(Note: This post contains light spoilers for season 1 of “Altered Carbon” on Netflix. We’re just doing a quick refresher on the weird terminology of the series, so you don’t have to worry about having season 2 spoiled.)
While “Altered Carbon” on Netflix might seem like an overly complicated show sometimes, it really isn’t. It just seems that way because this fictional sci-fi universe has a ton of its own lingo that you generally have to absorb through context. And while, yeah, you may not have much else to do during your coronavirus quarantine other than watch TV and think real hard about what you’re watching, I don’t think any of us really wants to think too hard about anything right now. So we’re gonna help you out a little bit by explaining the basics, like this whole “Meths” thing they keep talking ahout.
The primary concept that informs the show’s world, and thus the esoteric sci-fi concept that is mentioned most often, is the “Stack,” a small computer inserted into people’s brains when they turn one year old, on which a person’s consciousness is installed like software. The result is that even if your body is killed, as long as your Stack is undamaged it can be inserted into a new body, allowing you to go on living, at least in theory. In “Altered Carbon,” switching into a new body, or “sleeve,” is pretty common, and doing so extends people’s lifespans considerably.
Not everyone can afford to live forever, however. They might change bodies now and again, but bodies are expensive, and there’s another big risk: Apparently, changing sleeves too many times damages your consciousness (basically driving you permanently insane). In “Altered Carbon,” the most long-lived people are the ones who have the insane wealth necessary to get around these complications.
The term that gets tossed around for these people is “meth,” and the word gets used quite a bit in “Altered Carbon,” but what exactly it means can be tough to pick up from context. “Meth” is actually short for “Methuselah.” In the Hebrew Bible, Methuselah was the longest-lived man of all time. He appears briefly in the Book of Genesis as part of the genealogy connecting Adam to Noah. His deeds aren’t chronicled, but he’s listed as the grandfather of Noah, and the Bible says he lived to be 969 years old. And thus, according to the Bible, is the oldest person who ever lived.
So in season 1 the meth we get to know the best is Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), the guy that series protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) works for. Bancroft is so insanely rich that he can do two things most people can’t. First, he can create backups of his consciousness and have them stored on a secure satellite, in case he’s killed. For most people, if their Stack is destroyed, that’s the end of the line, but a meth can pay the insane cost of a backup that would allow them to, theoretically, live beyond the destruction of their Stack.
Next, Bancroft has a supply of clones of his own original body, kept in cold storage. While switching sleeves degrades the consciousness in your Stack over time because your mind has trouble acclimating to the unnatural state of being placed into new bodies over and over, replacing a Stack into your own clone gets around this issue. There’s no shock to your consciousness, so you don’t go insane from the constant body swapping.
As a result, Bancroft is one of the oldest people ever. He’s been around for hundreds of years. He remembers the uprising that Takeshi was part of some 250 years before the main action of the show, in fact — but Takeshi was in storage, while Bancroft has been alive and consciousness all that time.
The term “meth,” then, is a direct reference to rich people who are incredibly old and have lived unnaturally long lives. They’re the only people who can afford the technological equivalent of immortality in “Altered Carbon,” or at least the closest thing to it. Their riches make them the envy of everyone, which might also be why meths tend to live above the clouds, away from the lower, dirtier existence of the less fortunate.
In season 2, Meths are again at the center of events, with the plot involving the founders of Takeshi’s home planet, Harlan’s World. The founders, who are all still alive, are textbook Meths, and thus the term gets thrown around a lot. But hey, now that you’ve read this little refresher, you’re all set.