In The Mix

Carbon Trading

A writer-producer explores a disquieting future where a soul is not one’s own.

Natalie Nichols
  • Laeta Kalogridis on the set with star Joel Kinnaman

    Katie Yu/Netflix

In Netflix's new series Altered Carbon, human consciousness can be digitized and moved from body to body, effectively making people immortal.

It's a future where people — especially the rich — can live forever, resulting in a dystopia where "we madly pursue technology that allows us to continue consuming and continue being the worst versions of us," says creator–executive producer Laeta Kalogridis

The showrunner has been interested in dystopian views of the future since began reading science fiction as a child, devouring everything from Ray Bradbury to Ursula K. Le Guin to X-Men comics. Growing up bisexual in a small Florida town, she says, "I found that representations of other possibilities lived more vibrantly in science fiction for me than they did anywhere else."

Based on Richard K. Morgan's acclaimed 2002 cyberpunk-noir novel, Altered Carbon is a bracing genre cocktail of hardboiled mystery, sardonic banter, romance and brain-searing violence — all of which are totally in Kalogridis's wheelhouse.

"Because there's nothing like being a writer who has virtual torture in your wheelhouse," she says with a hearty laugh. "For me, there's great joy in being able to do things that people feel don't necessarily automatically go together."

She was already comfortable with themes of memory and the subconscious, as demonstrated by her work as a writer and executive producer on both the psychological thriller Shutter Island and the sci-fi reboot Terminator Genisys.

With Altered Carbon, she had to put a key aspect of protagonist Takeshi Kovacs's self-image on screen. As in the novel, Kovacs is a former elite warrior of Asian extraction who is brought back in the body of a white man (Joel Kinnaman) by ultra-wealthy Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy).

"His genetic and racial heritage, which is explored somewhat in the show, is alluded to in the book but never built out," Kalogridis explains.

The novel features Kovacs's first-person narration, so readers understand that he still sees himself as Asian. Kalogridis wanted to make sure viewers knew that, too. More important, she wanted to avoid being part of the "huge she problem" of whitewashing Asian characters. So, Kovacs is played in extensive flashbacks by Will Yun Lee and Byron Mann.

A longtime fan of the book, Kalogridis was drawn to how it "creates a toxic masculine figure in Bancroft" and addresses different ways in which "women especially are abused, taken advantage of, sort of serially deprived of their rights."

A supporter of the Time's Up movement, she adds, "Much of what I was channeling while I was writing these episodes was the rage that, up until quite recently, I think we couldn't publicly [explore]."

That rage shows up in different ways. Kalogridis turned one character, Lizzie Elliot (Hayley Law), into her "avenging angel" against that toxic masculinity. But she also slyly addressed our own culture's youth obsession through Bancroft's wife, Miriam (Kristin Lehman).

The book depicts her in a body barely out of its teens. Here, she is a chillingly chic middle-aged woman. "I am pushing back consciously and quite hard against the idea that if people could extend their lives, they would automatically find value in looking very young," Kalogridis says. "In a society where age is venerated, looking like you have some life experience would be seen as attractive."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2018