Netflix review: Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon is – somewhat incredibly – Richard K Morgan’s debut novel. The combination of cyberpunk SF and detective noir hits a particularly sweet spot: representing in some ways an updating Bladerunner, and standing as a modern day classic for many. I was a latecomer to the series; I think that I picked AC up in 2015, but on reading AC I wasn’t surprised in the least to hear that the book had been optioned. Morgan’s descriptions of Takeshi Kovacs’ world felt ripe for the reaping.

What did surprise me, though, was the Morgan’s book had in fact been optioned all the way back in 2002. Reportedly for a very healthy sum, AC was picked up by Joel Silver, but sadly entered “development hell”. And there it sat….

Until news surfaced last year that Netflix was working on a serialised version of the book. This was pretty awesome news: Netflix is fast developing a powerhouse of quality SF and superhero drama. I hoped that Altered Carbon was in safe hands. Still, given how much I love Morgan’s Kovacs series, it was hard not to feel some trepidation as I settled down to view episode one…

Altered Carbon is the story of Takeshi Kovacs; a former Envoy, and described as a freedom fighter, a terrorist and a mercenary. He dies fighting on Stronghold, only to be awakened – or, in this universe, “re-sleeved” – in a new body. Lightyears from home, now on Earth, Kovacs is in the employ of Laurens Bancroft. He is a “Meth”: one of the super-rich, capable of living forever through re-sleeving technology. Bancroft has been killed, though. Now he wants Kovacs to find the identity of his killer…

I’m pleased to say that Netflix has done a good thing with Altered Carbon. This is how a SF series is supposed to be. It handles the book very well, and manages a faithful representation of the series. Although there are some adaptations of Kovacs background, these didn’t really concern me: everything felt just right. It gave me the same reaction as the 2004 Battlestar Galactica (a series that would probably find a home on Netflix, were it to be produced in 2017).

Takeshi Kovacs is a fan favourite, and his portrayal in the Netflix series is handled well. The choice to have the character played by multiple actors was a bold one: potentially threatening to alienate the casual viewer. However, the flashback sequences are plotted well, threading the series, providing explanation for Kovacs’ multiple bodies. Joel Kinnaman owns the role, but he lends it to the other Kovacs from time to time.

Meanwhile, the production values are really outstanding. This is nothing new for a Netflix original (not any more, at least – just check out The Expanse), but here everything feels exceptionally polished. The days of the small screen as an inferior cousin of the big screen are long-passed; from the glittering high rise of Bay City, to the alien environ of Stronghold – everything is familiar, but at the same time different.

The series also highlights the clever writing choice made by Morgan in the AC series. Kovacs might be a hard-ass with Envoy training, but he is also an alien to modern-day Bay City. He died 350 years ago on a colony world lightyears from Earth; he is as much a stranger to the planet as we are to this new future. This decision allows Morgan to explore the world through Kovacs’ eyes, imbuing the grimy world with a sense of wonder as Kovacs goes down in the rabbit hole in the course of his investigation.

Altered Carbon is an impressive piece of work, and very thankfully the book has lost neither its charm nor its edge in translation to serial. I’m very keen to see where series two will go: there’s certainly a lot more material to work with in Broken Angels and Woken Furies.

2 thoughts on “Netflix review: Altered Carbon

  1. Agree with you on all points except one – The Expanse is a Syfy original, not a Netflix one.

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