(Note: This post contains light spoilers for the first three episodes of “Altered Carbon.”)
The distant future of Netflix’s new sci-fi series “Altered Carbon” is full of weird and interesting concepts, and slang language to go with them.
The primary concept that informs the show’s world 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.
Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), the meth that series protagonist Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) works for, 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.