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Altered Carbon: violence and class

February 12, 2018

Altered Carbon is violent, but it's not about violence, and that's a shame.  In this cyberpunk future, there are things called stacks, which are implanted in the spine and record a person's entire consciousness, and things called sleeves, which are the human bodies these stacks are inserted into.  Takeshi Kovacs, last member of a failed revolution, is resleeved into a new body (different man, different race — and, apparently, a genetically engineered supersoldier with enhanced reflexes, bones, healing, etc.) by an immensely powerful and wealthy meth — one of the immortal 1%, his stack perpetually resleeved into clones of himself.  Takeshi Kovacs, is a master of violence, shooting, maiming, and killing his way through a series of gorgeous cyberpunk setpieces in pursuit of — well, something, who even really cares.


The point is that this overall setting allows for a really fascinating examination of violence and killing.  In particular, there is a sharp legal and social distinction between organic damage (damaging a sleeve) and real death (damaging a stack).  You can brutalize a body all you like — but as long as the stack can be resleeved, it's not murder.  But there's gruesome economic twist: sleeves are expensive.  For whatever reason, technology can't make the damn things cheaply (and if you're asking yourself where the trade in poor bodies is — the latest iteration of human trafficking — so am I), and hence when poor murder victims are resleeved, they are resleeved in the cheapest available flesh — a child's stack in the body of an elderly woman, or Detective Ortega's abuela (charming, hilarious, unrestrained) in the hulking body of a thug.  Thus, to paraphrase: the law, in its majestic equality, permits the rich and the poor to suffer organic damage — but only the rich can repair it.


But all these thorny issues are merely scenery.  Kovacs has an unlimited line of credit; his (working class?) semi-partner Detective Ortega never seems to worry about money.  And since they never feel the pinch, these distinctions — between organic damage and real death, between the violence you can afford to suffer and the violence you can't — never feels quite real.  And since Kovacs is almost universally set against ludicrously cruel and deranged villains, it's easy to think of them all as Bad Guys and thus deserving of whatever death Kovacs feels like doling out.


Here's a different way of putting it: imagine a Detective Ortega who actually is working-class and has grown up around working class people: for her, the distinctions between organic damage that heals normally, organic damage that requires repair or resleeving, and real death are all going to be vibrant and essential distinctions.  That is to say, these are socially relevant gradations of violence that everyone will be conversant with.  When she's roughing up a suspect, she can perform cruelty in the wiggle room between the second and the third level: "I can hurt you all I like, I can get you resleeved into a random broken-down body, and as long as I don't touch your stack, the review board won't say shit."  And, conversely, her enemies will be aware of the same distinctions: you can shoot at a cop, but if you hit them in the stack, the police will tear the neighborhood apart to get you.


Then when she comes across the ultra-rich, all the rules are different.  Any level of organic damage can be repaired.  Moreover, stacks are backed up remotely: even "real death" isn't quite so real to these people.  So they have entirely different norms concerning violence and what level of it is acceptable: a rich man might beat his son to death for some infraction, but it's not murder if the kid is backed up.  And this is the key thing that I think Altered Carbon misses (cf. especially the gladiators in episode ???): they're not wrong.  Things really do work differently for the rich; murder and violence really do have different definitions.  The harm comes when the rich impose their conceptions of violence on the poor (as obviously they would).


Anyways, the point is that I was really frustrated by Altered Carbon (even as I enjoyed it immensely!), because the world-building contained some really deep and interesting ideas worth exploring (i.e. the interplay between violence, technology, and wealth) that were given utterly superficial treatments ("immortality is bad because death gives life meaning!").  This I think is the level of philosophical depth we actually get from the series:

 

 

 

 

 

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