshi’s background, braiding together a few vague references in the novel into a more coherent and character-defining backstory.
Overall, a good adaptation. Apparently, I shouldn’t watch the second season, however…