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Altered Carbon Author, Richard K Morgan, discusses his views on immortality, sexuality and religion

There are two things I am obsessed with in life: Blade Runner and Altered Carbon. For those of you that don’t know, Altered Carbon is an adaption of Richard K Morgan’s debut novel, Altered Carbon, which he won the Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel in 2003!

While we are all anticipating the second instalment of the series on Netflix, I had the opportunity to ask Richard some of my most burning questions about Altered Carbon and his views on the themes that exist in the series.

Check out the following interview below!

One of the main themes that exist in Altered Carbon is immortality and the consequences of having eternal life. Can you tell us a bit about your views on immortality and why you chose to speak on this topic.

Richard: Dunno, maybe just a creeping sense of my own mortality? 🙂 I started writing Altered Carbon in my late twenties, which I think is probably about the time we start to get our first faint intimations that we won’t, in fact, live forever. I can certainly remember some long late-night discussions on the subject with friends and acquaintances during that period of my life. So perhaps it was that sensation creeping in that prompted me to think, and then start writing, about a technology to defeat death.

As to my views on the subject, my understanding is that practical immortality for humans is just around the corner, in the sense that our medical tech is getting good enough to stave off the diseases and damage that afflict us in old age, thus extending life long enough for people alive now to survive until the technology for actual immortality comes on stream. I was on a panel a couple of years ago with a scientist who said, with no trace of drama, that he believed the first immortals among us have already been born. So I think there’s little doubt that it’s coming. And like all technological advances, this is obviously going to have huge social and political implications. But then all major technological advances do. As a species, we’re defined by our ability to create tools and tech - we ARE the technological ape. And just as we have with everything else, we will learn - slowly, badly, piecemeal - to cope with this next step.

If you had a choice, would you rather have immortality or be mortal? Why?

Richard: Oh, no contest - who wouldn’t want to live forever? Especially if the technology means your nearest and dearest can do likewise. Look, there are a vast number of things I would love to do that I’ll never have time for in a mortal life-span. There are all the places on Earth I’ll never get to visit, the books I’ll never get to read, the languages I’ll never learn, the skills I’ll never practice, let alone perfect - the sheer tonnage of knowledge and experience I’m still thirsting to acquire is immense. Who’d pass up the opportunity to extend your time and do all those things? Not to mention the thought that you’d never have to say goodbye to and lose your loved ones - which is one of the most crippling things any human ever has to endure.

In the Cyberpunk genre, due to advanced technology and the relationship between man and machine, there are quite a lot of ‘God complex’ characters. They believe themselves to be a higher being or have a higher power (Laurens Bancroft I would say is one of them). In your opinion, where do you think this ideology comes from and do you think it exists in modern society?

Laurens Bancroft [James Purefoy] in Altered Carbon

Richard: Well, the show leans a bit more into this than the book, reflecting slightly different pre-occupations on the part of its writers. I think, to be honest, there’s a bit of the god complex in all of us. We all, naturally enough, believe ourselves to be central in our existence, that’s just our genetic hardwiring at work, and it’s not a very long step from that to the idea that you are somehow apart from others. And obviously great power and/or wealth may allow some of us to live out an echo of that - though to be honest, I think you can see the same mechanism at work in other ways, even among those who are deeply generous or self-sacrificing. In fact, the whole “I will sacrifice myself for X” is in itself a kind of exceptionalism - what that person is doing, in essence, is saying “no, no, you all stand back - let ME make this sacrifice”. There’s a serene kind of higher being/power sentiment animating this impulse too. So I think it’s universal, a common aspect of our common genetic heritage - it just plays out in different ways depending on context.

NeoCatholicism is a religious group that exists in the Altered Carbon universe and they are opposed to the idea of ‘resleeving’ after death but also all forms of technology that removes the human consensus from the body. I read that in your book they are ridiculed and mocked in society. I know you’re an atheist but I’m curious about your views on religion and what ‘NeoCatholicism’ represents to you.

Richard: My views on religion are broadly dismissive and hostile, though that has become somewhat more nuanced over the years; basically, I think religion is a barbaric though occasionally useful impulse which I wish we could live without; current evidence suggests, however, that we probably can’t. Again, it’s the hardwiring - our pattern-making tendencies create meaning where there is none, then our tribalistic tendencies formalise it into in-group/out-group exclusivities, and our liking for social hierarchy assigns it a rigid structure, dogma, leadership and enforcement system. Bingo! - you got a church, a faithful, and infidel outsiders to hate. This behaviour repeats everywhere and throughout human history. When I was younger, I thought modern humanity would find a way to live without it, but I suspect now that the best we can do is try to water it down, innoculate against it, keep it leashed and under tight humanistic control.

In the show, Altered Carbon talks about neoCatholics, but in the book they are simply Catholics. Established religions are by nature deeply conservative, and it was a given that the sleeving technology would be opposed by at least one religious group. I needed a group like that, and I figured that a monolithic church that has already survived a couple of thousand years would be a safe bet to still be around and causing misery in another three or four hundred!

Nudity and sex is displaced a lot throughout the show and I saw that you wrote a blog post on how the sex scenes in your books have been criticised and dubbed ‘gratuitous’. What are your thoughts on having sex scenes used as plot points?

Richard: Short answer - why not? Sex is a primary biological drive, second only to survival and even that - think Romeo and Juliet - only sometimes! It’s a given that it’s going to play a big part in any human interactions or stories we tell as a species. If you look at myths and legends the world over, sex is massively front and centre every time. It’s only the bizarre puritanical streak in our culture that creates a question mark around this. After all, you wouldn’t ask the question “should we advance plot points in a piece of entertainment with violence?” Or “should we move the story forward with conversation?” Sex is no different to these, and in many ways much more powerful.

I didn’t know how quite to pose this question but one of the things that stuck out to me while watching the show was discovering that ‘Head In the Clouds’ is a place where people, ‘Meths’ specifically, can play out their illegal sexual fetishes such as: rape, torture, mutilation and murder. Can you explain your reason for having sexual violence in Altered Carbon, is it a commentary on today’s society?

Head in the clouds

Richard: Once again, in echo of the answer above, sexual violence is part and parcel of human existence. It is common, it is widespread, it is a human norm. And the powerful habitually get away with it. To that extent, including it in AC was not so much a comment on today’s society as a comment on human society in general. My work tends to be built around an abhorrence of human cruelty and abuse of power - but you can’t deal with those abuses and that cruelty in your work unless you give it screen time. That’s why it’s there!

Thank you Richard for speaking with me and sharing your thoughts!

Want to know what’s next for the science fiction author? Don’t forget to follow his social media and check his website regularly for updates and informative blog posts.