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Altered Carbon


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#1 Cardie

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Posted 12 February 2018 - 02:26 AM

I watched all ten episodes of this Netflix series this weekend. This first post will be a general review without spoilers. I’ll get into more details as folks join the conversation. Set centuries in the future AC is a film noir heavily indebted in its style to Blade Runner--a rainy ramshackle Earth with significant Asian influences, not a surprise as it’s set in San Francisco aka Bay City. Instead of the crux of the technological crisis being androids treated as property with an expiration date, here it is the universal ability for human consciousnesses to be stored digitally in “stacks,” with the body treated as a mere “sleeve,” so that death is never final unless the stack is destroyed. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is re-sleeved after 250 years in storage in order to investigate the sleeve death of a very rich man.  The plot is very twisty and interesting as more crimes keep intersecting with Kovacs’ case.
The series is very good at depicting how stack tech works and how its reliability and new sleeve acquisition depend on how rich one is. In addition to income inequality, themes of identity persistence when people change bodies like socks, how concepts of desire and attraction function when mind and body are separable, and what happens to humans when they are no longer mortal raise their heads. However, the show is far more interested in long, brutal action sequences and sex scenes with tasteful nudity (but often distasteful violence) than in amy deep dive into these philosophical conundrums. It also frequently settles into a slog; what might have been a brisk five hours turns into a draggy ten. Nevertheless the charisma of star Joel Kinnamon goes a long way and the large cast includes many tv genre veterans: Dichen Lachman, James Purefoy, Kristin Lehman, Hiro Kanagawa, Byron Mann, Tamoh Penikett, and Matt Frewer. The standout performance comes from Chris Conner as Poe the AI proprietor of the Raven hotel, Kovacs’ base of operations.
Altered Carbon is far from perfect but worth the time for its world-building and complex noir narrative. Another nice detail is that the title of each episode is descriptive of its plot yet also the title of a classic noir film: Out of the Past, Force of Evil, In a Lonely Place, The Killers, etc.
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#2 Christopher

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Posted 12 February 2018 - 08:24 AM

It was okay, though visually derivative. Blade Runner was decades ago; we really can't come up with a more novel way to depict the future? The VFX were pretty good for the most part, with the exception of the "null-gravity" fight in episode 3, with wirework that looked more like a stage performance of Peter Pan than actual weightlessness (appropriately, since it was filmed in a theater -- the University of British Columbia's Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, which is often used in TV and movies as either a futuristic base (The 4400s, Legends of Tomorrow) or a fight club arena, so it got to be both of those here).

Episode 4 was my least favorite. I'm so sick of torture porn, and it makes no sense in this context. The writing fell into the usual stupid trap of assuming that torture actually works as a form of interrogation -- that, given VR technology, they'd just build VR that simulated the same old torture techniques, which any competent interrogator will tell you are actually counterproductive to gaining reliable intelligence. Surely a civilization with such advanced neural technology would have figured out a better way to get information out of people. This was just gratuitous brutality.

Other than that, though, I could see that both the casual violence and the casual nudity served the worldbuilding. This is a world where bodies are seen as disposable commodities, something temporary and separate from your true identity. Thus, it makes sense that people would be less protective of their bodies, whether their modesty or their health. It worked thematically, so it didn't really feel gratuitous. (Although the nudity was still rather imbalanced in favor of the male gaze, with significantly more female frontal nudity than male.)

I'm disappointed that the show never actually addressed Kovacs's reaction to being placed in a white man's body. I read an interviewwith showrunner Laeta Kalogridis where she claimed they'd address the character's unhappiness with the effacing of his preferred Asian identity (which is addressed in the book), but they never actually did so, except for having Rei suggest re-sleeving him in "something less gaijin." So it did ultimately come off as little more than the usual Hollywood whitewashing, just as I feared. Well, at least they surrounded the Obligatory White Male Lead with a really diverse cast otherwise. And Joel Kinnaman was a more effective lead than I expected. This was the third thing I've seen him in (after the RoboCop remake and Suicide Squad), but the first time he's left any real impression on me. (Someone on another board said he reminded them of Brian Thompson, and I can see what they meant.)

I did like the cultural diversity of the future, although they made a bizarre mistake when Ortega's mother said to Abboud that they worshipped different gods. Anyone with the most basic education in the subject should know that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same god, just differing on which prophets and teachings they consider definitive.

Edited by Christopher, 12 February 2018 - 08:25 AM.

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#3 Cardie

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Posted 12 February 2018 - 07:42 PM

I thought they undercut the casual disposability of bodies leading to less fear of bodily harm by making the stacks so vulnerable to destruction and thus real death. I know that was so that there would be stakes when people were threatened and killed but it's ludicrous the minute you think about it. With so much demand, I doubt you'd have to be filthy rich to have stacks as durable as an airplane's black box and to be resistant to removal by anyone not authorized by that individual. Nor could making backups be rendered so pricey, at least judging on the easy duplications of other forms of digital information.

