As the title says: What is the significance of the phrase "altered carbon" in Richard Morgan's novel? The phrase appears in passing but I didn't find anything for it to mean, and I was wondering if I'd missed something, or if it was just an allusion to "Blade Runner" (ie, a cool futurey-sounding phrase that doesn't actually mean anything)

(As a side question - not really worth asking separately - was anyone else as distracted as I was by the near-anagram of "Carbon"/"Bancroft"?)

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    For what it's worth, I'm personally only interested in the book, the adaptations can get stuffed, but feel free to answer for the adaptations if you like, someone else might be interested Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 3:14
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    Altered carbon refers to humanity redefining carbon based life through technology. Chap 28 “Poor Death, no match for the mighty altered carbon technologies of data storage and retrieval arrayed against him.*
    – user22484
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 5:29

2 Answers 2


The most relevant passage in the source novel relates to Kovac’s reflection on Kadmin's peculiar nature / madness / evil. That genetic manipulation along with consciousness transference has changed humanity in some ineffable and significant manner.

The man in front of me was different. His frame was that of a Caucasian Nordic, topping mine by nearly thirty centimeters, but the face was at odds. It began African, broad and deep ebony, but the color ended like a mask under the eyes, and the lower half was divided along the line of the nose, pale copper on the left, corpse white on the right. The nose was both fleshy and aquiline and mediated well between the top and bottom halves of the face, but the mouth was a mismatch of left and right sides that left the lips peculiarly twisted. Long straight black hair was combed manelike back from the forehead, shot through on one side with pure white. The hands, immobile on the metal table, were equipped with claws similar to the ones I’d seen on the giant Freak Fighter in Licktown, but the fingers were long and sensitive. He had breasts, impossibly full on a torso so overmuscled. The eyes, set in jet skin, were a startling pale green. Kadmin had freed himself from conventional perceptions of the physical.

In an earlier age, he would have been a shaman; here, the centuries of technology had made him more. An electronic demon, a malignant spirit that dwelled in altered carbon and emerged only to possess flesh and wreak havoc (emphasis mine).

Later, Kadmin asks Ortega:

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh? The vision that said we would be angels.

Again, I think this referring to the separation of the psyche from the body, and the migration to new and / or modified forms.

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    If you credit the source of the quote with an inline link, you can avoid an ugly copyright notification. The text itself (as long as you're not quoting vast chunks) is protected by the usual 'fair usage' caveats.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 17:44

Altered carbon is an alien metal, created by the Elders, a long dead (or simply gone) alien race. Humans found a use for the altered carbon, using it to create cortical stack technology.

"We tramped through basement rooms cooled to the seven to eleven degrees Celsius recommended by the makers of altered carbon, peered at racks of the big thirty-centimeter expanded-format disks, and admired the retrieval robots that ran on wide-gauge rails along the storage walls."

From the book Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

cortical stack

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    The OP asks about the book.
    – user22484
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 5:14
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    The quote isn't the right one to support this answer, though. "the makers of altered carbon" in this excerpt clearly refers to the builders of this specific storage facility and the manufacturers of the stacks stored within.
    – recognizer
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 6:37
  • Yes, on reflection you're right. Hopefully someone else will offer a better researched answer. Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 7:07
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    Both the Elders (instead of the Martians) and that they are the source of stack technology is an invention of the show.
    – Rawling
    Commented Aug 8, 2018 at 19:58
  • @Rawling: Very true - in the books, it is actually specifically said at one point that the Martians did not seem to use stacks and this was taken as a sign by some people that stacks were not the way to go. Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 19:48

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