Bodies as Commodities in Altered Carbon


Richard Morgan’s novel Altered Carbon might have been more interesting if it had known what to do with its Catholic characters. It takes place in a future in which humanity has learned to copy personal consciousness and implant it into new bodies, whether natural or artificial, meaning that people see themselves effectively as immortal as long as the digital consciousness is not lost or destroyed. In America magazine, Philip Porter cites the Netflix adaptation of the show as an example of science fiction’s concern with neo-Gnosticism, a world emptied of human spirit in which there is “a devaluation of the human body. Bodies become no more than hardware, capable of being changed out with mechanical replicas or endlessly replaced with fresh human flesh.” I have not seen the show so will comment only on the novel, but Porter’s description is a good summary of the novel’s concerns as well.

The book portrays Catholics as opting-out of that system, refusing to have their consciousnesses implanted into new bodies after death. Even though the state compels all persons to be implanted with the device (called a “stack”) that allows this transference, it will not compel a Catholic against his or her conscience to undergo this reawakening. This results in Catholics being considered as outsiders to mainstream society (even more than usual). They are seen as freaks who reject the miraculous technological advances that allow humanity to better itself. Unfortunately, this also means that they are especially vulnerable to prospective murderers, as they will not return to incriminate or testify against their killers.

The fact that Catholics have this outsider status should allow Altered Carbon to offer a more penetrating moral critique of the society it presents, in which this miraculous technological advance ensures that the poor are victimized, objectified, and exploited, the state sets itself up as God, and families are ruptured. However, the novel does not present the Church’s theological concerns with any particular acuity. Mainly, the Church’s objection is portrayed as a vague belief that stacks cannot contain the soul and that souls should go to Heaven upon death.

Eternal Life

This is not an entirely erroneous depiction of potential Catholic concerns with this sort of technology. The Catholic position is that, in the Resurrection, Christ has conquered death, meaning that death is not the final annihilation of human life or ultimate alienation from God. Instead, in death it is possible to share in Christ’s Passion and to be united to Him. Therefore, we need not avoid death at all costs.

In the Resurrection, Catholics have a better image of eternal life than what the stacks can offer. Looking forward to the resurrection of the body, Catholics believe that souls shall not be liberated from their bodies in the way that this world separates consciousnesses from the bodies that they dehumanize with the name of “sleeves.” Rather, Catholics believe that the body shall be a glorious place of communion with God. This eternal life is not merely an endless chronological sequence; as Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe salvi,

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable (n. 10).

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect (n. 12).

Catholics hope to plunge into the ocean of infinite love, but the immortality that only the wealthy can buy in Altered Carbon is nothing more than extended monotony. Indeed, one wealthy “Meth” (an allusion to the long-lived Methuselah, but which also suggests the deterioration of a drug addiction) describes how living for three hundred years means that one sees everything passing by and not able to hold onto anything to keep it from disappearing. This is not an expression of power and superiority over the ravages of time but a tragic expression of futility and impotence. Morgan barely begins to scratch the surface of how these wealthy are blinded to the hope that Catholics express. As Porter says, “After all, there is nothing more horrifying than living forever as a fallen, unredeemed creature,” and these wealthy, despite their power, cannot buy redemption. They can only try to outrun the coming of their day of judgment.

Commercial Bodies

Society considers taking away even the right of a Catholic not to be forcibly returned to life. For example, Resolution 653 proposes that Catholic murder victims be taken out of storage to find their murderers. The justice Catholics seek, however, is not merely the human justice of identifying criminals, vitally important as that might be. They also seek the justice of not participating in a society that dehumanizes all persons and turns the poor into a raw natural resource available for exploitation by the rich. Altered Carbon presents another aspect of society that Catholics would quite obviously reject: transferring consciousness between bodies, which exacerbates the commercialization of the body and the person. Unfortunately, the novel never finds an opportunity to make that critique. Referring to the Greek concept of erotic love, eros, in terms that can be applied more generally, Benedict says in Deus caritas est that

Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere.