As the show droned on, I longed for some typical broadcast procedural in which Kovacs, the Elliotts, Ortega and a rebooted Poe solved noiresque crimes weekly.

If you want to see a riveting Kinnaman, watch The Killing.
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#4 G-man

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Posted 13 February 2018 - 09:05 AM

OK, haven't seen the show, but have started reading the book and have some notes:

1.  Takeshi Kovacs - yeah, he was (and identified as) Asian, but when he was decanted on Earth, his sleeve was white.
So the show wasn’t taking any liberties in its casting of the lead.

2a.  The vulnerability of the cortical stacks is also in the book.  They can be pried out of a corpse by an officer with his pocket knife, and if they should suffer a direct hit, the person suffers a real death.  Where the issue lies is that most people cannot afford a new sleeve, unless circumstances allow the state (or third party) to assume the burden of the expense.  And then, for most, the sleeves are parceled out on an what's in stock basis, so most do not have a say in what form their next incarnation takes.  

2b.  On Takeshi’s homeworld, it is generally noted that a person lives out one life, gets re-sleeved and then lives out the second life, after which most choose to be stored, to be briefly decanted only for the occasional family reunion, as few want to go through a perpetual life.

2c.  So, it is really only the rich and influential who get to dictate what their next sleeve will be like, and can afford the remote back-ups to their stacks.

I’ll keep my eyes out for any other notes as I read through the novel.

/s/

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Edited by G-man, 13 February 2018 - 09:09 AM.

Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, so that all may profit by it.
Let me think of the right and lend my assistance to all who may need it, with no regard for anything but justice.
Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens, and my associates in everything I say and do.
Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.
-- Doc Savage

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#5 Christopher

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Posted 13 February 2018 - 10:01 AM

View PostG-man, on 13 February 2018 - 09:05 AM, said:

OK, haven't seen the show, but have started reading the book and have some notes:

1.  Takeshi Kovacs - yeah, he was (and identified as) Asian, but when he was decanted on Earth, his sleeve was white.
So the show wasn’t taking any liberties in its casting of the lead.


That's true as far as it goes, but -- the book actually addressed Kovacs' displeasure at being race-bent against his will, whereas the show totally glossed it over, despite the showrunner's promise in interviews that it would be dealt with. So the show did an inadequate job at dealing with the problematical aspects of the premise, and didn't follow through on the showrunner's lip service to the issue.


Quote

2a.  The vulnerability of the cortical stacks is also in the book.  They can be pried out of a corpse by an officer with his pocket knife, and if they should suffer a direct hit, the person suffers a real death.  Where the issue lies is that most people cannot afford a new sleeve, unless circumstances allow the state (or third party) to assume the burden of the expense.  And then, for most, the sleeves are parceled out on an what's in stock basis, so most do not have a say in what form their next incarnation takes.  


I think Cardie has a point here. If the stacks are so important, it would make sense to have them more robustly designed and harder to destroy. It's a contradictory bit of worldbuilding to say that people are "immortal" if they're simultaneously easy to kill. Sure, you have to hit the right part of the body to guarantee their death, but that's already true today; it's just that the vital area changes to the base of the skull rather than the brain or the heart.

In my 2010 novelette "No Dominion" (available online, coming to print soon in my upcoming collection Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman), one of the "death prevention" technologies I introduce is genetic-memory DNA packets that back up the brain's memories and circulate in the bloodstream. So there's no single vital area that will permanently kill someone or wipe their knowledge. Even if the brain is destroyed and has to be regrown from stem cells, it can "reload" its memories from the DNA backup.



Quote

2b.  On Takeshi’s homeworld, it is generally noted that a person lives out one life, gets re-sleeved and then lives out the second life, after which most choose to be stored, to be briefly decanted only for the occasional family reunion, as few want to go through a perpetual life.

The show establishes that people who resleeve in too many different bodies go insane. So the only people who can continuously reincarnate themselves are the ones rich enough to afford multiple clones of their original bodies.


By the way, does the book explain the title? There was one line in the show where someone passingly mentioned "altered carbon" as the stuff the stacks were made of, without any elaboration.
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#6 G-man

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Posted 13 February 2018 - 10:51 AM

I saw it mentioned in passing on Page 61.

Quote

“It got pretty dull after that.  PsychaSec, like most DHF depots, wasn’t much more than a gigantic set of air-conditioned warehouse shelves.  We tramped through basement rooms cooled to the seven to eleven degrees Celsius recommended by the makers of altered carbon, peered at racks of the big thirty-centimeter expanded format disks, and admired the retrieval robots that ran on the wide-gauge rails along the storage walls.”

