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The Altering of Altered Carbon: Netflix Goes Cyberpunk

Thomas Trang makes a case for why the upcoming Netflix adaptation of this classic cyberpunk novel might be the breakout hit of 2018


I’ve probably read Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon nine or ten times. Not always from start to finish; it’s a sprawling and wildly inventive book that moves at a ferocious pace, and there’s been a few times where I just dip in and out of it for a hundred pages or so, briefly immersing myself in the neon-stained madness before coming up for air. When stories create a universe that’s as beautiful, heartbreaking and shopworn as our own, sometimes you just want to go back there and hang out for a while.

Like the (anti)hero says on several occasions: “Local colour. Soak it up.”

There’s often a pre-emptive backlash when much-loved work makes the transition to the screen. A lot of the time, it’s completely justified (I’m looking at you, Watchmen). The hardcore fans are usually worried that the new interpretation won’t hold up, or that it might even tarnish the glow of the original. When the source material is rich and complex, there’s always a fear that the demands of Hollywood will dilute it in order to reach the widest audience possible.

But for whatever reason, I’m insanely optimistic and excited as hell about Altered Carbon landing on Netflix sometime next year. Maybe because it’s been floating around as an idea for the screen almost as long as the book itself – fifteen years. Enough time to weed out the non-believers and opportunists, and I’m guessing that the forces behind this have been able to sharpen their steel for maximum impact. The marketing campaign got underway last week, and it’s been pretty clever so far. A low-key twitter account here, some quietly released gifs there.

While the Netflix MCU stuff has been a case of diminishing returns for the last year or so (in fairness, I haven’t caught The Punisher yet, so let me know if I’m wrong and it’s a solid return to form), there’s been a few recent instances of ambitious and thought-provoking sci-fi for the small screen that have hit the mark. I’m mostly thinking of Westworld, but also of The Expanse – both, it’s worth pointing out, adaptations of previously existing material.

I remember walking out of Inception thinking that it could be the beginning of a smart science-fiction renaissance, and maybe it’s finally happening, just not where I thought it would be (Arrival and Bladerunner 2049 notwithstanding).

So, Altered Carbon, what’s it all about?

Set in a future where the human body is reduced to a ‘sleeve’ that people can switch up at will – think Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse writ large – the story follows Takeshi Kovacs, an off-world super soldier brought to Earth by a wealthy benefactor who wants him to solve his own murder.

Oh yeah, when consciousness can be downloaded via a USB port, death isn’t what it used to be.

There are all sorts of cyberpunk trappings, but the beating heart of Altered Carbon is essentially a Raymond Chandler novel. Just with extra body modifications, virtual reality and flying cars. Like a Chandler gumshoe detective story, our intrepid protagonist gets to kick ass and take names, mixing it up with both high and low-lifes in a variety of different locales. The world-building and attention to detail in the book is amazing.

In fact, that’s probably the biggest challenge that the show will face: how to fit all of the mythology and backstory in without losing the audience. But we live in a time when viewers are fiending for those details. Check out the comments section on any article about Mr. Robot. I’m sure some corners will have to be cut to get it to ten hours of TV, but they dumb it down at their peril.

There’s even a few reasons to think that Netflix might improve on the novel in some aspects.

Much like a Chandler story, the nuts and bolts of the plot are what you might generously call ‘labyrinthine’. I’m a fan because the world that Richard Morgan created sucks me in, but even after all the times I’ve read Altered Carbon, some of the minor characters and blind alleys of the narrative still confuse the hell out of me. Combine that with all the body-swapping involved, there’s a risk that things might get way too complicated for some viewers, but I suspect the show’s creators will jettison anything that they can to keep things lean and mean.

Aside from the noirish plot elements, Richard Morgan also employs the tradition of Chandleresque language. Characters never just walk anywhere, they ‘pace gingerly’. Sometimes it just about works: the sound of a robot’s laugh is described as ‘like a fat man drowning in syrup’, but then you get sentences like ‘tongues of light and sound splashed out onto pavements from the myriad tiny bars’. Short of a Rick Deckard-style voice-over, a TV version should be able to gingerly sidestep these problems.

But I’m making minor complaints here – the book is definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of cyberpunk, sci-fi or thrillers. It made serious waves back when it was released in 2002, and I’m hoping that the show will do the same.

Altered Carbon is the first in a trilogy, and the last book, the ambitious and politically charged Woken Furies, is even better (though probably financially prohibitive in terms of filming it). Combine three door-stopping novels with the centuries of stuff that happens off the page in between them, you’ve got the potential for a show that could outlive us all.


Read more from Thomas Trang right here on FanBros.com!