Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Transhumanism Is Dominating Sci-Fi TV
The future belongs to those who can afford it. This may be virtually true in today’s world, where surviving retirement can feel impossible, but it’s also the literal premise of Altered Carbon, Netflix’s new prestige sci-fi series. Based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel of same name, the neo-noir is set several hundred years in the future, when human consciousness has been digitized into microchip-like “stacks” constantly being swapped into and out of various bodies, or “sleeves.”
This technology, along with innovations like human cloning and artificial intelligence, has given society a quantum leap, but it’s also sent socioeconomic stratification into overdrive, creating dire new realities for the poor and incarcerated while simultaneously producing an elite upper-class. Called “Mets”—short for “Methuselahs”—the members of Altered Carbon’s 0.001 percent have achieved virtual immortality thanks to vaults of their own cloned sleeves and cloud backups full of their stacks. It’s either dystopia or utopia, depending on one’s bank account.
Whatever your views on the show’s plot, in which a former rebel supersoldier named Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), on ice in a stack prison, is revived and hired by a Met to solve the murder of his last sleeve, Altered Carbon’s best quality is its worldbuilding. In the 25th century, transhumanism—the belief that human beings are destined to transcend their mortal flesh through technology—has reached its full potential, and some of its end results are not pretty, at all.
But Altered Carbon is only the latest bit of transhumanism to hit TV recently. From Black Mirror’s cookies and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams’ mind-invading telepaths and alien bodysnatchers to Star Trek: Discovery’s surgical espionage and Travelers’ time-jumping consciousness, the classic tropes of body-hopping, body-swapping, and otherwise commandeering has exploded in an era on the brink, one in which longevity technology is accelerating more rapidly than ever, all while most people still trying to survive regular threats to basic corporeal health and safety.
These tropes have enjoyed a healthy existence in sci-fi and horror for decades, but now more than ever transhumanism is ubiquitous in pop culture, asking us to consider the ethical, personal, political, and economic implications of an ideology with a goal—implementing technology in the human body to prolong and improve life—that is already beginning to take shape.
The Birth of Transhumanism
A crucial fact to remember about transhumanism and the philosophies it inspired, including the ones modeled by Altered Carbon’s Mets, is that its conception was heavily rooted in eugenics. Though earlier thinkers had already produced work one could call transhumanist today, the term wasn’t coined until 1951, by Julian Huxley, a noted evolutionary biologist (and brother to Brave New World author Aldous Huxley). Julian Huxley believed strongly in the fundamentally exclusionary theory that society would improve immensely if only its “best” members were allowed to procreate. In the speech in which he first used the word “transhumanism,” he claimed that in order for humans to “transcend the tentative fumblings of our ancestors,” society ought to enact “a concerted policy … to prevent the present flood of population-increase from wrecking all our hopes for a better world.”
While he didn’t necessarily believe the criteria for what constituted “best” should be drawn along racial or economic lines, the ideology Huxley promoted was inherently elitist. It also allowed for virtually as many interpretations as there are people, and plenty of those people, particularly those in power—especially in Huxley’s time, but also in the fictional future of Altered Carbon—did and do believe “best” means “white, straight, financially successful, and at least nominally Christian.” As a result, the concept he named ended up being primarily conceptualized in its infancy by white men of privilege.
This, of course, didn’t remain the main interpretation of transhumanism for long. In the years following Huxley’s coinage, humans made profound leaps in technological innovation, first in computers and then in AI, which allowed more people to envision the possibilities of one day being able to transcend their organic limitations. The basic concept was easily repurposed by those whose oppression has always been tied to physical violence—notably people of color, LGBTQ people, and women.
By the early 1980s, scholars like Natasha Vita-More and Donna Haraway had revamped the concept with manifestos that argued transhumanism ought to be about “diversity” and “multiplicity,” about breaking down constructs like gender, race, and ability in favor of a more fluid, “chimeric” alternative in which each person can be many seemingly contradictory things at once—including human and machine. (As WIRED’s Julie Muncy explains in her review of the first season, Altered Carbon touches upon but never really takes a stance on this dimension of a post-corporeal world.)
The Future, Revisited
As Silicon Valley boomed, so did transhumanism. Millionaire investors have poured endless cash into anti-aging research, machine intelligence companies, and virtual reality; meanwhile, the possibility of extended or superhuman life has veered even further into becoming the exclusive purview of the extremely rich (and, more often than not, extremely white and extremely male). In 1993, mathematician and science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge pegged the arrival of the singularity—the moment at which technology, particularly AI, supersedes human intelligence and either eliminates humanity or fuses with it, allowing people to finally become “post-human”—at around 2030; by 2005 futurist Ray Kurzweil was agreeing with Vinge in his now-seminal book The Singularity is Near. (The Verge has a solid timeline of transhumanist thought here.)
Today, working organs are being 3D-printed. Nanites, while a few years off, are definitely on the horizon. And the technologies that fuel nightmare fodder like Black Mirror are becoming realities almost daily, which gives the overwhelming impression to laypeople that the Singularity, while perhaps still technically far off, is imminent.
Add privatized healthcare, police brutality, immigration, sexual assault, and plenty more extremely real threats to people’s physical bodies—not to mention the exponential growth of the TV industry itself—and you’ve got the perfect cocktail for a flood of transhumanist sci-fi shows that give form to anxieties viewers have about both wanting to escape the physical confines of their blood-bag existences and being absolutely, justifiably terrified of what could go wrong when they actually do.
But however uncomfortable it may be, that dilemma is not accidental. It has become necessary to understanding and surviving our current techno-political moment. Whether enjoying the ecstasy of possibility in Altered Carbon’s disembodied immortality or writhing in the agony of imagining eternity as a digital copy of one’s own consciousness, the roller coaster of emotions these shows elicit ought to be a major signal to audiences that now is the time to be thinking about the cost of pursuing technological immortality. If stacks and sleeves are indeed our inevitable future, the moral quandary won’t lie in the body-swapping itself—it’ll be reckoning with who gets to do it and why.