Altered Carbon

What will happen if death is no longer real?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

What will happen if death is no longer real?

My Reading Room

How much of our humanity is tied up with our mortality? That’s the big question that Netfiix’s Altered Carbon asks.

Set over 300 years into the future and based on Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 cyberpunk noir novel of the same name, death has become a thing of the past and immortality the currency of the day.

Humans can now quite literally shrug off the mortal coil and take on another body, or “sleeve”, once the current one dies or becomes damaged. Consciousness is stored in a piece of metal called the “stack”, located at the base of the brain. As long as the stack remains intact, the person can be transferred into a new sleeve.

This take on Cartesian duality dovetails with sci-fi’s aptitude for grappling with ideas of the posthuman. Altered Carbon puts forward a class of super-rich, colloquially referred to as Meths (And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years), who build their residences in towering structures that float above the clouds.

The rest of the population isn’t so lucky. They live in gritty urban centers and are too poor to afford a new sleeve for themselves when they die.

This disparity effectively solidifies the line between the haves and have-nots, where those who live on the ground are casually dismissed as “fireflies”, or a “tiny spark whose beauty lies in how quickly they’re extinguished”. But while seemingly cavalier, this line captures the point that Altered Carbon tries to drive home. Life is valued largely because it will end one day, and any scarce commodity turned infinite resource immediately sees its worth drop.

Furthermore, death used to be the great equalizer, but its banishment has effectively created a class of demigods that consolidate their power over the centuries and wield terrible influence. They even have safeguards against the destruction of their stacks, with remote satellite backups. Even if the stack is destroyed, the backup is simply loaded into a waiting clone.

This raises more questions about authenticity and self. Is a copy of your mind truly you? And if one self is destroyed, and a backup is waiting to take its place, did that version of you experience death? When a mind can be copied, and even placed into another body to exist alongside the original in a process called doublesleeving, the value of each individual feels diminished.

As with most examples of dystopianfiction, Altered Carbon has piercing real-world applications. While we’re still a long way off from digitizing the human consciousness, projects like the US$6 billion Brain Initiative and 2045 Initiative are looking at mapping neuronal activity and uploading the mind (in the case of the latter).

Then there’s Altered Carbon’s unique position in the larger cyberpunk canon. As a fan of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, I also particularly enjoyed the similarities between the two. Altered Carbon draws heavy inspiration from Neuromancer and Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, and the neondrenched streets and seedy environs echo Gibson’s version of Chiba City.