Warning: this post may contain spoilers from the Altered Carbon TV show and books. Also NSFW.
The Netflix adaptation of Altered Carbon was an opportunity to make some great sci-fi TV from some great sci-fi books, to explore the philosophical and psychological implications of life extension tantamount to immortality, and to grapple with understanding the difference between humans who can be monstrous and monsters who can pass for human.
I’m quite a fan of Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon books, mainly because of their main character, Taketchi Kovacs. Like a sci-fi James Bond, he is focussed, professional and definitely has a plan to kill everyone in the room. Or fuck them. Randy stud that he is though, Kovacs is the kind of man who only tries to become sexually involved with a woman if she actually wants him to. A novel concept these days, I know. Attracted to strong minded individuals, he loves and loses a lot, because he’s a fucked up mess of PTSD if ever there was one, and isn’t capable of the kind of vulnerability required to sustain a romantic bond. Still, he tries, enjoying imperfect relationships with imperfect people. “We are envoys and we take what is offered” is the motto of the Envoy Corps in the books, and of Quellcrist Falconer’s terrorist organisation in the show, and seems to be Kovacs rather ruthlessly practical approach to life and love.
In the books, the Envoys are an elite military force of futuristic soldiers, part intelligence operative and part shock trooper, trained to adapt quickly to new bodies and new environments. So Kovacs’s approach is to turn up in a body and a life and do his best to get the task at hand done with whoever and whatever he has to work with. The Envoy philosophy is almost like a guide to reincarnation, and it kind of is, given all the body and life jumping that goes on in the setting. They just also happen to have the systematic removal of every violence-limiting instinct a human is born with as part of their training too, among other things. In the show the Envoys are a terrorist group. I have no idea why they thought this was a good change. A super-soldier has credible power and mystique; a terrorist, not so much.
The Meths are in many ways the opposite of the Envoys. “Meth” being a shortening of Methuselah and referring to the seeming immortality of wealthy individuals living as the same person over and over again, simply swapping to a younger clone of themselves when they need to. Morgan explores well the inevitable amorality and psychopathy that would either be required or developed by such people in order to gain and maintain their position. They are viciously rapacious and utterly attached to their identity and status.
Kovacs, by contrast, has been in many different bodies in many different times and places; he uses whatever and whoever is to hand wherever he finds himself, unattached to almost anything but whatever attainable goal he has at the time. He is a nomad, carrying only his skills, guile and a strong sense of self and purpose, able to build whatever he needs, wherever he finds himself, from the ground up. I admire this approach.
That’s what you do, love: stride across the centuries, and death follows, churning in your wake.— Quellcrist Falconer, Netflix adaption of Altered Carbon
Apart from the sex scenes, there are two scenes in the Netflix adaption that really catch the vibe of the books and the main characters most. If I’m looking to get myself going for a good session on my punch bag or some weights I have a large playlist of scenes from movies and TV shows I like to select from for motivation sometimes, and I find these two can really get me pumped. In particular, in the first one below, when the two nerdy “just following orders” Silicon Valley types get what they deserve.
For context, they did just try to torture Kovacs to death using virtual reality while harvesting the body of a trafficked woman, oh, sorry, “bleeder” – and she is bleeding quite a lot in this scene – he tried to help. But “sex work is work” and those body parts could go into another cervix havers birthing body so a rich man can pay to strangle her to death for kicks, and who wouldn’t love a job like that? Her body on that table being treated like scrap parts is such an empowering, feminist message it brings a tear to Kovacs’s eye. The whole situation really couldn’t get much more Silicon Valley without the nerds calling Kovacs a Nazi bigot and banning him from Twitter:
In this second scene we have Quellcrist playing the role of Virginia Vidaura. Vidaura is a military trainer for the Envoy Corps in the books. She trained Kovacs, and in the books he thinks of her often for guidance, just as he often thinks of Quell, as a philosopher he enjoys (though this does change later). It seemed quite a shame the Netflix adaption rolled three quite distinct characters into one, Quell, Virginia and Kovacs long lost lover, Laura. But they did and this scene is badass:
Strangely, neither Quell nor Virginia live up to the Silicon Valley utopian ideal of what an empowered menstruater would be. Luckily, to make up for that, both the book and the show feature many trafficked prostitutes delighted to be murdered by Meth antagonist, Laurens Bancroft; along with the libfem poster girl that is his wife, Miriam Bancroft, her boot firmly planted forever on the faces of all those human sacrifices her husband demands. What a vision of the future.
But surpassing even these examples of female empowerment is the main Meth antagonist who, in both the book and the show, pimps out the young and vulnerable to be abused, tortured and “real death” killed without their consent, by the highest bidder. A feminist to her fingertips, indeed.
Kovacs: ‘A man who never loves leaves no hostages to fortune.’
Quell: ‘A man who never loves isn’t really a man.’— Netflix adaption of Altered Carbon
Quips about contemporary ideology aside, the book is quite a candid exploration of the kind of human hubris and depravity modern culture has only recently begun to really get stuck into. The results are as horrifying as they are completely plausible, predicable and banal. Given virtual immortality and omnipotence, the things the Meths get up to in order to please themselves or simply stave off boredom, would make Hitler blush. Their monstrosity allowed all the free reign money and eternity can buy, and the worst among them happy to sell, at the cost of those disposable mortals beneath them, of course.
The main Meth antagonist in the book is a well realised evil psycho-bitch, who is doing exactly this. For some reason the show decided to make this Kovacs’s sister. Though this made for some dramatic tension, for me it detracted and distracted from the horror of what she was doing. The show seemed to have more sympathy for her than for her victims. Not so, the book.
Unlike the show, the book ends with a dose of reality, as we all know that rich arseholes never really have to pay for their crimes. Unless other rich arseholes want them taken down and someone like Kovacs does the deed. I’m fairly sure I’m not spoilering anything by saying that, or that the ending of the show was very American and made my eyes roll. Having veered off of the books for no good reason in Season 1, Season 2 seemed to have no relation, so didn’t hold my interest. It seemed such a shame they didn’t stick to the source material.
With the gorgeous and talented Joel Kinnaman as his sleeve and the equally gorgeous and talented Will Yun Lee as his original self, Season 1 could have been perfect; and Season 2 could have followed suit, with Anthony Mackie ideal for Kovacs’s sleeve in Broken Angels. The show had the potential to be as good or better than the books but, in my opinion, that just made its failure to do so that much more obvious. Though it did at least do Kovacs’s character justice.
The worst monsters are those we bring with us.— Taketchi Kovacs, Netflix adaption of Altered Carbon
There are those who would say that a character like Kovacs embodies toxic masculinity. He’s not a rapist, not a pimp, a John or a trafficker, not a child pornographer or a paedophile, not a domestic abuser, serial killer or mass murderer; he is a man willing to kill and to die for what he loves and for what he believes in. Yet this accusation will be made. I suspect the kind of people who would make it usually fit into one or all of three things: ignorance of what masculinity is, fear of masculinity, or desire to denigrate something they themselves could never live up to. I expect the third is most often the case.
Some people are human beings who can be monstrous, and we need them. Who else can face the many monsters among us who pass for human? Who else can show us that the monstrosity in our own hearts can and must be faced, tamed and put to good use? It’s not going anywhere, after all.