‘Altered Carbon’ and the sci-fi revival
By Duncan Fingarson, Senior Columnist
It’s an established fact that trends move in cycles—every generation is nostalgic for the period roughly 30 years ago. You might have noticed Hollywood breaking out a lot of culturally relevant films for another go. Jurassic Park, Jumanji, and Star Wars have all picked up new remakes, sequels, prequels, or spin-offs. There’s another on this list though, and on first glance it seems a bit of a weird choice: Blade Runner.
Blade Runner was the genre-defining cyberpunk movie. It was originally released in 1982, followed closely by William Gibson’s equally prototypical novel Neuromancer in 1984. Both works contributed to cyberpunk—what it is and what it’s all about. In 1989, Shadowrun came along and expanded the genre further with the addition of fantasy elements. At its heart, however, cyberpunk is about technology, corporations run rampant, and what it means to be human.
The point I’m getting at is that all of these things came out roughly 30 years ago. Since that’s the nostalgia sweet spot, everything old is new again and Netflix has released Altered Carbon. Adapted from Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel of the same name, Altered Carbon tells the tale of Takeshi Kovacs. Kovacs is woken up at the start of episode one (don’t worry, no spoilers here that aren’t in the episode description) and enlisted to solve a murder. Somewhat paradoxically, the murdered man is the one who hires him.
Altered Carbon revolves around “stacks,“ memory storage devices that everyone has installed at a young age. You died? No problem, we’ll just put your stack in a new body and you’ll be all set. Naturally, this means that the rich are functionally immortal, and the poor get screwed; bodies, after all, do not grow on trees.
The show shines in its visuals, and the futuristic city where it takes place echoes Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. It’s dark, brooding, and wonderfully trippy. The themes, though, are where the show really stands out.
Cyberpunk, as cool and technologically advanced as it appears, is also typically dystopian. This is a world where corporations rule the world and money talks louder than anything. Governments have little power in the face of the almighty dollar. Anyone without the wealth and power to live at the top spends their life as a slave to their wages, or an outcast. It’s a world that looks a lot like our own. If you squint, you could see it from here.
It’s fitting that in a year where you-know-who is somehow still the President, cyberpunk is triumphantly coming back. It’s great for science fiction lovers like me, but it’s also great as a lens through which to view a future that we hope will never come to pass. In the age of Trump, cyberpunk is more relevant than ever before.