Essays · TV

‘Altered Carbon’ and the Challenge of Transhumanism and Representation

Netflix’s new series is one small step for man, one slightly larger-sized leap for representation in science fiction.
Altered Carbon
By  · Published on February 15th, 2018

Netflix’s new series is one small step for man, one slightly larger-sized leap for representation in science fiction.

Altered Carbon is absolutely ridiculous, and I mean that in the best possible version of the word. Based on a book series by Richard K. Morgan, the series offers a vision of the future where humanity is all but immortal, with people able to download their consciousness into different bodies or clones over hundreds of years. Like our own Karen Gomez says, if you’re looking to add a healthy dollop of “steampunk and detective noir” to your diet, you could do a lot worse than Laeta Kalogridis‘s adaptation for Netflix — the inventive fight scenes and charmingly opaque mythology make for one of the better pulpy sci-fi shows in years, and that’s even before you get to the concept of an artificial intelligence with an Edgar Allen Poe fetish. In short, if you wished Blade Runner 2049 had just a little more Alien: Covenant pumping through its veins, you might find yourself the target audience for this.

But given the conversation currently underway about Annihilation, and Kalogridis’s upcoming adaptation of the popular Japanese series Sword Art Online, I’m surprised that Altered Carbon has avoided more critical backlash. Maybe the series wasn’t prestigious enough to warrant serious conversation; maybe Netflix has accidentally insulated itself against the worst types of backlash (coughBrightcough) by playing along with the direct-to-video cliches that are kicked around by some critics. While there were some high-profile articles written examining the show’s treatment of racial identity, it never reached critical mass, making Altered Carbon something of an afterthought among Hollywood controversies. It’s a conversation we probably should’ve had. Altered Carbon is both a marked improvement on its peers and a film with revealing failures; we can always advance the conversation more with partial successes than complete failures, and even the show’s missed opportunities raise a few questions about how we will tackle a subject like transhumanism in the years to come.

Transhumanism has become an increasingly important topic in both futurism and popular culture. The study of how technological augmentation and adaptation will affect our self-identity — not to mention our sense of community — even stepped into the political mainstream in 2016, when Transhumanist Party leader Zoltan Istvan ran for president of the United States. In an article for the Huffington Post published that year, Istvan predicted a future where technological augmentation inspired a new degree of prejudice among people, noting that people will need to “grapple with continued forms of bigotry in the ever-changing landscape of being human.” With television shows like Black Mirror already pushing our comfort level on transhumanist narratives, it won’t be long before Hollywood turns its full attention to biohacking as a content goldmine (start the clock on that Johnny Mnemonic remake right away). And the more we explore a future where our self-identity is a manual construct, the more important it is to speak to the underlying truths below.

At times, Altered Carbon seems willing to engage directly with some of the thorny issues presented by this topic. In the very first episode, we watch as a child murder victim is resurrected in the body of an elderly woman, the only sleeve the family could afford on a limited budget. We are also introduced to an elderly Hispanic woman who is resurrected in the body of a neo-Nazi so she can spend the holidays with her family, watch as Vernon Elliott’s wife unwillingly takes the form of a middle-aged man, and learn to suspect every character close to Joel Kinnaman‘s Takeshi Kovacs as a key non-white opponent in disguise. This gives Altered Carbon plenty of different racial and gender combinations and, at least on the surface level, brings an element of equality to the show. When characters change sleeves at-will, who they are as a person is more important than which body they happen to be inhabiting.

That’s the favorable read. The skeptical one? Altered Carbon isn’t ready for the conversations it inspires. In a piece tackling this very topic, io9 writer Beth Elderkin recently explained why the concept of the series is so much more effective on paper than it is on the screen. “Since the series can’t immerse the audience in the mind of our protagonist, as you can with a first-person narrative,” Elderkin wrote, “what ends up happening is another situation where a white actor is playing an Asian character.” That’s an important distinction. Altered Carbon makes an overt political statement with its overt class system; most of the diverse characters we meet during the show’s runtime are referred to as “grounders,” or people who cannot afford to live above the clouds. What it doesn’t provide is interiority. If the color of your skin is still an important factor in this world, then how you interact with others — your sense of belonging and community — should be informed by your racial self-identity, regardless of whose body you’re currently inhabiting. And this is where the heady futurism of Altered Carbon falls awfully silent.

Is Altered Carbon a step in the right direction for representation and science fiction? Given the fact that Asian-American actors Byron Mann and Will Yun Lee both play key roles in flashbacks throughout the season, and that Altered Carbon doubles down on its dedication to diversity in the supporting roles, it’s certainly an improvement on films like Ghost in the Shell. But as transhumanism becomes an increasingly trendy topic for Hollywood science fiction, how filmmakers choose to peel back those layers will become as important as the layers themselves. Eventually, mainstream science fiction will need to engage with issues of representation on more than just a narrative level. Until racial identity is treated as more than just skin-deep, movies and shows will struggle to shift into the next gear of science fiction futurism.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)