Altered Carbon – Message vs Medium

This post is going to be all over the place, apologies in advance.

I finished Altered Carbon this weekend.  Solid series and recommended, though there are caveats.  There will be some spoilers, but I’ll advise.


I want to start here because I think Lost hit a social nerve for those interested in TV + serial + mystery + fantasy/sci-fi.  Seasons 1, 2, and 4 were solid high points for me and if you ignore seasons 3 & 6, it could be seen as the “bar” for others to achieve.

What really sets this one apart from other series is that the characters each had their own motivations, mutliple layers of depth, and each moved the story forward through their consistent actions (minus Kate).  That’s just good storytelling.  Furhter helping is that it was set in a giant web of complex stories and rules, which each episode exposed a bit more – then waited an entire week for people to discuss and digest.

Sci-fi books are similar, in that it takes time to read them – time to digest what is on the page.  This part is important.

Ghost in the Shell

The manga is awesome.  The animated movie is foundational to pretty much every sci-fi movie of the past 20 years.  The core concepts of “what is the human soul” still has no answer, and we’re ~20 years from that being a reality.  It’s near-mandatory in order to watch Altered Carbon, and understand what’s going on.

Message & Medium

Some may be familiar with the saying that the “message is the medium”, a statement I think is even more relevant today.  The message is the story, the what.  The medium is the mechanism to tell the story, the how.  I could write an article on global warming, with factual references and logical thought – or I could put a 140 character tweet blaming it on the chinese government.  Apparently the latter has as much weight as the former.

Altered Carbon is a sci-fi film noir.  This means that it’s heavy on flashbacks, emotional relationships doomed for failure, confrontation, and a complex story line.  There are plenty of tropes in this place, but AltC does a solid job of not using that as a crutch.

My gripe with Netflix and the proliferation of binge watching is that the medium is subverted.  Altered Carbon is 10 episodes, and to digest the amount of message in these episodes takes time.  Hard to do when one episode ends and the next automatically starts after 5 seconds.  It means there are pieces that you barely have time to grasp and I found myself rewinding to key dialogue where I thought I saw something important.  In fact, I ended up watching the entire series with close captions to force me to pay more attention to details.

If you do end up watching it, I suggest you don’t watch more than 2 episodes back to back for that reason.

Netflix Series

It would seem to me that Netflix has a framework to series.  They are 8-10 long.  They has a pilot / intro that throws everything at the wall with little depth.  They have an entire episode dedicated to a flashback.  The penultimate episode is the best.  The last 15 minutes of the series are meant to set up the next one.  Most conflicts will end with a fight.

I dislike this formula.  I know why it exists – it has math to prove that it works.  I still dislike it.  Altered Carbon suffers for it.  It should have been cut by 2 episodes and the last episode was all exposition.  Ugh.

Series Overall

The concept is solid.  People are immortal due to technology keeping their “soul” intact, and they can interchange their physical bodies.  Any body.  It makes people, as we in 2018 understand the concept, be disposable.  There’s one scene in particular that I thought crossed a line, without enough forewarning.  Given the characters engaged, they also didn’t act as expected, which should have been righteous fury.

The series does a passable job explaining how these stacks were found, and of course it’s a mysterious extinct civilization.  Enough to say “there are reasons”, and enough to say “we’ll get to this later”.  It’s a bit too much like the Hyperion Cantos.  Could be better, and may be better in the books.

The concept of immortality & absolute power is not only hinted, but explicitly drawn upon.  Religious tones are throughout but not adequately explored except through fear.  It’s a simple fact that all life descends towards chaos over time – it requires energy and effort to apply order.  How those systems conflict with each other is a core concept of this series and it does an ok job at it.

The main plot point takes a detour, but a good one.  The world at hand has depth and complexity.  It shows potential for a Neuromancer type of sub-plot… in creating a heck of a monster.   There are some very good questions that come from this but there’s not enough depth by the end of it.  It is smart in that they avoid the Deus Ex Machina trope, but they don’t close that loop at the end of the series.

There are red herrings all over the place.  The reveal of the real bad guy isn’t obvious, even if you go back in previous episodes.  That part is well written.  The final reveal is exposition, and much too long.  The last 15 minutes are cringeworthy and wholley designed to set up a next series.

I do recommend the series, if only so we can get more complex sci-fi in front of people’s eyes.  There are hiccups, and the target audience is wider than a sci-fi crowd so there’s some dilution in complex ideas.  I’ll be posting more on the ideas presented within, over the next few weeks.


Reileen’s character arc is broken, or perhaps not exposed sufficiently.  Her methods make absolutely no sense given her stated goals.  It’s clear from the start that Tak protects himself from attachments, as much for him as for others.  Reileen is pure evil, revolting.  She is also underdevlopped given that she is by far the most powerful person in the entire story.

Oumou is so greasy that it is not possible to feel any pity for her fall from grace.  Her attempt at redemption makes no sense given the lack of development.

Ortega makes some smart moves most of the time, and is our tie to humanity.  She makes a near fatal mistake that would be out of character if not for the fact that she was abandoned by all her support team before that point.

Tak is an odd one.  There’s a lot of depth and complexity here.  He’s very smart and has heightened senses.. but rarely uses them.  He’s trained to take advantage of people, but doesn’t.  His main driver is love for people, but it’s one he actively avoids.  It’s weird.  Like if you watched Batman solve a crime but only as Bruce Wayne.

Lizzie is a problem, or the solution.  What her arc brought to the table was omnipotence.  It wasn’t explored, but it wasn’t closed either.  Either she is removed from the story line moving forward, or people realize that she’s the next step of human evolution.




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