‘Altered Carbon’ Is a Counterinsurgency Nightmare
In this fictional future, COIN is the only option for a galactic empire
Space travel is expensive and time-consuming. Short of figuring out some sort of warp drive, there’s a good chance that humanity’s push to the stars will take generations to accomplish. In science fiction such as Star Wars and Star Trek, warp drives are a prerequisite technology. How can you run a space-faring civilization without it? Hell, how could a centralized government project power and maintain a galactic empire without it?
Altered Carbon has the answer and it’s ugly.
In the far-flung future of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, no one ever dies. Humans have digitized consciousness and colonized the stars but there are no warp drives. If someone wants to travel between planets, there’s no Galaxy-class starship to take them, just a data signal as your personality is broadcast through space and downloaded into a new body on the other end. Travelers leave behind everything but their mind.
In the show, protagonist Takeshi Kovacs is an Envoy, the last of an elite warrior tribe specially trained to fight an insurgency against the ruling galactic government. That’s a change from the more interesting books, where Envoys are the U.N. Protectorate’s elite soldiers. In the novels, Kovacs doesn’t start insurgencies, he puts them down.
What makes the Envoy’s so fascinating is how similar they are to America’s Special Operations Forces and all fighting forces using COIN to wage war. In Altered Carbon, the counterinsurgency model is the only real way for a centralized government to project power. The Envoys are the ultimate counterinsurgents — deadly warriors and astute anthropologists
People don’t die in Altered Carbon, but that doesn’t mean everyone is going around slipping on new bodies when something bad happens. Most can’t afford it and those that can aren’t interested in living forever. Learning a new body is mentally exhausting and most people only want to go through old age once. Nobody wants to die violently, twice.
That’s what makes Envoys different, the United Nations trains them to slip in and out of bodies as easily as they slip in and out of planets.
This is a world where U.S. style imperialism grew beyond the planet and, to project power, Earth used COIN doctrine to teach soldiers to disrupt governments. In this world, the logistics of war fall apart at galactic distances. Fallen soldiers can come back to life, an experienced war dog with good ideas can get a new body.
Worse, the only quick way to travel is across the data stream. Traversing the galaxy in a starship takes hundreds of years. If the United Nations wants to put down a rebellion on a rowdy planet, there’s a good chance the cultural will have completely changed by the time it ships troops there.
The Envoys are the solution to that problem. The parallels between Special Operations Forces and the Envoys are as explicit in the novel as they are absent in the show. One of Kovacs’ most persistent memories is of an insurgency he put down on a planet called Sharya where the Muslim population is attempting to impose a hardline religious order that doesn’t sit well with the Protectorate. It’s as if Kovacs learned COIN in space-Baghdad.
Netflix’s adaptation is fun, beautiful and well acted but it lost a key theme when it changed up Kovacs’ background. This is a man the government trained to be both deeply empathetic and a hardened killer. The Protectorate’s counterinsurgency style is pure Lawrence of Arabia and that kind of combat changes the soldier as much as it changes the battlefield.
On T.V., Kovacs is an idealist following a pseudo-Maoist rebel leader who wants to bring down the protectorate. In the novels, he’s a zen warrior traveling from planet to planet using his Envoy training to make the galaxy a little less shitty. It’s a more interesting arc for the character and a more interesting world than in Netflix’s show.