Altered Carbon is Deathist Propaganda

I spent a blustery Leap Day binge-watching the new season of Altered Carbon on Netflix. To be honest, I was lukewarm going in, as the first season left me feeling mostly ambivalent. The story was too convoluted, I didn’t feel much rapport with the characters, and I tend to zone out after so many gratuitous fight scenes and torture porn. And, yes, most of it was entirely gratuitous.


But my intuition implored me to give it a shot, and a good thing that was, because I loved this season. Loved every second of it: the visuals, the performances, the story, pretty much everything. I thought Anthony Mackie’s take on Takeshi Kovacs was more dynamic and engaging than Joel Kinnaman’s, the interplay between the main protagonists was great (as were the characters themselves), and I found the overall story much easier to follow, probably because I was notably more invested this time around. I also felt that the returning characters from the first season were served better this time around, especially Quellcrist Falconer. While I’m pretty strongly opposed to what she’s supposed to stand for, specifically the flawed notion that violent revolution is an effective and ethical means to lasting change (about which I’ve written previously, and likely will again as this dog-and-pony show masquerading as election season drags on), I found myself really liking the character—no doubt a result of this season going to such lengths to humanize Quell rather than her just being an anthropomorphized populist slogan moonlighting as the main character’s love interest.


But, as you’ve no doubt guessed from reading the title, I’m not writing this to gush. Even though I’m hardly an “entertainment junkie,” I’ve been paying some attention to portrayals of transhumanism and related ideas in popular media. And Altered Carbon is a treasure trove—for better and for worse.


For the conscientious transhumanist…mostly for worse.


In the season finale, Quell tells Kovacs that “we need death to see the value in life.” This is a running theme in Altered Carbon, and a common criticism of transhumanism. And, on the surface, I can kinda get the argument. Whenever we hear about a child dying of cancer, many of us head straight for the crowdfunding campaign homepage to empty our wallets to make that child’s final wish come true. Such would seem to affirm the philosophy that life’s value is a factor of its brevity.


But here’s the problem with that: we already have death. And, all too depressingly often, its presence doesn’t seem to compel us to cherish life. We ephemeral mortals are perfectly capable of commoditizing human life.


An argument could also easily be made that we actually value life more based on its longevity. How many times have you been told to “respect your elders?” How many cultures have enshrined the notion that age is an indicator of wisdom, and thus commands respect? By that logic, a person who lives a thousand years ought to be thought of as a living sage; an immortal, a walking god. Yes, we’re protective of children and vulnerable people, but that’s a moral value that seems derived from parental instincts, and I see no reason that humans would abandon it just because they live longer lives.


The fundamental flaw in this philosophy, for me, is this pervasive human notion that death is somehow noble. If you’ve read my novel Aethyr, you’ll have guessed from the epigrams that I have a fondness for Stoicism, and while I’m by no means a devout adherent to the philosophy, it’s fair to say that it’s the closest thing I have to a guiding ethos. So, this blissful embrace of mortality—amor fati, as the Romans would say; not merely to accept one’s fate but to love it—is something I encounter frequently. But do we really believe that death is a noble thing? Do we really believe that death is the arbiter of humanity’s value?


Or do we just tell ourselves that, because we know nothing else, just as the haughtiest amongst us perversely ennoble suffering? Are our philosophies truly reflective of our deepest beliefs, or merely a reaction to that which we believe is inevitable, a flimsy attempt to rationalize that which would otherwise be despised?


I haven’t read the novels Altered Carbon is based on, but my understanding is that, unlike in the Netflix series, the immortality tech isn’t the root cause of the iniquity that lies at the root of the central struggle; rather, by virtue of its availability only to the upper echelons of the story’s hyper-elitist society, it’s a representation of that iniquity. I think that’s an important distinction, and one that elucidates some of the moral conundrums facing transhumanism: if we do develop the means to transcendence, how do we ensure its accessibility to all humans, and not just the mega-rich? Fortunately, while it’s hard to gauge trends in a worldview as broadly defined as transhumanism, there does seem to be an overall progressive shift, with a panoply of voices and viewpoints offering critical perspectives, so I’m cautiously optimistic.


Now, full disclosure here: I’m what my fellow transhumanists would probably call a “deathist.” I’m fairly certain that death—at least biological death—is an inevitability. And, even if it weren’t, it would probably become desirable after a time. As another character in Altered Carbon astutely observes: “Immortality means an eternity of living with what we’ve done.” This is a prevailing theme in Aethyr as well. As I’ve written before, transhumanism’s appeal to me isn’t in living forever, but in living better. Living without suffering. And it stands to reason that, in the absence of suffering, superlongevity would surely be desirable. (I still think full-bore immortality would get boring after a few millennia, but that’s just me.) Ultimately, it’s not so much about living longer, but in having the choice of how long we live. Having the freedom to decide our lifespan, not to be held hostage by the whims of nature or the vices and misdoings of our fellow humans. Amor fati? Fuck that; my fate is my own to decide.


In conclusion, I think Altered Carbon has a great takeaway for transhumanists. Quellcrist Falconer started out as a brilliant scientist with noble intentions when she created immortality technology, but she was naïve. The embitterment from realizing how her creation would be bastardized by invidious elites is what drove her to violent revolution. Now, in the real world, I’d have said she was wrong, that she should’ve found a proactive way to work the problem rather than falling victim to the belief that she could fix things by blowing them up, but let’s be honest, here: we’d far rather watch an attractive lady with cool clothes and cooler hair drop-kicking some smarmy rich folks’ armored guards. The lesson here is one I’ve written before, but bears repeating: before we think about superlongevity, we need to engineer a world worth living a thousand years in. Transcendence needs to start with our souls.


Otherwise, our future might look as bleak as the shittiest parts of Altered Carbon’s world.

© 2019 Sean E. Kellly