Altered Carbon was always doomed

Richard Morgan’s novels are as shiny and flat as the Netflix tv adaptation.

Imagine somebody wrote a novel about the cat and the fiddle, and the cow that jumped over the moon. In fact, imagine somebody wrote a trilogy of novels, starring the luna leaping cow. Then imagine that Netflix turned the first novel into a 10 hour premium tv series, with Joel Kinnman — swiftly becoming this generation’s Christopher Lambert — as the cow.

If you’re really into the cat, fiddle and cow genre, if you’re MEGA excited by animals leaping over celestial bodies, you’ll be happy.

For everybody else, the experience of watching Altered Carbon is going to be about as enjoyable as 10 hours of kids nonsense poetry. You might have some patience for the first hour, but by episode 3 the audience will be desperate to jump ship.

“Altered Carbon takes the cliched tropes of cyberpunk, amputates any meaning attached them, and sells them back to cyberpunk fanboys.”

There’s a common saying that science fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about today. The cyborgs, AIs, FTLs and other invented ideas of SF are only as interesting as the METAPHORS they weave for the reality of life as lived. A science fiction story might star a robot, but it will only be compelling if that robot is telling us something real about being human.

Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and its sequels do not abide by this idea. They are genre fiction in the most generic sense, third generation “cyberpunk”, a copy of a copy of a William Gibson novel. But where Neuromancer was about the atomisation and alienation effects of technology on the human spirit, Altered Carbon is about nothing much more than how moving between cloned human bodies, or jacking a gun into your nervous system, are JUST TOTALLY RAD MAN. Altered Carbon takes the cliched tropes of cyberpunk, amputates any meaning attached them, and sells them back to cyberpunk fanboys.

Who are a conflicted group. Cyberpunk was largely a warning about the hypnotic allure of technology, tv screens and the internet. Cyberpunk fans are largely the people who have been hypnotised by those technologies. So the horrifying idea of humans having their limbs replaced with cybernetic implants is, to cyberpunks, a kind of fetishistic turn on. Cyberpunks, transhumanists and Silicon Valley dudebros dream of being uploaded into the mainframe, while the rest of us are increasingly sickened by the amount of time we have to spend staring into screens just to stay alive.

So the Netflix tv adaptation of Morgan’s novels was facing a tough task to be something more than shiny cyberpunk porn. The makers could have decided to reengineer the show into something deeper, and to give the cyberpunk metaphors some of their meaning back. But on the evidence of episode 1, they very much did not choose that direction.

Instead Altered Carbon looks to be a show in much the same category as The Expanse before it. A science fiction tv show, based on a book that always felt like it would be be a better tv show than a book, by writers who seem to know more about screen writing than novel writing, whose success was predicated on recycling ideas already popular with a core fandom. Altered Carbon looks nice, assuming you’re into a scifi aesthetic that looks like a hasty mashup of every other scifi aesthetic you’ve ever seen, but beneath the surface there’s really nothing much going on.

Get set for a whole bunch of similarly failed shows to come and go, as tv proucers desperately adapt every second and third rate scifi / fantasy novel written in the last 20 years in a quest for THE NEXT GAME OF THRONES. Altered Carbon isn’t the next GoT, and neither will adaptations of Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss. The real entertainment value in all this will be seeing how Hollywood still can’t tell the difference between great storytelling, and its hacked together knock-offs.