Altered Carbon illustrates this commercialization and utilization of the personal body in the episode of a poor family whose mother’s body is bought by a rich corporate negotiator who wears it on alternate months while the mother’s consciousness is stored to carry out a criminal sentence, and the family does not have enough money to buy the body back. The daughter says, “Don’t worry Daddy, when I’m rich we’ll buy Mummy back” (106). In other words, another person is simply a suit to be worn as a richer person pleases. The family did have a “re-sleeving policy” for the mother when she comes out of storage, but it lapsed and they do not have the money to continue it.

Even though immortality is theoretically available to all people – whether they want it or not – in practice, this immortality comes at the expense of the poor. They are not able to control even their bodies if a rich person decides to buy them from storage. Clearly, this is an area of moral concern for Catholics, but Altered Carbon restricts the Catholic interest to matters of death. The novel clearly intends for this to be unsettling, so obviously unsettling that it need not be explained, but its attempt at offering a moral vision could use that more robust Catholic critique. Altered Carbon does not root its critique in a philosophical system that understands the embodied human person to have inherent dignity but instead relies on unarticulated emotivism and repugnance to make that point. The Catholic system, however, is more sophisticated.


Furthermore, the ease with which a person can flit from one body to another, effortlessly switching sex and ethnicity, devastates families by ensuring that no person has roots. As Benedict says in Without Roots, co-written with Marcello Pera, European society would disappear if the “fundamental nucleus of its social edifice were to vanish or be changed in an essential way.” He cites marriage and family as being essential to this nucleus (76-7). The same applies to the society of Altered Carbon; it collapses when no personal identity is stable enough to anchor a spousal or familial relationship.

Perhaps the most dramatic disintegration of personal identity is portrayed in the mercenary Kadmin who has had so many bodies that his self-perception is a blend of man and woman, Caucasian and African, and a dissonant combination of personal characteristics. More unsettling is the way in which families will meet a long-stored member who has been returned to them in a different body: they see their loved one – but with a different face and movements. Disturbing too is the way in which the female police officer Ortega shadows the mercenary Kovacs because he has been sleeved in the body of her lover Ryker. When they go to bed, she is not clear as to whether she is seduced by the Ryker body or by the new relationship with Kovacs. This is a relationship that is completely adrift and which clearly runs uncomfortably close to exploiting Ortega’s history. This context undermines the possibility of a relationship developing a history of love and intimacy but instead necessitates a perpetual re-beginning, as people must always be habituating to old acquaintances in unfamiliar bodies. The self-giving in one’s body that is the foundation of sexuality and the closeness that develops between specific bodies is utterly confounded. As Porter says, “Humans, freed from the limitations of the flesh, find themselves adrift in a world wholly of their own making.”

Even though Altered Carbon places Catholics in a unique position to be prophets and offer a robust critique of the society it depicts, it ultimately squanders that opportunity. The Catholic faith of one character or another is only relevant to the plot insofar as it makes a person an ideal target for those who would exploit and kill human life. The snuff-houses of the rich are stocked with Catholics who will not return from the dead to seek justice. Porter says that the adaptation “is at its best when it is critiquing this vision of the world,” but the problem with the novel is that this critique is never rooted in any transcendent vision of the human person, such as the one that Catholicism offers.

The critique I have offered is clearly consistent with many of the novel’s concerns, but in the novel this theme of transcendence is never developed. Nor does the novel truly understand this critique to be connected to the beliefs of its Catholic periphery. Instead, the Catholics seem to function merely as a group that contemporary readers will identify as opposed to science and technology (to cite the hoary stereotypes). Altered Carbon never transcends the beat-by-beat story it tells, and its nastily violent and lecherous story is never effectively counter-balanced by the Catholic critique and subtext that should be so easy to develop.

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