Altered Carbon Has All of Cyberpunk’s Worst Sins

The new series demonstrates the best aesthetics of cyberpunk, but all of the genre’s sins.

Cyberpunk is one of the most incredible genres. It’s gritty, messy, sweaty – and absolutely stunning. Cyperpunk is captivating in that it gives a glimpse into the future, where often the idea of amorality meets high tech possibilities. It explores the very worst people with the very best capabilities. Altered Carbon is a stunning cyberpunk product, but it falls short in all of the expected ways.

Altered Carbon is an engaging enough watch. The aesthetics are as curious and spectacular as you’d expect from such an example of sci-fi. The concept itself is compelling enough too. The idea of immorality, of people simply being given new bodies (or ‘sleeves’) when they die and their consciousness being transferred across is fascinating to explore. There is a strong thread of class divide too. The rich get whatever sleeves they want, while working class people are given scraps and can’t even get hospital care unless they can pay. Beyond its concept, the show begins to fall down.

“Beyond its concept, the show begins to fall down. “

Part of one of its major failings is largely due to the medium the story is told. The main character is Asian – or should be – but his consciousness is transferred into a white body. In text, the impact of this, of having an identity stripped away, can be explored with a greater depth of narrative. On a screen, it simply results in the main character being turned white. Never has there been such a literal case of white-washing in a show. This draws questions about whether the story should have been adapted in this way, or whether the backstory should have been given far greater prominence. Over the years, cyberpunk has drawn criticisms with erasing Asian representation from its stories.

All too often, sci-fi treats race as though it is irrelevant (unless it comes to exploring how aliens oppress white humans). Altered Carbon places itself alongside such terrible representation, and does nothing to further the genre. It feels more like what a 90s show could have been than what any show should be.

It’s endlessly frustrating when actually women of colour do feature throughout. Yet, their stories are still largely subservient to Kovacs (in his white body). They’re used sparingly. Reileen (Dichen Lachman) is sidelined until late in the season, despite immediately being one of the best characters as soon as she’s given any lines. Ortega (Martha Higareda) is the other star of the show. However, she’s used largely to give Kovacs a love interest after his grief. She is his reason to hope again. Her biggest storyline is almost dying so that he can save her. This is not empowering – or even, good – writing. Every woman’s story in this show is determined by their value to a man.

More tropes are employed to further men’s storylines at the expense of women. It was predictable, and utterly disheartening, that yet again storylines with sex workers only were used as an excuse to depict violence. Sex workers are rarely allowed their own story and in Altered Carbon’s case, sex work was treated as one dimensionally as if Julie Bindel had written the script. It felt as though the show wanted a seedy vibe and yet could only stretch to thinking of sex work; which has awfully whorephobic and narrow connotations with it.

The trauma of a sex worker – Lizzie – is used time and again. We see her broken consciousness. We must witness her father’s pain. That is his story, but we don’t truly get to see Lizzie’s story until towards the end. The series just gives us what men see, what pain they are in and what they are going through. Eventually, Lizzie does get to become a stand out character, but her strength came from a mess of a storyline the writers were having to clean up. They could have delivered so much more with the character just by writing better stories about sex workers.

Altered Carbon is fascinating to watch, if only because cyberpunk worlds in TV like this are rare. But it shouldn’t be devoid of criticism, just because content that looks like this is sparse. It still carries all of the old baggage of cyberpunk. It does little to want to tell a new story and that’s the most disappointing thing about the series. It could have been anything it wanted, in a world that is fascinating, and it chose the same old white, bland, male tale in a world inspired by people of colour. Don’t let Black Panther’s success fool you. Science fiction is still a white universe.

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One thought on “Altered Carbon Has All of Cyberpunk’s Worst Sins

  1. I just read an article discussing just this subject of how white people are invisible in movies. Race is never discussed in films with mostly white casts, and race doesn’t impact their lives. There is never any examination of white peoples impact on the lives of PoC (and frankly, just never enough PoC in these stories.)
    Since so many of the industries in which stories are disseminated throughout society are owned and controlled by white men, the only lens through which people get to know the world is through theirs. (This is slowly beginning to change, but not without a lot of pushback, and that’s not new.) The only views of race we get our through the lens of white men and they try really hard to never acknowledge it, for the most part. (*See my latest post for a list of these articles.)

    Liked by 1 person

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