Altered Carbon Guide

Altered Carbon has finally been adapted for television and the entire first season hits Netflix this Friday. It’s impossible for many folks to watch the trailers, which depict a colorful, futuristic cyberpunk adventure, and not immediately think of Blade Runner, but this show is based on a novel and that novel is very much its own beast.

Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon surprised everyone upon its release back in 2002, with a story that combines a future aesthetic with some incredible action sequences and a decidedly noir atmosphere. It doesn’t hurt that this sci-fi world is just familiar enough to our own to make us curious about what’s changed…and what people have become.

The basic plot is this: an ex-con named Takeshi Kovacs is brought back from jail to find out who was responsible for the death of one Laurens Bancroft. Standard stuff, right? But there’s a cyberpunk twist. The jail Kovas is brought back from is actually a stack of servers where his consciousness was being stored, and the man who hires him to solve the case is none other than Bancroft, the very same man who was killed.

Whoa.

Altered Carbon Sleeves

The Die Die Man

In this future, death isn’t permanent. Your consciousness now lies in an implant at the base of your neck, and you can be brought back to life in a brand new body as many times as you want (provided you have the money). Kovacs has been in storage for a long time without a body, basically put on stasis until he served his time. In this world, those who commit heinous crimes have their minds stuck in a data center and left alone for decades, maybe even centuries. Takeshi Kovacs had committed one of those, but Laurens Bancroft wants someone with his unique skills to find out who killed him. Or rather, who killed his previous body.

The police think that Bancroft, who happens to be the richest person on Earth, simply committed suicide. Bancroft doesn’t think it likely, as he has a back-up and there would have been no reason to attempt it. He thinks someone is after him, and wants Kovacs to find them.

Even though we’re going to get 10 episodes to help soak in all of the details, there are a number of phrases and concepts that could help you navigate this wild world. There are no real spoilers to be found here – just a look at the futuristic terms you can expect to hear when the show hits. Here’s what you need to know.

Altered Carbon Kovacs

The Altered Carbon Glossary

Cortical stack: This is an implant that gets put in the back of your neck and stores what makes you, you. You get one when you’re a baby and it basically makes you immortal. You are downloaded onto the stack and can be implanted into a new body. Your body can die, but your consciousness will remain unless something happens to the stack itself. Not everyone gets one and some groups, like Catholics, are opposed to them entirely. Their religion believes that you don’t go to heaven until you die, and you need to actually be able to die in order to that do that. So they have the equivalent of a D.N.R., which makes everyone else think they’re crazy. This policy has led them being targeted by the criminal element, as anyone looking for prey could do worse than gun down a victim that won’t come back to life to identify his or her murderer.

Sleeves: Sleeves are people! As the name implies, this is a world where you are not your body anymore. You are a consciousness that just wears a “sleeve,” and they’re interchangeable. When you get a new sleeve, there’s a big adjustment as you get everything working correctly, adjusting to the movement and habits of the previous owner (Kovacs’ new sleeve has a smoking addiction and he feels it nagging him). People with less money can opt for a synthetic sleeve and become an android, but they are treated like second-class citizens. There’s also a fair bit of dirty play going on in this business, with richer people able to buy the sleeves of people in the stack, leaving someone having to buy back their old familiar body when they come back.

Meth: This doesn’t refer to drugs anymore. This derogatory word is used for rich people who can keep buying new sleeves, much like Bancroft. Meths typically switch to young bodies long before they’ve worn out their current ones, which is distinctly different from the rest of the population. Most people live out their entire lives before reupping, or getting put into storage until they have money to get a new sleeve. The name Meth comes from Methuselah, the biblical figure who lived to 969 years old. You don’t want to call someone this name.

Neuro-chem: Some sleeves have neuro-chem sensors that can help greatly amplify their five senses, affording them greater strength or intelligence when needed. This is not a common upgrade, but they are greatly valued, as they give you a huge leg up in this new ethereal existence.

Needlecasting: This is the way humanity has gotten around faster than light ravel. Rather than simply travelling around the universe on spaceships, your consciousness can be beamed over to a new location, where it’ll just be fitted with a new sleeve. This is a super-quick way to travel, but it has its own drawbacks, since you’ll be forced to contend with figuring out the new body. It was soon realized how hard it would be to conduct wars with soldiers sent via needlecast, so it was decided to create a new breed of soldier in order to combat the confusion and realignment that comes from the resleeving process.

Altered Carbon UN

U.N. Envoy: Kovas is an ex-Envoy. They’re basically space marines, soldiers trained to withstand the mental and physical pressures that come from frequent reskinning. They are equipped with Neuro-chems that give them superior senses and have been trained extensively in torture techniques. Since your consciousness can be plugged into a virtual world and exposed to all manner of bad things in a greatly diminished frame of time (months can pass in seconds in VR),  they undergo rigorous desensitisation training. They have perfect memories with total recall and their senses can pick up the slightest aberrations in human behavior, all the better to locate their targets. They also have been wiped of most human emotions, so they have no morals or feelings of guilt. With this mindset and their abilities from the neurochems, they are basically superhuman and distrusted by many civilians. Most planets refuse to allow them as members of their governments.

RD: “Real death.” There’s no coming back from this. It can only be done by destroying the stack in someone’s neck and it’s considered the worst crime you can commit in a world where people can live forever. Laser guns can provide people with the means to burn out a victim’s neck and stack, taking life for real, which can be handy since almost every crime can be traced back to you by the victim.

Harlan’s World: This is where Kovas comes from. It’s a little planet 186 light years from Earth, filled with mostly Japanese and Slavic settlements and governed by the eponymous Harlan Family. It’s a small place that’s looked down upon after a war in which the natives tried to fight back against the Protectorate.

The Protectorate: The common name for the U.N., which is still the United Nations from today’s world, just modified to cover all human colonies around space. As with any massive republic, it has its detractors, especially among people who would rather be on their own.

Martians: Yep, turns out they were real. That Bradbury guy could have told you that. Despite what humans call them, they’re a long-dead alien race who wasn’t actually from Mars to begin with. Still, their artifacts helped humanity figure out where to head next, and they took off to the stars soon after.

Altered Carbon

And There’s More

One great thing about Altered Carbon is that there’s plenty more of Richard K. Morgan’s creation to mine for future seasons if the show is well-received. The next two books in what’s known as the Takeshi Kovacs series are Broken Angels and Woken Furies. It’s a great series, and both sequels reveal a lot more of the history of this universe while explaining a bit more about Kovacs’ past. The great thing with having an immortal lead character is that long jumps into the future are possible, leaving the show open to be continued indefinitely.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: