Altered Carbon is a series with lots of themes, story lines, eye-candy and action. It all begins with one question: who killed Laurens Bancroft? A question asked by ultra rich Bancroft himself, because he didn’t stay dead for long. In this time and place there is a form of immortality. People are stored on little disks called stacks. If desired, and if you can afford it, the stack can be placed in another sleeve, or body. To solve the case, Bancroft calls in someone dead and imprisoned for over 300 years; Kovacs, an Envoy (extinct legendary rebel supersoldiers). Kovacs is resleeved and offered freedom and a new life if he takes on the case.
Detectives usually resolve around questions of identity; who tells the truth, who can you trust and are they who they say they are. Set in an environment where people could be wearing different stacks every time you see them, these questions only become harder to answer.
Stacks versus sleeves, or in other words the Cartesian idea of mind versus body. It is an old idea, and while we experience ourselves as if body and mind are distinct entities, we know that it is not how it works. We are one organism, just one that can think about itself. The memories, personality traits, and everything else that we could put on a stack as algoritms are all informed, shaped and created by our unique bodies. To be put in a different body should cause radically new experiences. Then again, why put a stack back in a biological body? Why not in a robot?
Altered Carbon mostly sticks with the idea that mind and body are split. Who you are, is your mind. The body is something exchangeable. The body is to be used and enjoyed, for example through sex. And immortality makes it easier to explore morbid sexual wishes. A girl (we are shown girls) can be resleeved if things go wrong. Altered Carbon does question this practice. There is trauma for the stack after sexual violence which implies that physical experiences matter. But overall the Cartesian background hinders more interesting and challenging ideas to some into play.
However, it does create the possibility for a couple of idealistic scenes about loving somebody no matter what. One that stood out for me most was when a daughter recognized her mother immediately, even though her stack was placed in a thuggish looking man. Dad and husband needed a bit more time to adjust. I liked him as a mother too much to be critical of this portrayal.
The virtual parts of the world. These can be apparently used to torture someone in ways more painful than ever could be done in reality, and over and over again since you can’t die. The torture will just start over, until it drives you crazy beyond repair. But there are other virtual uses in this world.
Kovacs decides to stay in the virtual Hotel the Raven with ai hotel manager Poe. He is the first guest in years. Poe is the hotel, he has agency and control within it and he can hang out with other ai’s to play poker. He is a gambler, with debts. He is being snubbed by his friends for liking humans too much, but he finds them intruiging and wants to befriend them.
As in any detective (Edgar Allen Poe is usually seen as the one who wrote the first detective story), you need to have a side-kick. Poe quickly reads up on detective stories, so he can be of better assistence and he becomes Kovacs’s side-kick. He fulfills that role beautifully. He is refreshing, funny, loyal and has a touch of darkness in him. And he can let the hotel do whatever he wants, since he is the hotel.
Poe is the most interesting character of the show: what makes him so lonely and still so willing to befriend everybody that enters his hotel? What makes him doubt? What makes him different from humans, since he seems so human? At least one of the differences is that an AI can’t die, right?
Blue in the bridal rhyme is symbolic for love. Love in families and romance. One of the story lines dives into the background of Kovacs. As a little boy he betrayed, unknowingly, his sister Rei. They promised him she would be taken care of, but she wasn’t. Rei had to survive on her own.
Later they meet in a fight, working for opposing factions, and escape together. They join the Envoys. Rei wants to hold on to her brother, but Kovacs falls in love. Rei kills her during an attack.
We find out that it was Rei who brought Kovacs back from the dead. Again they meet in a fight, again she saves him. And again Kovacs has already fallen in love with someone.
Rei is the one who keeps saving Kovacs, and in doing so she keeps repeating the one thing she wanted he had done. She wanted her big brother to save her when she was a little girl. The thought that kept her going as a child was ‘my big brother is out there, he will save me and everything will be alright’. She craves for her brother, but in saving him she keeps confronting herself that he let her down and that he isn’t hurt like she is. He falls in love wherever he goes, giving life a chance, creating new families.
Rei is the most successfull survivor, driven by love, but a twisted love, a lonely love.
There is a lot more going on in Altered Carbon: cloning, the police, neo-catholics, fanatics, corruption, stealth tech, borrowing your mom’s sleeve for a hookup, the origin of the stack, Envoy philosophy, rebellion, cross and double sleeving. Not everything works, or is completely thought through. Is it entertaining? Yes, if you can stomach the sexual violence and Kovacs’ mumbling.