The predictable disappointments of Netflix's unambitious 'Altered Carbon'

Noah Berlatsky

Netflix's "Altered Carbon" is cyberpunk for people who don't want too much punk in their cyber. It’s a series about body swapping which is careful to never force its audience to think too much about bodies. The high concept evokes some of the themes and ideas of science fiction's most adventurous literature, even as it underlines how relatively tame the mainstream is when it comes to exploring gender, sexuality and identity.

The second season of "Altered Carbon," released by Netflix on Feb. 27, is set in a far future, in which alien technology has allowed humankind to digitize their consciousness and memory onto small, disc-like objects called "stacks." Stacks are inserted into the necks of human bodies, called “sleeves.” People can move from sleeve to sleeve with minimal discomfort, which means they can effectively live forever, as long as their stacks aren't destroyed.

In the series' first season, dangerous rebel Takeshi Kovacs, who has been in stasis without a sleeve for 300 years, is "spun up" and given a new body (Joel Kinnaman) to hunt down a murderer. He is successful and his past crimes are forgiven. The second season is set 30 years later, with Kovacs in a new sleeve (now played by Anthony Mackie) as he searches for his true love, the revolutionary leader Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry).

A world in which people can change bodies almost as easily as they change clothes would, you'd think, lead to a profound transformation in how society thinks about gender, sexuality and the self. Would it become normal for people to experiment with different genders, or would there be strong taboos against changing into a differently gendered sleeve? Pronoun conventions would need to be rethought: Do you use the pronouns for the stack? For the sleeve? Do those questions even make sense in a society where gender is a convenience? How is sexual orientation affected when you and the people you love can switch in and out of sleeves at a whim?

Richard K. Morgan's "Altered Carbon" novels are committed to not answering, or raising, any of these questions, and the television creators follow suit. The series sticks doggedly to its action tropes; the most important thing about any sleeve is not its gender, but its array of military upgrades. There are a few instances of gender swapping, but they are either involuntary mistakes, soon corrected, or gimmicky narrative tricks employed to surprise the viewer which are then quickly discarded. In the first season, there aren't even any LGBTQ characters. The second season features Simone Missick as Trepp, a lesbian bounty hunter, but there are still no trans people, nor any indication that anyone in this future universe is aware that trans people exist.

The elision of queer possibilities is striking because there's a long history of science fiction novelists such as Samuel Delany and Joanna Russ exploring the ways in which future societies might alter, melt and reconfigure sexuality and gender. Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel "The Left Hand of Darkness" imagines a planet where the human-descended inhabitants have only one gender — a change which affects everything in their world from folk tales to speed limits. Octavia Butler's 1987 "Dawn" is set in a post-apocalypse where humans have tentacle sex with third-gender aliens, resulting in new pleasures, anxieties and family structures. Ann Leckie's contemporary “Ancillary” series is about a society with gender preconceptions so different from ours that it's impossible to tell which characters we would consider male and which we'd consider female.

These books are all well-known and popular; “Ancillary Justice,” the first in Leckie's series, won the prestigious 2014 Hugo and Nebula awards. But they also represent a tradition that has had little purchase in science fiction’s film and television offerings. Star Wars and Star Trek, the dominant franchises in pop culture sci-fi, are both indebted to space opera and pulp serials, rather than to the more literary side of science fiction. Even supposedly experimental science fiction fare like last year's "Ad Astra" defaults to typical adventure narratives, complete with car chases and animal attacks. When Hollywood does look to high concept literature for inspiration, its go-to is Philip K. Dick, an author who, for all his brilliant experimentation in other areas, did not challenge gender roles much in his fiction.

Our current peak television moment may be changing this. Literary classics like "The Handmaid's Tale" have been adapted for television already, and Ava DuVernay is planning a series based on Butler's "Dawn." Black Mirror's fifth season episode "Striking Vipers" (featuring Anthony Mackie, as it happens) examines some of the sex and gender connotations of body swapping, though it still nervously forswears any connection to trans identities. It's taken some 50 years, but science fiction on the screen may finally be catching up to science fiction on the page.

"Altered Carbon" is a reminder that there's still a long way to go, though. Given the chance to examine how our bodies shape our sexuality, our genders and our societies, the series shrugs and puts its resources into choreographing another fight scene. The characters in "Altered Carbon" may be able to move from body to body at will, but genre tropes and preconceptions keep the writers and directors trapped in more limited structures. When you're stuck in one sleeve, it's hard to free your mind.