Netflix dropped the second season of Altered Carbon on Thursday, so naturally I had to binge through it. This show is based on the novels by Richard K. Morgan. While the first season (which I reviewed) broadly followed the plot of the first book, albeit with a lot of additions and enhancements to the storyline, the second season largely charts a course independent from the books. It does take ideas from the second and third novel, and it takes place on the same planet as the third book, but the storyline is new.
As a reminder, the world of Altered Carbon is a future where everyone has a “stack” implanted in their brainstem, which records their mind. That stack can be transferred to a new body (a “sleeve”), or the contents of the mind can be “needle cast” to another planet in another solar system, or connected to a virtual environment.
If someone’s sleeve is destroyed, getting another one is not cheap, either because it requires a body not in use, or one clone grown, which is staggeringly expensive. As a result, this is a society with sharp class distinctions between the very rich, who can afford new sleeves as needed, and the poor, who have to make do with the one they have, often not able to afford a new one until they’ve aged out their current one, if even then.
And although the ability exists to backup a mind, it’s very expensive, so again, only the rich are protected from “real death” resulting from the destruction of their stack. It’s also illegal to “double sleeve”, putting the same mind in more than one body; in fact the penalty is real death for anyone who does it or enables it. The reasons for this are never explicitly spelled out, but it’s implied as an oppressive restriction of the society. (It also conveniently enables the characters to be in jeopardy.)
The result is pretty dystopian. Think of an interstellar version of Blade Runner where everyone is a replicant. Although there are also AIs who have their own existential issues.
As the season starts, Takeshi Kovacs, the protagonist, is lured back to his home world, “Harlan’s World”, and recruited by a “Meth” (rich immortal) for protection. Part of the lure is that the Meth claims to have information on the whereabouts of his lost love, Quellcrist Falconer. However, things quickly go to hell and Kovacs finds himself a fugitive on the run.
Lots of action, violence, and gore, and the occasional nudity, follows. I mostly enjoyed it, and if the previous points haven’t turned you off yet, I highly recommend it.
An important point. If you saw the first season, don’t be surprised that Kovacs is no longer played by Joel Kinnaman. He’s in a new body, which means a new actor, in this case Anthony Mackie (of Avengers-Falcon fame). Although the show does find a lot of ways to bring back actors from the first season.
I do have a few nits. The first is that Kovacs is downloaded into a combat sleeve, one with all kinds of enhanced genetic engineering, which is fine as far as it goes. But the body has the ability to make weapons fly into its hands, Jedi style. No explanation is given for exactly how this works. I’m sure it seemed like a cool thing to the producers, but I found it gimmicky and annoying, particularly as it adds nothing to the story.
It’s mentioned several times in the show that Harlan’s World is being strip mined by “The Protectorate”, the oppressive interstellar government. In particular, the alloy for making most of the stacks comes from this planet. But it’s also made clear that the original colonists to the world had to travel for decades to reach it. No explanation is provided for how the materials mined on Harlan’s World actually physically get to the rest of the Protectorate. In the books, although needlecast communication appears to be instantaneous across interstellar distances, there is no physical FTL travel. I didn’t see the show explicitly clarify this one way or the other anywhere, so it feels like an inconsistency.
Finally, (minor spoiler alert) at a certain point in the story, Kovacs is sentenced to be executed. Not by simply being erased, or tortured to death, but in a sort of trial by combat with people in synthesized bodies, with the whole rest of the planet watching, which he gets to deal with in his special combat body. This felt excessively comic-bookish. There’s even a scene where one of the antagonists urges that Kovacs simply be killed, but of course, drama dictates that he be ignored, and he is.
All that said, I found this show to be a lot of fun. And while I was initially disappointed that the stories from the books were discarded, the new story made up for it pretty well, and again, still used a lot of ideas from the books. If you like epic mind bending fiction with cyberpunk flavoring, and don’t mind gratuitous sex and violence, then I think you’ll enjoy it.
Have you seen it? If so, what did you think?