What will happen in the future, when we can disconnect our minds from our bodies?
The science fiction novel by Richard K. Morgan and its Netflix adaptation, Altered Carbon, takes a unique approach to this question. It presents us with a bleak vision of what life would be like if we could achieve immortality by discarding our current bodies in favor of new ones, over and over again. In this fictional future, a person’s consciousness is stored in their “stack,” the hardware that they can then “sleeve” in a new body.
Of course, this is a business, and a new body is a luxury not everyone can afford. But the wealthiest are able to transfer their stacks into clones specially grown for them. Being able to pick and choose what you’ll look is more than a fashion statement, as looking a certain way can also help you get ahead in life.
The protagonist Takeshi Kovacs is re-sleeved in a new body after spending over 200 years in cryosleep. He’s then tasked with solving the murder of a “meth” — a Methuselah, named after the character in the Bible who lived 1,000 years. This meth, Laurens Bancroft, has been re-sleeved in a new clone of himself, but he has no memory of the murder of his former body — he must have been killed just before his stack was backed up.
I’ve already reviewed the book here, and I won’t be reviewing it or the Netflix television series here. What I’m more interested in is looking at how the story explores our connection with the human body.
Sins of the Body, Redemption of the Soul
Altered Carbon doesn’t offer us the most realistic vision of the future. Why re-sleeve your mind in a weak, aging human body, when you could just put it in a super-powered synth? But this world explores the value of the human body, which I found really intriguing for science fiction.
We have historically viewed our bodies as the houses of our souls. Whatever our spiritual or religious beliefs are these days, the idea of mind and body belonging to the same individual is all we really know. That’s why Catholics in Altered Carbon have special coding in their stacks, which makes it impossible to spin them back up into a new body. For them, when the body dies, the stack — or the soul — dies with it. That has all kinds of ramifications, such as Catholic murder victims not being able to be re-sleeved so they can report their murderers. You can guess who the most common murder victims are, then.
The show and especially the novel are also filled with things like drugs, advertisements that assault the senses, and sins of the flesh. You could program a synth to experience a lot of this, but why would you? Programming pleasure is one thing, but many pleasures could be considered weaknesses. For instance, when Kovacs is harassed by titillating advertisements on public streets, you feel relief when Ortega tosses him an ad blocker that restores his dignity. There’s something unique about the human body being vulnerable to certain physical needs and reactions.
How Much of Romance is Just Pheromones?
My favorite exploration of this theme is the physical chemistry between two people. On the one hand, the character Miriam Bancroft has imbued her clones with a special drug that is secreted when she’s aroused, allowing her and her sexual partner to intensely feel what the other is feeling. In this way, physical chemistry is heightened (and could even be forged) through synthetic means.
On the other hand, the protagonist Takeshi Kovacs ends up romantically involved with Kristin Ortega, a cop who was in love with the man whose body Kovacs is currently re-sleeved in. Though completely different people, both Kovacs and the man who lived in this body before him, Elias Ryker, have a similar physical chemistry with Ortega. Maybe it’s pheromones. And isn’t that sort of physicality important in a romantic relationship that includes sex?
In this society that treats bodies as replaceable, it’s an engaging twist to learn about Ortega’s affinity for Kovacs’ sleeve. She may be in love with Ryker’s mind first and foremost, but she’s protective of his body too. She’s even been paying the mortgage on his sleeve — until Bancrofts outbid her and housed Kovacs’ stack in it. One scene shows her tracing the scars on the body, telling Kovacs the story of how Ryker obtained each one. It’s a sweet moment that reinforces the connection humans have for their bodies, and how they can reveal our individual histories when we value them enough to keep them.
Judging a Book by its Cover
We humans also have a habit of judging people based on appearances. In one scene in the Netflix adaptation, we see a woman, just re-sleeved, who seems confused and skittish. We then learn that she is just a child, who has been sleeved in the body of a grown woman because that’s all that was available. This transfer must cause all kinds of psychological stress on the poor little girl, who the world will now see as an adult at first glance — and probably a mentally deficient or unstable one, based on her “childish” behaviors.
Meanwhile, Laurens Bancroft at one point explains why he has chosen to clone himself as a middle-aged man rather than someone younger. This, he says, is the age at which a man commands respect.
