Altered Carbon is Netflix’s new prestige science fiction mystery about the cost of eternal life. It’s a detective story set in a gritty cyberpunk world where no one ever dies, every deviancy is available for a price, and staying young is as simple as buying a new body. It’s in this world that Takeshi Kovacs— Altered Carbon’s hero—must solve a bizarre murder and reckon with his past.
It’s too bad that the hotel Kovacs calls home is way more interesting than the hero it houses.
Set in the distant future, Altered Carbon uses a simple detective story to explore classic cyberpunk themes. What does it mean to be human? At what point does a digital simulacrum become as good as the real thing? Will technology set humans free or just deepen existing problems such as wealth inequality?
The show asks questions it doesn’t answer very well and deviates from its source material in ways that muddy its themes, but the hotel run by Edgar Allan Poe is a grand exception. In Kovacs’ world, empty AI hotels dot the urban landscape. The AI is the mind, but the hotel is the body. The self-made beds, fireplaces, and fixtures are all extensions of Poe. If someone breaks a glass, Poe feels pain. The original creators programmed the AIs with a desire for guests that borders on the sexual. They’re a little creepy and over attentive, so no one stays in them.
Kovacs' mind has been in storage for hundreds of years so he doesn’t know better and, needing a place to stay, ends up at the Raven—an AI hotel with 19th century look and an AI designed to look like Edgar Allan Poe. This is a character who isn’t in the books—in the novel Jimi Hendrix runs the hotel. The decision to replace Hendrix with Poe is brilliant because it reflects the themes of the story and pays tribute to the noir origins of the story Altered Carbon is telling.
This is a detective story. Kovacs is a man like Philip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes—a guy with a big brain and quick fists who follows the clues to punish societies low-lifes and decadent rich. It’s a character type that Poe created.
Along with the short story and horror fiction, Poe created the detective story. His Auguste Dupin stories created the template for characters such as Holmes, Marlowe, and Kovacs. Throughout the show, the AI poe studies the detective stories of the 20th century to become a better friend to Kovacs and aid him in his journey. He gets excited at the prospect of playing detective and is an absolute joy to watch.
For an AI, Poe is incredibly human and that humanity gives Poe an arc that sets him apart from the rest of Altered Carbon’s two-dimensional characters. This is an artificial intelligence that loves people and wants to understand them. He’s been programmed to help people, but he doesn’t resent it. Instead he leans into it and desperately tries to make friends with every new person that crosses his threshold.
Like Blade Runner 2049 , it’s Altered Carbon’s most artificial character that is its most human. Kovacs’ world is one where the rich live so long they think they’re gods divorced from human concerns and the petty concerns of the flesh. The show asks the audience to consider what makes someone (or something) a human then points to the AI hotel Poe for its answer. He’s one of the only decent people—I’m sorry, hotels—in Netflix's sex-soaked and miserable future.