Altered Carbon: On living forever

Dexter YIM | November 5, 2018

Have you ever wondered if you could have eternal life? Netflix’s dystopian science fiction TV series, Altered Carbon, tells us that immortality is possible in a way if our consciousness can be stored digitally and be implanted into a new body. But if we pay heed to the epigraph in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, we will find that immortality may not necessarily be a good thing. The epigraph refers to an Ancient Greek prophetess, Sibyl, who was granted eternal life by Apollo, having forgotten to ask for eternal youth. Immortality therefore becomes an endless suffering to Sibyl. In Altered Carbon, people can implant their consciousness into new young ‘sleeves’; the problem faced by Sibyl seems to be resolved. But does this mean that immortality is still the ultimate goal? Do humans deserve to live forever? What are the problems of being immortal? Altered Carbon has a unique viewpoint that it is immortality that obliterates humanity rather than technology itself.


In Altered Carbon, a soldier and highly-skilled assassin, Takeshi Kovacs, is woken up in another sleeve to investigate the death of Laurens Bancroft. Instead of focusing on biological, social and economic problems wrought by immortality, I would like to talk about psychological problems from a literary perspective. One of the worst things immortality gives rise to is the problem of self-identity : if you lived for a few hundred years, could you define yourself? Our identities are shaped by our memories: living longer means we have more memories, acquire more knowledge and meet more people. When you have accumulated too many memories, they are unavoidably and intricately connected, which makes you feel confused or you could even get lost. In Altered Carbon, characters occasionally swap sleeves when their old sleeves are damaged. The shifting of sleeves implies an identity transformation. It is little wonder the characters feel confused, alienated, or are in pain when they are trying hard to know who they are and what they are doing. The beginning of Altered Carbon clearly shows this; Kovacs is dumbfounded when he wakes up in a strange body (Elias Ryker’s) and uses his identity to interact with the people Ryker knows; however, when it comes to choosing his identity, Kovacs is caught in a dilemma by these memories Kovacs (as Ryker) creates and his memories in the past. Should he be living as Kovacs or Ryker? If we live long enough to try out a few different identities, which one should be the bona fide “us”?


Another cruel thing is the sense and pain of loss that comes with eternal life. At the beginning of Altered Carbon, Kovacs’ partner is killed by a dozen heavily armed men and of course he is incapable of escaping the fate either. It is not difficult for us to feel a pang of sadness for Kovacs as he has experienced too much as a human being. When Kovacs lives as Ryker, he falls in love with Ryker’s girlfriend, officer Kristin Ortega. Knowing she gets attacked in an elevator and loses her arm due to blood loss and pain, he is worried to death and tries every means to help Ortega because he does not want to experience the pain of loss again. Living longer may just mean we need to witness life and death a few more times. Not everyone can deal with the pain of loss with equanimity.

Altered Carbon shows us that eternally may not be necessarily a good thing while living only a short time may not be essentially a bad thing. We should not long for immortality in the imminent future if we even fail to live life to its fullest (though it is a cliché). We may be able to understand life or ourselves more by simply mulling over the concept of immortality. What does immortal life mean to you?

About Dexter:

Raised in Hong Kong, Dexter Yim has dedicated himself to becoming an English teacher and piquing students’ interest in literature and English. He graduated with a master’s degree in Literary Studies from The Chinese University of Hong Kong and is currently studying MSc in Creative Writing at The University of Edinburgh. Hobby-wise, he is interested in photography, poetry, film studies, history, philosophy and travelling. He once worked in Australia and travelled around the world so as to be immersed in different cultures and broaden his horizons. His favourite writers include Haruki Murakami, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot and Kazuo Ishiguro. He expends a lot of efforts and time on writing poems related to Hong Kong identities, nostalgia, alienation and loss.

Edited by Ning Lee and Yan-Zi

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