But what of his son, who is decades (if not centuries) old, but housed in the body of a late teenager? He acts out like a rebellious youth, but that’s because the world sees him that way based on his appearance. Beyond that, having a father who never dies means he is never able to progress to the next stage of life — of becoming head of the family, for instance. At some point, we learn that his rebel behavior is just an act, as he has secretly been re-sleeving himself in a clone of his dad. His father would disapprove, but it’s his only way of looking older and, in turn, being able to act older and reap the respect he craves at his real age.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of body-swapping is gender-swapping. Being “cross-sleeved” in a body of the opposite sex is common for people who can barely afford a sleeve as it is. There’s a great scene in the show of Ortega’s grandmother coming back for a day to celebrate Day of the Dead with her family — sleeved in the tattooed body of a middle-aged man. That same sleeve reappears later as a male villain, and you can see the change in mood, manners, and even accent from abuela to bad guy.
And what happens to romance when bodies and even sexes are changed? We see this in the Netflix show, when Kovacs’ friend Elliot is reunited with his wife, Ava, after she was imprisoned. The only catch is that she’s been re-sleeved in the body of a man. It takes a moment for Elliot to recognize her — who can blame him? — but their love doesn’t care what body she’s in. The strangest thing here, for me, was that as soon as I knew this male actor I saw onscreen — this man — was actually a female character, I had no trouble seeing him as a woman. I hesitate to even saw “him” here, because from then on, the character was Ava Elliot, woman, mother, wife, hacker. Her body hardly mattered. Even so, by the end of the show, Ava is happy to be reunited with her former sleeve, to be herself again.
Changing Bodies Like Changing Clothes
All of this body-swapping makes the idea of attachment to a body worrisome. Altered Carbon may depict a world where people in general are still connected to the feelings of the flesh, but the individual body you’re in may not be so important. One of the prostitutes Kovacs encounters describes women in the whorehouse being killed, and then their stacks being re-sleeved in nicer, sexier bodies, with the same frivolity someone today might describe changing their hair color or putting on a new dress.
But our bodies are still connected to who we are, at least in our physical reactions to things. A scene in the novel shows Kovacs at that same brothel, pretending to be a woman cross-sleeved. He has to fight his masculine responses to the prostitute he talks to, and to the chemicals they push through the room to arouse him, in order to pass as a straight woman. It’s a strange struggle, but it seems that no matter the sex of a person’s current body, their mind still acts as their original gender, male or female.
Interestingly, the Elliots’ daughter Lizzie has suffered physical traumas and spends time in virtual leaning to defend herself. She becomes a martial arts badass, gets her revenge, and then decides to keep a synth body instead of re-sleeving in a human one. She’s able to shapeshift this way, and chooses to retain her original appearance. But I found it intriguing that after what she’s been through, she feels stronger in a body that’s not actually human.
Feminine Strength in Many Forms
Despite enjoying the book more than the show in many ways, I truly appreciated the Netflix adaptation’s inclusion of well-rounded female characters. The novel is very masculine, for lack of a better word, and the women are either prostitutes or side characters who Kovacs ends up sleeping with. (Even my favorite character, Ortega, ends up sleeping with Kovacs, though at least there’s a romantic history with his sleeve to justify it.)
But in the Netflix adaptation, Ortega is a much more fleshed-out character. We get to see her sans Kovacs, with her family, discussing Catholicism and the politics of re-sleeving that affect her greatly as a cop.
I also appreciate the addition of characters like Quell, a former activist against stacks and meths. Though dead, she appears in Kovacs’ mind and flashbacks as both his mentor and lover, which was a unique combination. Meanwhile, the appearance of his sister Rei rounds out the female cast even more; though her storyline was a little much for me, it was interesting to see her troubled history, her deep bond with Kovacs, and just how kickass (and dangerous!) she has become since she last saw her brother centuries ago.
The fact that we also get to see women like Ava Elliot and Ortega’s grandmother come to life in male sleeves is equally enlightening. It may be male actors nabbing those roles, but with the unique challenge of expressing the feminine through a male mask.
Holding on to Humanity
For a story that depicts so many sins of the flesh — the noir story takes place in dingy corners like strip clubs and whorehouses — it’s interesting to explore a future so connected with the human body. Maybe it’s more realistic to see a future world where we upload ourselves into synths, or computers, or share a consciousness via the internet. Maybe we’ll become so disconnected with our human bodies that we’ll have a completely new system of behaviors and values.
But Altered Carbon doesn’t care about that. It offers something more curious: a future that holds on to the human body as a commodity. You can swap it out, change genders, enjoy physical pleasures and be weakened by them. Though you remain who you are because of your mind, you retain much of your humanity through flesh.