Altered Carbon, season two

Poster for Altered Carbon season 2

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?

14 thoughts on “Altered Carbon, season two

  1. Having read and seen lots of this sort of thing, I think I’m more likely to check out Lost in Space than I am this one. At least, I’d do LiS before, and it would require finishing a lot of other tasks, books, and TV series. But… maybe. 😉

    I do wonder sometimes about futures that posit that such-and-such a resource is highly valuable. Technology, for example, seems characterized by becoming ever cheaper and more available, so the cost of stacks seems artificial to me at first blush.

    I’ve likewise been dubious about how, in The Expanse, water is supposed to be so valuable. Granted there may be some issues mining it, but water ice is extremely common in space.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect you’d like Lost in Space more than this one. LiS is much more optimistic in its basic outlook. The view of humanity on this show is pretty dark. (Although not as dark as the books. There are good people on the show. As I recall, the books seemed determined to imply there’s no such thing.)

      Definitely the stack economy is contrived, a piece of worldbuilding more designed to ensure that the characters are in jeopardy in fight scenes. If everyone had nightly backups, it would lower the stakes. The show does add a zinger I forgot to mention, that the stacks are alien technology and its not completely understood how it works. But this is possibly undercut by the very rich being able to have backups, needlecasting, and other world facts inherited from the books that don’t seem compatible with it being mysterious alien magic.

      One of The Expanse authors admitted a while back that the economy presented is bogus. He actually went further and said that there’s no currently known economic imperative for the solar system wide society in the stories. And the thing about water in particular is, it should be an endlessly recyclable resource. You might need to find some based on population growth, but the idea it would be like oil or cotton in a solar economy doesn’t seem realistic. But they needed something to have the characters start out in a low level bus space profession.

      That same author (Ty Franck) was asked how the Epstein Drive worked. His reply: “efficiently.”


      1. Heh, yeah, those drives! Very cool look and sound, though.

        All stories have their gimmes, SF all the more so. I suppose the trick is not having them stand out like sore thumbs. (For me, water as unobtainium was a bit of a sore thumb. Nice of the author to clear the air. Always nice to know it isn’t just me.)

        I’ve always thought gold and silver, which are useful technologically, make somewhat useful unobtainium — it’s about the only thing Cowboys & Aliens got right. They require a high-energy supernova, so are actually is semi rare. We’re lucky the Solar System formed from a cloud that had remnants of such a supernova.

        And there’s always the old genuinely rare element that’s vital to spacecraft engines (e.g. Trek’s dilithium crystals). If I were an SF author, I’d check out the periodic table for seriously rare element and made that crucial for my FTL drives.

        Alien tech is a good one, too, but (as you point out) it has to stay alien (and rare) then. Was it Niven who had the rare ancient stasis boxes that might contain who knows what long-lost alien technology?

        Good world-building seems hard. It’s a big reason I thought Westworld season two was so weak. Bad world-building.


        1. On unobtainiums, the issue with the Altered Carbon universe, at least the book version, is that transporting matter between star systems takes decades or centuries. So what is unobtainium for such a society? The only thing I can think of is information, although by its nature, that’s hard to keep limited.

          Good worldbuilding is hard. It’s why almost every fictional world has contradictions if you think about them enough. Even Tolkien’s, despite spending most of his life working on it, although in his case he almost seemed to do it on purpose so there’d be uncertainty about particular points.

          Niven was big on those stasis cubes. He also used the alien technology trick. FTL in his known space series was purchases by an enigmatic alien race that themselves eschewed use of it, so no one really understood how it worked, and so it couldn’t be used for things like time travel. It essentially became ubiquitous magic.


          1. Yeah, as a resource, information is a whole new ballgame. You can give all you have to anyone who asks, and still have every bit of it. It started with music and blueprints, then books, now video and almost anything. Almost everything. It’s why I see the Information Age as being as significant as the Electronic Age or the Discovery of Fire Age.

            “It’s why almost every fictional world has contradictions if you think about them enough.”

            Totally. I think that’s where the sore thumb comes in. With the better world-builders, you have to really think about things (because the author already has). My big objections almost always involve something glaring that takes me out of the moment. I’m way more tolerant of things that don’t occur to me until I start thinking about them. (It’s kind of why I liked Westworld season one but not season two. Too many sore thumbs.)

            Niven’s Known Space, yeah, it’s coming back to me now. A good example of world-building you have to think about.


          2. The thing about sore thumbs, is that they’re relative to what the reader knows. On a Writing Excuses podcast, they once had on a writer who knew a lot about economics, and so a lot of things in fantasy worlds stood out to him that never would have stood out to me, such as the silliness of having a city in the desert (at least before modern water supply systems). A martial arts expert likewise had a lot of criticism of fight scenes.

            And, of course, it’s pretty typical for sci-fi to ignore the broader implications of a technology. Star Trek with its transporters and replicators is a good example. Or the fact that very few stories explore the true implications of FTL technology.

            It seems like the best a writer can aim for is not to leave any sore thumbs that a typical reader would notice.


          3. I think that’s generally true. I might add a refinement about intended audience, because there’s a whole thing about what the consumer brings to art. An artist can choose to create for a highly informed audience (Bach, for instance), or create for a general audience (most rock and roll).

            And so true about areas of expertise in individual consumers. I have deep enough backgrounds in EE and CS that it’s often very apparent to me when creators flub technology. OTOH, there are biology and economics errors that might sail right over my head.

            Maybe it’s when something is central to the plot or theme that the author needs to do the research to insure the ideas are correct. The background stuff can be more hand-wavey.

            (I will say that most stories I’ve read that take place in desert locales do place water as a central issue. Oasis and wells are valuable resources in those stories. Fight scenes, on the other hand, frequently leave me scratching my head.)


          4. I was reading one of Alastair Reynold’s books. He’s an astrophysicist, so the physics in his books are usually solid. (Usuallly, although he has been known to fudge for story benefits.) But in one book he made a fairly significant handwavy error about with the brain. I realized when I caught it though that I only noticed it because I’ve read a ton of neuroscience.

            In some ways, seeing these kinds of errors makes me feel better. If the pros can make errors along these lines, it means that there should be some leeway for the rest of us. Of course, there will always be someone who notices and makes a major issue of it. It just seems to come down to what readers in general will accept.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Watched first season back when it came out, and three episodes of season two.

    I’m torn. The production quality is top notch, and some of the ideas are interesting, but I’m finding the moment-to-moment writing to be painfully bad and obvious. It’s cliche after cliche after cliche after cliche. Just unbearably tropey. They go much too far to hype up the protagonist as being awesome while being unrelentingly tortured and what a fourteen year old might think of as cool. No humour, nothing likeable or relatable about him at all.

    I think I found the first season more interesting because the setting was more novel. It didn’t hurt that I like Joel Kinnaman and James Purefoy. I’m really struggling with season 2 though. Think I might have to drop it, which I feel bad about because it really is one of the more impressive series on Netflix visually. I desperately want to like it but I just don’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do recall it getting better as I went through the episodes, with the final ones being pretty good. That said, I didn’t struggle with the early ones nearly as much as you are. It may not improve enough to offset that, so I’m not sure if I can recommend soldiering on. And really, it’s the responsibility of fiction to be entertaining throughout, and it doesn’t sound like this one is doing it for you.


    2. That’s one bummer about aging: having seen so many stories that most plot twists are old hat. What I think of as “level one” writing (simplistic, naive) does seem cliche-filled and just a string of tropes or visual icons. Some of it is bad or inept writing, but some of it is being old enough and experienced enough to require fine wine, not table wine.

      OTOH, we appreciate fine wine a lot more… 😉


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