It took me a long time to understand what was going on in the television series Altered Carbon. It's a mystery story, set in the far future, starring a mysterious soldier/psychic also from the distant future (but much less distant than everybody else, except people who've been alive for hundreds of years, I guess he's just barely older than them?). Some rich guy got killed and he wants answers.

The mystery seems mostly like a pretense, considering the nominal mystery isn't even the most mysterious thing in the show – the story is about atmosphere and themes, and I'd like to talk about those.

It kept bothering me how little this seemed to reflect cyberpunk themes, despite its imagery. It's confusing, really. There's a AI that runs the hotel the main character stays at, for instance. His being an AI doesn't really seem to matter to the story – just that he's hard-up for customers and doesn't have anything better to do, so he's oddly trustworthy, not wanting his guest to leave. It has a lot of cool visual effects for the AI-ness of it all (he does some robo-psychotherapy, for instance) – but at then end of the day, he could have just been a otherwise-standard host who knows what people are like and wants to help. Your typical TV bartender, I guess – although I've met bartenders, and they're not casual psychotherapists or anything – and he even constantly serves drinks to boot. That motif exists, hotels have bars, and the character could just be a human in that archetype. So why not? It's not cyberpunk! It's a normal show wearing a cyberpunk hat!

This stuff bothered me over and over, watching the show. For instance: it seems like there's lots of reasonably healthy, kind, happy, religious characters. Sure, the world can beat people down, but not if they don't want to be beaten down, I guess? There's this Dia de los Muertos party which, while being clever in their use of the holiday to talk about our relationship to those who have departed, is also a fun and generally wholesome family event. So, instead of being a bleak, vapid world, it's just a world where you can... choose to be bleak and vapid? Having a hologram isn't the same as being cyberpunk.

There's a totally standard trusting buddy cop dynamic established between two of the main characters early on that is played 100% straight start to finish, too. They even both seem like good people, which is starting to seem unusual in non-cyberpunk cop dramas. And one of the characters explicitly says that, while some people devolve into decadence in their immortality, the technology has actually been a pretty big boon for normal people, as well as lofty ideals like justice and hope. The tech is a good thing for people and advances complex, non-monetized, non-programmable human values.

This is all well and good, but of course it's precisely the opposite of what a cyberpunk work should be communicating! This is when I started to realize that I was focusing too much on the background. The tech, the strange wealth, and the feeling of the unknown – those are just the setting. What we should look to are the people.

The main character, being trapped in a lost battle from the past, unable to move past it and just looking for a strange corner to rest his head, is actually the archetypal Western hero. A lot of the symbology makes more sense when you think about it that way.

This desperate fight, rolling around in the sand, makes perfect sense to have, indoors, with a big audience, in the distant future, and the creators want you to know that this show is sci-fi and not supposed to be a classic reluctant western brawl. The sand was Cyber-delivered, or whatever. 

But just saying "it's a Western" doesn't answer many of the important questions of the story – what will happen, how you'll feel at the end. It tells you what to expect, though. The hero isn't seeking peace, or if he is, then he's doomed. The mystery he's hired to solve is secondary to his ability to cope with the new world he finds himself, hopelessly, in. His old battle is never done, despite the rest of the world being done with it. And he's got a code, and honor, as much as that doesn't stop him from killing when he needs to – he'd rather lose his place in this unfamiliar future than sacrifice his values, but he knows nobody else even thinks he's right anymore.

Of course, this story isn't neo-Confederate in their themes, not really. That being said, there is a weird symmetry in old westerns being about (largely) ex-Confederates who defended slavery, and this story, which a well-meaning Kovacs was fighting to make sure everyone dies. He's more sympathetic than that sounds, of course – but you've got to imagine every strange pro-death cult sounded pretty compelling. There's no reason people would join if they didn't.