Altered Carbon is Netflix’s latest Sci-Fi series about the cost of eternal life. In this world, you can buy new or cloned bodies and can spend multiple lifetimes accruing wealth or living in poverty. With so many interesting personalities developed across a centuries-long war, it’s a little surprising that the best character is technically a hotel.
Altered Carbon is classic Cyberpunk, a subgenre of Science Fiction in a futuristic setting that focus on technology that features an advancement like AI or cybernetics that’s juxtaposed by a breakdown in radical change of the social order. In a film noir, aesthetic Altered Carbon explores what it means to be human.
Will a technology that brings eternal life set humans free or is it merely deepening the divide in social inequality and wealth?
Our hero is Takeshi Kovacs, who is brought back to life after being in storage for over 250 years to solve a murder.
Eternal life is made possible by being able to transfer your consciousness to a stack, a disk implanted at the base of your skull. If your stack gets damaged you will experience ‘real death’, meaning your consciousness will be destroyed and you can’t be reanimated into a new body or sleeve. If your sleeve or the current body you inhabit dies, you’ll need the money to buy a new sleeve. The more money you’ve got, the more bells and whistles your sleeve will come with.
In a world where consciousness is king, Artificially Intelligent beings are disregarded as soulless and empty.
Kovac decides to stay in an AI hotel. The Raven Hotel is themed around Edgar Allan Poe, an artificial intelligence whose body is the hotel. The walls, beds and light fixtures are all extensions of Poe; if you break a glass, he feels pain. The hotel’s original creators programmed AIs with a desire to fulfill guests needs that frankly borders on sexual. During our introduction to Poe at the end of episode 1, we hear an insult slung at Poe: “Shut up you digi brain piece of sh*t, my microwave is smarter than you”.
What immediately makes Poe such a multidimensional character is his unabashed display of real human emotions.
During the gunfight that inevitably follows the insult, the hotel comes to the defense of Kovac and we see Chris Connor who plays Poe is a master of displaying desperation at wanting to please his guest and the following gratification. It’s all done through subtle facial expressions and body language. The character and the actor did not disappoint.
Within minutes of meeting Poe, you see desire followed by gratification. He even goes a little overboard taking revenge on someone Kovac wanted to keep alive.
In this world, AI’s have autonomy and even have their own union, a sorted bunch of characters that don’t love humans and are a sophisticated evolution of how humans should actually fear AI. Not the way AI is currently portrayed on TV, as soon as it gains consciousness it’s going to rise up and kill all humans.
Instead, Poe meets up with the AIs who used to run hotels but have since moved on to other endeavors. In the 50 years Poe has been absent from his contemporaries, unable to pay his AI hotel union dues, they’ve switched to an AI management group, reflecting on how their business has diversified from hotels to other services.
The other AIs embody what humanity today fears AI will become. Pricker runs an AR sexperience club (or virtual brothel). Occasionally he uses real humans to make the virtual sex recordings rather than digital recreations of humans for the recordings. “You’ve got to get out of the business of serving humans, and into the business of serving up humans”.
“They’re not like us Poe, they’re a lesser form of life.”
He is so deeply disturbed by the group’s desire to take advantage of humans, as the study of humanity is one of his greatest aspirations. Poe’s affection for humans and humanity stands in stark contrast to a more developed idea of why humans should be wary of AI, further endears his character to us.
Altered Carbon is based on a book, and The Raven hotel and the Edgar Allan Poe theme are liberties taken by Netflix. In the novel, it’s a Jimi Hendrix themed property which wouldn’t have gone with the same noir theme the rest of the storyline follows. If memories of high school English class haven’t failed me, Kovac’s character holds true to many of Poe’s literary creations. A hero punishing societies low lifes and the opulent upper class is a theme found in several of his tales.
Poe is the perfect Watson in this detective story. Despite the plot twists all the other characters in Altered Carbon are obvious and one dimensional in their character development.
Like Blade Runner 2019, it is Altered Carbon’s most artificial character that is its most human.
When faced with the question of what makes someone or something human, it’s ironic that we look to the AI hotel for answers.