The reason people will tell you they like things that are cyberpunk is that it’s science fiction that feels more realistic than say, the hard-to-define genre of “space opera.” This binary line of thinking will usually declare that Star Wars is for babies and Blade Runner is for adults. While there is a phantom of a truism here, adaptations of cyberpunk in TV and film are in the same feedback-loop as nostalgia-laden science fiction like Star Wars or Star Trek. Meaning, Netflix’s Altered Carbon possesses the same baggage as Blade Runner 2049; in trying to nail the cyberpunk aesthetic, it’s turned cyberpunk into a consumer product, effectively declawing the genre’s entire aim.
On February 3, 2018, Netflix released its new series Altered Carbon, based on the Richard Morgan novel of the same name. Right out of the gate, the reviews have been mixed. Some say it’s too violent, some say the concept of an Asian man’s consciousness being transferred to a white guy’s body is racist and just as problematic as the whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell. All of these discussions are interesting, but they don’t yield the most important question. Why was any of this made at all and who is it for? If it’s made for people who have never heard of cyberpunk, that’s okay. But why not bother updating the aesthetic a little?
To be clear, Altered Carbon is nominally entertaining. But, for those who have read a cyberpunk book ever, nothing about this seems remotely new or edgy. If you’re a fan of the 2002 Richard Morgan novel on which all of this is based, it stands to reason you’re a fan of the novels Morgan was influenced by, too. By his own admission in 2002, Morgan “just ransacked the genre and made off with the goods,” in terms of borrowing concepts that had been embedded in aspects of science fiction for several decades. The sci-fi concept central to Altered Carbon is pretty much the same one the pervades Ghost in the Shell, or for that matter, a Kurt Vonnegut story called “Unready to Wear.” In the world of Altered Carbon, humans can get newly grown bodies called “sleeves” into which they download their consciousnesses.
The fact that Morgan didn’t invent this idea is again, something he admitted, and, it’s really not the big of a deal in the world of science fiction in general. As the late Ursula K. Le Guin said, stealing ideas inside of science fiction is common, and kind of part of the game: “we could steal from one another quite freely, not in the plagiarizing sense, but in the ideas and how-to-do-something sense.” And so, Morgan built Altered Carbon from the kinds of ideas present in everything from old Star Trek episodes to William Gibson’s watershed cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer. None of this is bad at all, and arguably, there’s nothing wrong with Altered Carbon reminding people on Netflix that cyberpunk was and is a really great sub-genre of science fiction.
Is it bad that Blade Runner 2049 reminded people that the dreams and memories of hard-boiled Replicants sure are really confusing? No. But this cyberpunk schtick is getting a little old. Even the director of Blade Runner 2049 copped to the fact that the movie isn’t really a contemporary work of science fiction, but instead, a kind of post-modern extension of the first film. “It’s an extension of the first Blade Runner. It’s not an extension of reality,” Denis Villeneuve said on the Blu-ray of Blade Runner 2049. “The first Blade Runner was an extension of the end of the ‘70s.”
The reason why the aesthetic of cyberpunk was so revolutionary in the ‘70s and ‘80s is that it helped science fiction find its footing in the mainstream. In writing about The Matrix in 2003, science fiction author David Brin summed it up best
“In retrospect, the Cyberpunk Movement was probably the finest free promotion campaign ever waged on behalf of science fiction. Brilliantly managed, and backed by some works of estimable value, it snared and reeled in countless new readers, while opening fresh opportunities in Hollywood and the visual arts…the cyberpunk rebels did shake things up, we owe them a debt.”
But that revolution is long over, and now low-life/high-tech vibe people associate with cyberpunk is just the visual default setting for new, hip science fiction. Which, despite looking “cool,” isn’t really that forward facing.
The intellectually worrisome tick with filmed sci-fi like Altered Carbon, Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell is that it all looks the same. When William Gibson described his dirty down-and-out “Night City” in Neuromancer it felt original in 1984, because no one had meshed the imagery of noir with science fiction quite like that before. Also, no one had heard of the term “cyberspace” until Gibson invented it either. But, in the opening moments of Altered Carbon, when someone touches a window that seems to depict a tropical landscape, only to reveal it’s just a holo projection and the world beyond is dark and rainy, it scans as laughable. Are we really supposed to buy any of this?
Altered Carbon and Blade Runner 2049 may contain some interesting futuristic ideas. But the way they visually depict that future is borrowing from nearly 40 years in the past. These aren’t future worlds built from pure speculation based on what is happening today, but instead, highly selective versions of a “gritty” future, which specifically wants desperately for you to be reminded of the original Blade Runner and older Gibson books, rather than challenge the viewer with anything new. (To be clear, Gibson’s newer books, like 2014’s multi-dimension novel, The Peripheral don’t rely on ‘80s cyberpunk, because Gibson is too smart to revisit an unrealistic anachronistic future.)
But, from the big-collared costume design to the preponderance of rain, to the clipped, noir dialogue, the edginess in Blade Runner 2049 or Altered Carbon is just replicated and copied from previous generations versions of science fiction. These worlds look great, but they looked just is good in 1982 when Ridley Scott filmed them, or in 1984 when Gibson’s prose rocked so many people’s worlds.
What was once daring about cyberpunk is now mainstream. Which, is great in a sense for newcomers. But because the opening credits of Altered Carbon feature a giant cloned snake eating its tail, one wonders how long we’ll have to wait until mainstream science fiction starts to look a little different than it did for our parents.