The Book was Better (or was it): Altered Carbon

The future is digital. Death is temporary – if you can afford a new body (or ‘sleeve’) for your digitised back-up to be decanted into. So why did a rich, influential tycoon like Laurens Bancroft blow his own brains out? When Bancroft buys ex-special forces and eternal revolutionary Takeshi Kovacs out of jail to investigate, Bay City is in for a wilder ride than anyone bargained for…

I first read Altered Carbon about ten years ago (oh shit. No, longer) and I loved it. When I heard it had been snapped up by Netflix, I had to wonder how it would work out. It was going to need one hell of a budget. And an amazing show runner. The closer it got to airing, the more nervous I got, because I’d realised something else: my tastes have changed significantly in the intervening years. All I had was a cursory memory of violence, sex shops and one of the most specifically nasty torture scenes I’ve ever worked to forget.

Would I even like the book if I read it now, let alone the show?

I finally – belatedly – watched the show last autumn, whilst rereading the book – because I knew I wanted it fresh in my mind to write about it. So, um, having taken exhaustive notes during my reread and made no notes at all about the show, here goes nothing 4 months later…

First things first: I still love the book. Considering it was a cyberpunk debut by a white guy, it’s ahead of its fellows in many ways (I know, I know: low bar). The ideas leap off the page, powered by Morgan’s trademark political and corporate cynicism… but I’d forgotten the sheer quantity and diversity of its female characters. Ortega, the Hispanic cop. Oumou, the black lawyer. Miriam, the rich, white, wicked femme fatale. Trepp, the hard-ass mercenary (much missed in the show). Irene Elliot, hacker extraordinaire. Even the casual walk-on parts are – unusually for cyberpunk – more likely to be female than not (I was particularly fond of Sheila the weapons expert).

Miriam Bancroft breasts boobily in from stage right (and yes, she really does), but the sexual lens is deployed specifically, not universally. And whilst it does feature extreme violence against women, Altered Carbon is equal opportunities hard-boiled noir: there’s also extreme violence against men; and extreme violence by women (against both men and women). It’s not perfect: the second act features a lot of violence against defenceless women and the virtual torture scene still stands out as a step too far. I was desperately glad the show left this scene on the cutting room floor; blow-torched feet were quite bad enough.

…which seems like a good place to pause and talk about the show. It’s very shiny, of course: Netflix had budget to spend (allegedly spending more on this one season than Game of Thrones had to spent on its first three seasons  put together – and they were averaging over $7million per episode). The money has generally been spent very well – the cast is great, the effects largely seamless, the visuals striking.

But for me, that’s also where it starts to go wrong. Instead of Morgan’s grimy street noir where Tak’s red and blue Inuit coat is the only splash of colour, we get a neon-bright Blade Runner knock-off. This amping up of the visual appeal extends across the board: the show is far more interested in exploiting its cast’s sexual attributes than the book was.

In fact, the show watches the way I was worried the book would reread: ultra violent and highly sexualised. I was surprised – and delighted – to find that the book mostly sidesteps this. Maybe it’s harder to be subtle when you put these things on screen. Maybe. But my overriding impression is that the show is in some ways more cynical than the book – and not only in its enthusiasm for using sex and violence to sell itself.

Because the show diverges significantly from the book’s plot, amping up Bancroft’s villain-adjacent privilege and changing Takeshi’s past to make everything personal (and oh, the irony that I’m going to rail against my favourite Quellism). By switching out characters and taking liberties with timelines, the show ends up being about Takeshi’s heartbroken man-pain rather than his incandescent rage at abuses of power, substituting a haunting romance for the grittier, harsher tale of an angry man adrift in an unjust galaxy. It feels shamelessly manipulative and rather cheap.

That said, if I’d never read the book, the narrative changes work on their own terms (although I still think the final three episodes would have left a sour taste in my mouth). And there are aspects of the show that I prefer to the book: the Raven AI hotel is far more entertaining than the Hendrix; and Ortega is fabulously short-tempered as well as bad-ass (I like her a lot in the book; I love her in the show).

But this is an easy one for me: while I don’t think the show is terrible (in spite of my criticisms and my eye-rolling at the cross-season metaplot), I think the book is much, much better. For those who read the book after seeing the show, I suspect it feels rather low-key and perhaps given to unnecessary, baroque complications. But I do suspect some people who quit the show after a couple of episodes of lurid lights and exposed flesh might have persevered with the book, and found much to appreciate.