Netflix's 'Altered Carbon': explore a nightmare future where money can buy you immortality

The cyberpunk novel 'Altered Carbon' has been adapted for TV with the series starring Joel Kinnaman

Joel Kinnaman in Altered Carbon. Courtesy Netflix
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One of the most influential sci-fi cyberpunk novels of all time, Altered Carbon, is breaking free of the printed page and leaping to television with its story of murder, love and betrayal set more than 300 years into the future.

Richard K Morgan’s noir novel, first published in 2002, depicts a society that has been transformed by mind-blowing technology – consciousness can be digitised, human bodies are interchangeable and death is a fleeting state.

Immortality can be yours for a price in this series adaptation – with 10 episodes of eye-popping production values and intricate action sequences in a world where new flesh can be pulled on like borrowed gloves – which streams starting Friday on Netflix. "Morgan's book is such a seminal sci-fi text," says series creator and showrunner Laeta Kalogridis, the screenwriter behind Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys, and a producer of White House Down and James Cameron's blockbuster Avatar.

“It’s a very serious sci-fi story about a technology that allows life to be extended ­indefinitely. Yet, in no way was the story removed from completely identifiable human emotions,” she adds. “It has all the bells and whistles of great sci-fi, but at its heart, it is a very human story. And it was noir, which I love.”

In this morally hollow world, people are able to have the data in their minds stored on discs in their necks called "cortical stacks". In the amount of time it takes to back up one's mental data to a satellite cloud, a person is ready to live life again – one day, one week, or centuries later.

"The book also beautifully redefines human beings' relationship to our physicality," says Kalogridis. "In the Altered Carbon world, you can exist in any body. It's a fascinating idea that humans will have evolved over millions of years to exist in tandem with our physical body." Swedish actor, Joel Kinnaman, known for his work in House of Cards and Suicide Squad, stars in this neon-filled series as Takeshi Kovacs, the lone surviving soldier in a group of elite interstellar warriors who were defeated in an uprising against the new world order.

His mind was imprisoned – on ice – for centuries until Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy of Hap and Leonard fame), an impossibly wealthy, long-lived man of the so-called "Meth" or Methuselah class, offers Kovacs a chance to live again. In exchange, Kovacs has to solve a murder – that of Bancroft himself. If it all sounds very trippy, it is.

In this world, babies get their “cortical stacks” at a year old. The wealthy can buy clones to live for ever – and be “re-sleeved” at will. The poor only get a shot at another body if something bad happens to their first one, like being run over or being the victim of injustice – and they don’t get to pick the new “sleeve”, or body. A “dead” child, for example, could wind up coming back in an elderly person’s body.

Kinnaman says he views Kovacs as a man whose hunger to fight against the injustice in his society literally spans millennia, planets and corporeal casings.

“Kovacs has a very strong moral compass,” he says. “He’s far from perfect, but he knows right from wrong. When he’s re-sleeved, it’s a second chance. So, after he chooses to take this case and go on this journey, he finds a will to live, because of the reality that he faces and the people that he meets in this new world.”

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“I think any story where themes like this are being discussed – love, loss, hope, tragedy, death, mourning, sorrow, any of these things that we all feel now – it will resonate,” adds Purefoy.

"It doesn't really matter if it's set 500 years or 1,000 years ago or even 500 years in the future. As long as those things are being carefully looked at by the actors, producers, directors and the writers – and there are stories that are elemental, fascinating and interesting – they'll succeed."

The show’s design elements are laced with provocative notions on both the macro and micro levels, says Everett Burrell, the series’ visual effects wizard. “In the future, San Francisco – here called Bay City – there are iconic things like the Golden Gate Bridge, but we added some unique things to the environment. As you watch the show, you think: ‘Why is there a giant dam around the bay?’ Because global warming in the future has raised the water level around San Francisco.”

“Bay City has different levels: the bottom is for the Grounders, the low-rent district for those in society’s lowest rung; the middle-class reside in an area called the Twilight, higher up in the city; above that is Aerium, where the Meths live, the .00001 per cent of the population on Earth.

“Where the Grounders live is gritty, dirty, and smoky, with a layer of smog they can’t get away from. Twilight has expensive condos, and you see a little bit of sky. In Aerium, it’s all Ivory Towers, skyscrapers, wealth, privilege, decadence – life in the clouds.”

Altered Carbon is available for streaming on Netflix from February 2