My impression from the quote is that it is referring to the data/memory-storage systems, rather than the sleeves.

As for Takeshi, thus far he’s more annoyed that his sleeve is that of a smoker when he, himself, had been trying to quit, than he was that he was white.  But I’ll keep my eyes open for that development.

/s/

Gloriosus
The G-man Himself

Edited by G-man, 13 February 2018 - 11:26 AM.

Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, so that all may profit by it.
Let me think of the right and lend my assistance to all who may need it, with no regard for anything but justice.
Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens, and my associates in everything I say and do.
Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.
-- Doc Savage

Few people want to be moderated, most people see the need for everyone else to be moderated. -- Orpheus

#7 G-man

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Posted 13 February 2018 - 11:52 AM

Oh, and I noticed that the book was written back in 2002, so, yeah, the technology the writer was extrapolating from is 15 to 16 years old, so I wouldn't hold that against him.

/s/

Gloriosus
the G-man Himself
Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, so that all may profit by it.
Let me think of the right and lend my assistance to all who may need it, with no regard for anything but justice.
Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens, and my associates in everything I say and do.
Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.
-- Doc Savage

Few people want to be moderated, most people see the need for everyone else to be moderated. -- Orpheus

#8 Christopher

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Posted 13 February 2018 - 12:09 PM

View PostG-man, on 13 February 2018 - 11:52 AM, said:

Oh, and I noticed that the book was written back in 2002, so, yeah, the technology the writer was extrapolating from is 15 to 16 years old, so I wouldn't hold that against him.

Well, John Varley was writing about immortality through memory backups and cloned bodies in the '70s, e.g. in The Ophiuchi Hotline. It's not exactly a new idea. But then, neither are aircraft black boxes. Cardie's right that the stacks seem oddly fragile given their importance.

Although I suppose one could argue that the stacks were designed to be hard to damage, which in turn prompted weapon designers to make guns more destructive in response. Maybe this story is set during a period where the arms race has shifted in favor of the weapons and the stack designs haven't yet caught up. After all, many of the guns in the show do seem to be pretty nasty energy weapons instead of conventional projectile weapons.
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#9 G-man

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Posted 13 February 2018 - 12:58 PM

Well, yes, in such an arms race, I would imagine that the advantage would rest with the weapon-makers, simply from an economic standpoint.  After all, if 6 billion plus people are implanted with stacks of varying qualities, if a new development comes out to threaten them, one would be required to upgrade the entire population, which takes time, money, and cooperation.  Meanwhile, guns/blasters have a more, if you’d excuse the pun, targeted audience; which would have easier access to any upgrades on that front than the general public would for a new stack.

Likewise, the stacks would no doubt not be automatically combat ready, but are rather designed for regular everyday use under expected conditions.  Again, as a matter of economics.

Consequently, I doubt that hardware upgrades are available for the hoi polloi, but rather reserved for the Meths and anyone else with the resources to afford them.  The general public would simply be stuck with the stack that they were initially installed with as an infant, unless said stack proved faulty, or an employer upgraded their stack for them.

/s/

Gloriosus
The G-man Himself
Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, so that all may profit by it.
Let me think of the right and lend my assistance to all who may need it, with no regard for anything but justice.
Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage.
Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens, and my associates in everything I say and do.
Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.
-- Doc Savage

Few people want to be moderated, most people see the need for everyone else to be moderated. -- Orpheus

#10 Christopher

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Posted 13 February 2018 - 01:58 PM

Well, it certainly gives new meaning to the phrase "to blow one's stack."
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#11 Cardie

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Posted 13 February 2018 - 10:52 PM

In the show, real death can occur even if you just fall down the stairs and land on the part of the body where the stack is installed. People don't even wear protective gear to provide a layer of defense outside the body (although military types do.) If we put kids in bicycle helmets, you'd think that Kevlar helmets shielding the back of the skull would be standard issue and wouldn't be that expensive.
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#12 Christopher

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Posted 13 February 2018 - 11:18 PM

View PostCardie, on 13 February 2018 - 10:52 PM, said:

In the show, real death can occur even if you just fall down the stairs and land on the part of the body where the stack is installed.

I think that's an overstatement. It takes something more like a weapon blast or a super-strength crushing or something more than ordinary accident. Remember, Rei told Kovacs that her stack survived being in an exploding shuttle. I think she was lying and survived by backing up, maybe, but the fact that he found the story credible indicates that stacks have been known to survive some fairly severe shocks.

And really, if stacks were as fragile as you suggest, then that would've obviated the whole need for the evil plot to fake religious coding so dead people's stacks couldn't be spun up to testify. The impression I got was that the reason stack death felt so commonplace in the show is because the story focused so heavily on trained killers fighting with heavy weapons, which made the odds of stack destruction much higher than they'd be for civilians in everyday life.
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