Several years ago, I read Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels about a future where people’s minds are recorded in a device (called a “stack”) implanted just below the brain stem, essentially providing a form of mind uploading, and allowing people to survive the death of their body. Kovacs, the protagonist of the series, is an ex-soldier, mercenary, criminal, and all around bitter human being, who is used to inhabiting many different bodies. The novels follow his grim adventures, first on Earth, and then on other planets.
This weekend, I binge watched Netflix’s adaptation of the first novel, Altered Carbon.
It’s been several years since I read the books, but from what I can remember, the series broadly follows the first book, although it adds new content and new characters to fill out the 10 episode arc, and borrows content from the other two books, which in the process makes the story more interesting. But it does preserve the issues Morgan explores in the novel, about what having a society of people who can transfer to new bodies might look like, particularly one that retains sharp divisions between rich and poor.
The show does seem to moderate Morgan’s intense anti-religious sentiment. I recall Kovacs being a staunch atheist in the books, and with the story told from his point of view, that outlook permeates. But the show seems to take a more even handed approach, showing the issues devout Catholics in this future have with the idea of being technologically resurrected while still showing them as sympathetic characters.
As in the book, the reluctance of Catholics to be resurrected makes them uniquely vulnerable targets. A non-Catholic citizen who is murdered can potentially be revived to testify against their murderer. But with the Catholic stipulation that they are not to be revived, it means that when they are murdered, they are dead. There is a debate that takes place in the background of the story on whether a law should be passed to allow law enforcement to revive anyone who is a victim of a crime, regardless of their religious preferences.
What the show doesn’t moderate however, is the book’s grim noir character. Kovacs seems more sympathetic than I recall him being in the books, more human and approachable, but the overall story’s very dark take on humanity remains. This vision is dystopian, in a way that any Blader Runner fan should love.
Morgan’s version of mind uploading, where minds are recorded on the stack implanted in the body, preserves the jeopardy of the characters in the story. Characters can be killed if their stack is destroyed (called “real death” in the story), and the stacks are frequently targeted in fight scenes. Only the very rich are able to have themselves periodically backed up so that destruction of their stack doesn’t result in their real death. (Although they have other vulnerabilities that get mentioned.)
The story also makes it clear that, although the technology is available, double-sleeving (being in two or more bodies at the same time) is illegal in this society, with the penalty being real death, although the reasons for this restriction are never discussed. It seems to be one of many aspects of a repressive society. (In the third book, I recall the suggestion that the Protectorate, the overall interstellar civilization in the books, is essentially holding back humanity by not allowing society to fully evolve with the technology.)
The show doesn’t explicitly address this, nor do I recall the books doing so, but the idea of the stack holding a person’s mind so that when it’s implanted between the brain and the spinal cord it takes control of the body, is actually very dark when you think about it. It leaves open the disturbing possibility that the body’s original consciousness is still in there somewhere, but totally cut off from its body.
I think there are also some serious scientific issues with whether the technology as described would work. For a device to really function the way the stacks are described, they would need to intercept all sensory input, much of which isn’t routed though the brain stem. Vision, for example, at least detailed vision, goes straight to the thalamus and then the occipital lobe. That said, the details are never discussed, so there’s enough room to imagine that the stacks are part of an overall technology harness that reaches deep into the brain.
Anyway, if you’re interested in watching the ideas of what a human society with mind uploading might look like, and don’t mind a lot of violence, language, and sexual content, then you might want to check it out.