Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Altered Carbon: Sleeves, Stacks, and Physical Bodies

One of the most dramatic elements of the streaming Netflix series Altered Carbon is the idea that humans could transform their consciousness from one body to another.  In this case, the modus operandi is the ability to download all biological brain functions onto a glorified dvd called a stack.  The stack is loaded or unloaded into a device implanted into the base of the brain.

People's bodies have thus come to be regarded as mere organic "sleeves," husks into which stacks can be transferred.  The bond between a personality and its corrresponding body is thus an elective and arbitrary choice, as much so as the choice of a piece of clothing.  Biology itself yields to the digital patterns it produces, which transcend physicality.  Nevertheless, the timeline acknowledges a sort of "ghost in the corpus" by admitting that restacking can involve difficult issues of body-mind adjustment, particularly in the case of warriors sent to distant planets, as we shall see below.

One of the undeveloped areas behind this universe is why everyone on Earth would be fitted with a stack device in the first place, even though only the very rich are allowed to receive new bodies when their old ones wear out, thus approaching immortality.  After all, the stacking technology is vaguely described as coming from an alien source and therefore being beyond the human imagination itself and presumably very expensive.

Added to this is the stipulation that most Roman Catholics -- apparently the only remaining organized religion in this timeline -- refuse to permit themselves to be "restacked" because of their belief in an afterlife.  However, some Catholics in the series cheat a bit on this rule under the assumption that they can access heaven anyway.   Have Buddhists, who seek to escape the karma cycle as an ultimate spiritual goal, ceased to exist?  Or Muslims, whose attitudes to the afterlife seem inherently opposed to resleeving?  Or have Hindus, who seek reincarnation into a higher lifeform, opted for a do-it-yourself approach?

One could argue that the dystopian future government, the Protectorate, enforced a universal stacking law to this effect.    Yet the influence of the Protectorate seems to be rather vestigial, inasmuch as much of the power and authority has been transferred to monster-sized private businesses that do not hesitate to put organizations like the police into their subordinate places at any opportunity.  Moreover, such an ordinance would seem to be egregiously inefficient for two reasons.  First of all, the many-bodied, quasi-immortal Methusalehs, or Meths, are only a small fraction of the population and would need only a limited supply of very perfect bodies to replace their used ones.  Beyond that, there would be little need for "stacking" the consciousness of the vast majority of humanity, which is destined to be worthless and totally fungible, given Earth's state of overpopulation and general misery.  Why go through the expense of storing and preserving the lives of billions of individuals when they would only be thrown away like old video cassettes from Blockbuster?

The creators of the series mitigate this somewhat by postulating that ordinary folks could rent another sleeve for special occasions.  Detective Ortega's abuela avails herself of this fancy to celebrate the dia de muertos before she dies, choosing the body of a burly male biker.  It is unclear when or how the stack of the biker was able to recuperate his body and get reloaded into it, if ever.  It stretches the imagination to believe that, in such a disorganized and corrupt society, some kind of stack bank would keep track of these transfers and enforce the integrity of a system of exchange.   Nor is it understandable where the profit for average people would lie within such a system.

This question of the disposition of bodies is further complicated by the existence of cloning.  Only the most wealthy members of the Protectorate system seem to be able to afford successful cloning, which for some reason must be more difficult than massive stacking and restacking, though this seems counterintuitive in some ways. After all, limited cloning technology already exists and requires only a supply of hosts to bring the cloned child to fruition.  This would not seem to be an insurmountable obstacle in a society where commoners' lives are cheap.  Perhaps the problem arises when one assumes that the clones can be produced in fully adult, stack-ready forms that presumably would then be fitted with a stacking device.  The paradox of what to do with the innate digital component of a clone's biological brain is sidestepped.

The universe of Altered Carbon would then have to contend ultimately with the dilemma raised in the Peter Graves movie Parts: The Clonus Horror.  In this somewhat naive film, eminent people have clones produced by a secret institute that accelerates their growth from embryo to adult.  Eventually, at physical maturity, the clone is terminated and put on ice to serve as an organ bank for the owner.  The brain-death of the clone is not an issue, as many of them are lobotomized prior to termination if they grow too inquisitive.  However, one inquisitive clone who escapes and discovers the truth of his existence is enough to put the whole system and institute in jeopardy.  Would clones in Altered Carbon be lobotomized somehow before being restacked?  Could this be done without impairing the functioning of the digital individual stored in the stack?  It certainly poses a sticky issue for the timeline.

It is interesting that Altered Carbon sometimes falls into a trickier continuity problem as it seeks to solve or avoid some of the most time-tested science fiction conundrums.  For instance, though the series postulates interstellar travel and warfare, it avoids the speed-of-light barrier by simply proposing an alternative.  In this timeline, bodies cannot be moved from system to system in a timely way, but stacks can, through light-speed digital transmissions called needles.  This allows for specially trained interstellar warriors called envoys to be transmitted to waiting sleeves on other worlds.  The main character in the series, Takeshi Kovacs, is such an envoy, the last remaining after his cohort is suppressed for a dimly motivated rebellion against the Protectorate.  Besides the motive for the uprising, numerous nagging inconsistencies present themselves.  Is Kovacs's body, presumably a Eurasian, also a Eurasian on various distant worlds?  It would seem strange to have a "library" of sleeves at each battle station getting stale while waiting for a needled stack to flash in.  Furthermore, Takeshi is given a Caucasian cop's body when he is reanimated on Earth to solve an industrialist Mech's murder.  Surely Earth, of all places, would seem to have an adequte "body library" to allow for a more practical match-up.

This begs another question: what protocols govern the preservation of "ordinary" sleeves obtained from body-dead humans?  Why not simply substitute uniformly cloned receptor bodies?  This would seem an obvious result of any economy of scale in the stacking process.  If it appears redundant and pointless to preserve and archive all digital personalities in the form of stacks, would it not be even less efficient to do so with "unoccupied" physical bodies of every type and description?  Given the totalitarian nature of the Protectorate, would not the alternative of eugenics be a more likely solution to many of these situations?

The terrific appeal of Altered Carbon lies perhaps in its ability to present its timeline in the genial form of film noir, complete with a convoluted plot worthy of Raymond Chandler.  This invites the viewer inside the bodies and minds of Kovacs and Ortega so quickly and seamlessly that we do not pause to consider the thornier technical issues.  Vicarious substitution is far easier here than in earlier digital mind transfer scenarios such as Overdrawn at the Memory Bank or even the Matrix line of films.  Overdrawn even hints at this without realizing it, since protagonist Aram Fingal works through his struggles with his displaced consciousness in the form of adventures grafted from Casablanca.  On the other hand, a film like Total Recall could raise analogous quibbles, did it not move so quickly from one blast to another.  There is even a metatextual ending to the action, as Quaid and Melina muse over whether their recent adventure was truly real, or just another illusion.  Its model, the writings of Philip K. Dick, generally depended on such a suspension of disbelief in the face of chaos that the finessing of technical considerations was a given.  In any case, Altered Carbon  is a great leap forward, for the essence of science fiction has always been to pose ever more probing questions in an unsure universe.