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Altered Carbon and the Limits of Cyberpunk’s Sexual Imagination

Biohacking Isn't Just for Making Bustier Blonde Women

Kristin Lehman as Miriam Bancroft in Netflix's "Altered Carbon"

[Warning: The article contains spoilers for the first season of Altered Carbon]

Netflix’s Altered Carbon, an adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk novel of the same name, has stirred plenty of worthwhile discussion about Asian representation, the mind-body connection, and the use of nudity. However, I wanted to take an article to talk about the way that the series imagines a biohacked future, and how the world it portrays—where there are infinite ways to modify and control the body, except apparently when it comes to reproduction—shows the limits of its imagination.

Science fiction is often described as the genre of imagination, precisely because it encourages us to imagine new futures and to expand our conceptions of what society can be. For creators like Gene Roddenberry, that’s often an invitation to optimism, to remind the audience that a better world is possible. Cyberpunk, on the other hand, delivers a more pessimistic warning. It imagines a future where the structural oppressions of today’s world—capitalism, racism, patriarchy —don’t go away, and so all the world’s amazing technological advances don’t become tools for the betterment of humanity. They become tools for the wealthy to make their power more insidious, entrenched, and inescapable.

In the world of Altered Carbon, people’s minds can be stored on an alien technology called “stacks.” These “stacks” can then be “sleeved” into new bodies when your original body dies. The “sleeves” might be clones of your original body, synthetic bodies that your mind can alter, chemically enhanced bodies for better reflexes, or physically enhanced ones for strength or attractiveness. The human body has become a thoroughly bio-hacked tool, from our consciousness to our abilities to our appearance.

These “sleeves,” however, are often prohibitively expensive, and so the average person can’t really afford to live forever jumping body-to-body. For the incredibly wealthy, however, sleeve and stack technology essentially ensures their immortality. They can back-up their stacks on remote servers and download them into new sleeves whenever they want, cycling through an endless supply of clones through the centuries.

But what do the people of the future do with all these technological marvels? In the world of Altered Carbon, they use it in depressingly familiar ways. The show subjects us to a parade of violated and exploited female bodies. Chemical enhancements are used to make sex feel especially mind-blowing. Clients pay for the pleasure of physically harming sex workers, whether in virtual space or in a physical body, knowing that they can go further because the sex worker’s sleeve can just be replaced.

However, when it comes to reproduction, Altered Carbon has almost nothing to say. We never see the characters engage in safe sex; there’s not a condom to be seen. And so one might imagine that this society has figured out contraception on an organic level. I kept hoping we’d see some discussion of that, especially given the scenarios at hand. Ortega and Kovacs have sex while he is sleeved in the body of her lover, whose stack is “on ice” for his crimes, so she probably doesn’t want to get pregnant while he’s locked up. The wealthy Miriam Bancroft brags about giving her husband scores of children. How exactly do they plan when to have those kids? And when she has extramarital sex with Kovacs, how does she ensure she won’t get pregnant?

This could have just been an unspoken facet of the show, something they choose to never address. However, one of the major plot reveals involves a sex worker getting pregnant by accident. I mean, really? Am I supposed to imagine that an employer who exercises total control over this woman’s body wouldn’t have figured out how to control her reproductive organs, too?

A common defense for this sort of world is that it’s based on our own. All the sexual innovations involve more ways to be more violent to ever hotter and more desirable blonde women, because … well, look at today’s pornography. However, if that argument is to hold water, the show has to look at the ways misogyny really functions. And given today’s political debates, it is pretty ridiculous to imagine a society which has bio-hacked and body-hacked the human form in every imaginable way but the reproductive system. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but patriarchal capitalism is pretty damn fixated on controlling women’s reproductive autonomy.

And yet, reproductive technologies almost never come up in a science fiction show that’s entirely about the absolute technological control of the body. The two reproductive innovations we see involve clones and a bio-organic printer, which both creates bodies without the use of the reproductive organs. However, when it comes to reproductive technology that involves sex? We don’t really get anything.

It shows just how little we’re taught about the revolutionary impact of contraception. How our cultural imagination so easily forgets these innovations just because they are primarily (though not exclusively) created for women. The ability to control and regulate the human reproductive system is a genuinely earth-shattering discovery, and it’s one that still has so far to develop. For a show that’s so concerned about bodies to ignore one of the most historically significant changes to the human body feels sadly limited.

Now, no show is perfect, and no show can tackle every issue of its imagined future without ending up plotless, plodding, and dull. However, a series which purports to imagine the future of an engineered human body should be able to imagine the future of one of humanity’s most revolutionary innovations.

(Featured image: Netflix)

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