Meet the Norfolk author behind Netflix's biggest new series
PUBLISHED: 12:32 21 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:58 21 February 2018
Archant Norfolk 2018
Altered Carbon is the latest big budget Netflix show to take to our screens. Arts correspondent Emma Knights speaks to Norfolk author Richard K Morgan about writing the original novel and seeing his story adapted for TV.
Sci-fi body-swap series Altered Carbon is one of Netflix’s hottest new shows, but the story of its creation began some 20 years ago when Norfolk author Richard Morgan penned the original novel.
Set in the 25th century, the book is set at a time when people can in theory live forever, when human personalities can be stored digitally in ‘cortical stacks’ and downloaded into new bodies known as ‘sleeves.’
Takeshi Kovacs is Altered Carbon’s antihero, a ‘resleeved’ former UN elite soldier-turned-private investigator who is tasked with solving the mystery of a rich man’s death for him.
Richard, who grew up in Hethersett and moved back to Norfolk in 2015, said the idea for the novel - first published in 2002 - was sparked during an argument at a party.
“I had this slightly drunken conversation with a Buddhist at a party years ago back in London and we were talking about reincarnation and karmic debt, and part of the Buddhist belief system is this idea that if you are suffering in this life the reason for that will be because in a previous life you behaved badly and there’s a karma balance to be adjusted. It’s kind of a nice idea but then I was saying to him, the point is if I’m suffering horribly in this life but I can’t remember the crimes I supposedly committed in my previous life, that’s not fair is it?”
After that Richard said he couldn’t leave the idea alone.
“That idea that you could have somehow lost some portion of a previous life and not know what you had done and what had happened in it, that was what drove the idea for the story, but the foliage if you like, the backdrop, the kind of world, the kind of characters, that’s all derived from my love of the noir form, guys like Chandler, Hammett and also, most importantly of all, I would say William Gibson who was writing cyber punk type stories in the late 70s, early 80s, plus Blade Runner – I cannot emphasise enough how heavily I was influenced by Blade Runner which obviously came out around the same time, 1982.”
Fast forward two decades, and what became an award-winning book - and along the way was also tipped to become a Hollywood film - is currently one of the most talked about big budget TV shows.
“It’s amazing. I went to Vancouver to visit the set when they were filming last year and in some cases I was watching actors deliver lines to camera that I had written down back in the 1990s,” said Richard.
“It’s beyond your wildest dream because I never dreamed back then that it would become a TV show...But I am very cinematically inspired. A lot of my inspiration is visual and comes from the cinema, so this getting onto the screen, and especially a screen with the budget it has been given, is just mindblowing.”
He said he was “overawed” by the 10-part series which he said was “an incredibly respectful honouring of the book” which itself is part of a trilogy of Kovacs novels.
“There is almost nothing in the book that doesn’t appear in that TV show in some shape or form. Sometimes it’s been modified, it’s coming at you from a different angle, it’s maybe something that one character did in the book that a different character ends up doing in the show. I would say closing on 90pc of the book is actually in the show, the philosophy, the ideas, the characters.”
One thing neither the book nor the TV series shy away from is violence - something Richard said was integral to the story.
“The book was always about the dark side of humanity and how unpleasant we can be, and frequently are, and that has been honoured as well in the show. “The show is, for want of a better word, carnal, it’s very much deep into the guts of what it means to be a human being, and you see that right from the opening sequence, it’s very physical, very visceral.”
With Altered Carbon’s Netflix debut already proving popular, what are Richard’s hopes for the future of the Kovacs trilogy on screen?
“There’s a feeling five seasons would be enough to cover the arc for the material...Of course we have to get renewal for a second season first,” he said, adding he may also be tempted to write a new Kovacs novel.
“If I can think of something cool to do with Kovacs I would be happy to go back, and increasingly looking at what’s up on the screen there, there is a whole load of cool stuff you can do.”
Prequels, however, look like they are off the table.
Richard said: “Good storytelling is as much about what you don’t tell as what you do tell, and you’ve got to leave space. For characters to be compelling they need a past that you don’t necessarily know about.”
For now Richard is busy finishing his latest novel - Thin Air - which is set in Mars about three centuries from now and due out this summer.
And as he also considers what the future may hold for Altered Carbon, does he think the novel’s world could some day become an actual reality?
“I don’t know because the jury is still out on the potential digitalisation of human consciousness or any kind of consciousness,” he said.
“What I do think is that technology is very fast making inroads into longevity and ultimately immortality.”
RETURNING TO NORFOLK
Growing up in Hethersett, Richard Morgan always knew he wanted to be an author.
The former Town Close and Norwich School pupil said: “I have a very clear memory of saying to my classmates in the last year of Town Close, ‘I’m going to write stories and that will be my job.’”
Richard, now 52, left Norfolk aged 18 for Cambridge University. After graduating, he pursued his writer’s dream, travelled and taught English. In 2015 he made Norfolk his home once more, moving to Saxlingham Nethergate with his wife Virginia and their son Daniel, six.
“I knew Norwich was a great place to grow up because I did grow up here, I knew that the schools were good, the environment was great,” he said.
Despite being away from Norfolk for so long, he revealed one Norwich shop, Head in the Clouds, inspired the name of a very different venue in Altered Carbon.
He said: “I actually named the aerial brothel in Altered Carbon Head in the Clouds and it came from that, that was the inspiration. Of course Head in the Clouds [in Norwich] is not a brothel, it’s a headshop. They in no way ressemble each other.”
Altered Carbon is published by Gollancz and the TV series is on Netflix now.