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  • Writer's pictureA.J. Sobel

Altered Carbon: Damn-Near Perfect

We’re going to be hitting both the book and the first season of the television show (more on the rest of that later…) here, so just be aware that when I refer to the show, I’m talking specifically about the first season.

Now, I’ll be the first person to admit that my introduction to Altered Carbon was half-hearted at best. It was a show I’d never even heard of until a friend of mine said, “Hey, check this out.” Frankly, his description made it seem like its reach was exceeding its grasp. Let me outline things a bit for you.

Altered Carbon is a cyberpunk-noir in which humanity has been plying the stars for centuries using technology from an ancient and extinct alien race (that’s one hell of a pitch). Functional immortality has been achieved through the use of the “stack” — a cortical implant that digitizes the consciousness, rendering the human body as nothing more than a meat suit. The rich have become gods in the eyes of the little people, able to live forever by jumping from body to body (highly expensive, even in this universe), and unkillable thanks to backups of their stacks hidden in fortified data centers.

If that sounds like a lot to you, well… it is. This is a dense world, fully realized in all its glory. Fortunately for us, both the book and the show know how ease us into the world: By not dumping everything in massive pages of exposition that cause eyes to glaze over faster than a talk about loop quantum gravity (or maybe that’s just me).

I was dubious, to say the least, but check it out I did, and I was immediately floored. The world they created, the characters that inhabited it, the acting, the sets, the costumes, the action; it all clicked together, felt lived in, in a way that a lot of shows don’t (As a side note, Joel Kinnaman totally redeemed himself in my eyes after the disasters that were Robocop and Suicide Squad).

So, imagine my surprise when I found out it was a book that had been published all the way back in 2002. I thought there was no way it could possibly be as good as the show (these types of adaptations tend to favor either the source material or the show).

But I sat down, cracked the cover… and demolished it in three days (I think, it was around there).

From page one, author Richard Morgan created a world so fully realized that it was impossible not to get wrapped up in it.

Our hero, Takeshi Kovacs, finds himself on Earth, the ancestral (at this point) home of humanity, and has been contracted to solve the murder of a man who’s still alive (again, great pitch).

Hijinks ensue (as they often do), and in the end, Kovacs walks away having solved the case, which has a net effect of zero on the world around him (that’s noir for you). Nothing changes, the world is bleak, and everyone is going to die eventually (or not, in this case).

While Kovacs is about as likeable as a nihilistic anti-hero can be, the true star of the show is the world around him.

Morgan creates his world by drip-feeding information to the reader in such a manner that it never feels overwhelming. Every page has a piece or two of information about the environment, its history, and the people that live in it. It’s all casually inserted as Kovacs points it out, and the reader’s brain files it away for later use.

Is it a perfect book? No, but then, what is? (Seriously, sound off in the comments if you’ve got one) But it’s damned good. Absolutely worth a read whether you’re a fan of noir (as I’m growing to be), sci-fi, cyberpunk, or just a good story.

Now, onto the show.

I’ll be trying to take a look at the show based on its merits as an adaptation, so bear with me. As a standalone piece, the first season is, like the book, absolutely worth your time. That being said, having read the book and watched the show (ugh, that made me feel like an elitist Game of Thrones fan), there are a few pieces that don’t quite click.

Bear in mind that I’ve only got two books out of three under my belt — it might become clear to me later on. (I’ll mention it if it does; I’d like to do the whole series eventually) Additionally, I’ll be trying to remain as spoiler free as I can, so all of this is probably going to come across as a little vague.

The first alteration is the decision by the showrunners to make what is only a mentioned character in the book (doesn’t actually make an appearance in a scene) Kovacs’ long-lost love interest.

From a character development standpoint (as well as an episode length perspective), I understand wanting to make a somewhat aggressively unlikeable character (Kovacs) more palatable. However, that could’ve easily been done (as it was in the book) by playing up a different relationship for the screen. It just doesn’t hang.

In addition, the revealed antagonist in the show turns out to be Kovacs’ sister, a reveal that is completely absent in the book. None of his siblings are even mentioned by name, let alone shown on-screen. Perhaps this was used to ground Kovacs to a past in order to make him seem more fleshed out, but to me it comes off as a serious case of deus ex machina.

And finally, in flashbacks, it is revealed that he used to be part of the Envoys (he’s an Envoy in the book as well, but we’re looking at the differences between the presentations). In the book, Envoys are deep-cover government operatives, trained to operate in small units to destabilize planetary governments through subterfuge and/or direct action. In the show, the Envoys are shown to be a plucky group of resistance fighters (performing the same tasks as the book, but for very different reasons) that are trying to obliterate stack technology as a whole.

While I understand cutting things out or abbreviating (or even merging) plot points for the sake of time or a more cohesive narrative (from the show’s perspective), none of the things I’ve listed make a damned bit of sense. None of it had to be done.

I don’t know, maybe I’m nitpicking (and granted, I have no idea how to run a show), but I’d like to understand why these decisions were made. From a writing perspective, it irks me that the story was changed somewhere between the pages and the screen where it didn’t feel like it had to be.

Either way, Altered Carbon, both the book and the first season of the show are well worth your time. If you’re bored one night and looking for something to do, you could do a lot worse that dipping into the world that Richard Morgan created.

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