In a genre often dominated by male voices — male authors, male directors, male producers, and male stars — one of the most ambitious science-fiction television series ever to debut comes from a woman. And it's all the better for it. Laeta Kalogridis, the creator and showrunner of Altered Carbon, Netflix's sprawling dystopian adaptation of Richard K. Morgan's cyberpunk noir novel of the same name, has no time for any sexist prejudices anyone might have about who is best suited to creating sci-fi stories.
The veteran writer and producer, who is perhaps best known for penning Shutter Island and Terminator Genisys, passionately believes that women can write in any genre they want, and to hear her talk about it is inspiring as hell. Speaking to Bustle, Kalogridis cites a famous Virginia Woolf speech, "Professions for Women," which she thinks best explains why female voices in sci-fi matter just as much as males.
"The speech is about how the world looks at us and how we look at ourselves," Kalogridis says. "She gives the speech because there was an idea then as there still is now that there are professions for women and I think there are just professions, really. The question becomes the more we push back at the idea that there is some specific place for us as writers, as show creators, as producers, as directors, the more we push back against that, the more we're able to bring whatever it is that our life experience brings to this story."
While Altered Carbon follows a male protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), it's the stories of the female characters that give the series the emotional resonance that sells the high-concept, extremely complicated drama. The gorgeous, violent, and thrilling story is set more than 300 years in the future, where society has been transformed by new technology: consciousness can be digitized and stored into stacks; human bodies are interchangeable to the point where they're just called sleeves; and death is no longer permanent, as stacks can be resleeved time and time again. Kovacs is the lone surviving soldier in a group of elite interstellar warriors who were defeated in an uprising against the new world order. His mind was imprisoned – on ice – for centuries until Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), an impossibly wealthy, long-lived man, offers Kovacs the chance to live again. In exchange, Kovacs has to solve Bancroft's own murder.
The twists and turns of Kovacs' mission hook you from the very start, but again, it's the female characters' stories that grip your heart and don't let go. The badass cop Kristen Ortega (Martha Higareda), no-nonsense lawyer Oumou Prescott (Tamara Taylor) and mysterious Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman) are all intensely inspiring, but there's one woman who stands out from them all. Without spoiling too much, Altered Carbon delivers one painfully relevant storyline about a young woman named Lizzie (Hayley Law) whose sleeve gets killed in a violent way, and the abuse and trauma she endured permanently affected her mind in her stack. In the #MeToo era, her journey to overcome her abuse in virtual reality before she can be resleeved into a new body is incredibly prescient despite the obvious fantastical elements, and it's one particular storyline that needed to be told by a woman.
"The Lizzie story is a good example of a story I feel is important to put on the screen," Kalogridis says. "Lizzie doesn't appear in the book as anything but a sentence about how she's dead. There's another character named Leila Begin [a pregnant woman in the book] who was kicked to death [and her unborn child is killed] but Leila wasn't a character who was particularly interesting to me to explore. I wanted to take what had happened to Leila and combine it into something that I felt spoke more directly to one of the inevitable disparities that this show is about."
Noting that Altered Carbon is "a dystopian show," Kalogridis wanted to use the series "to address, as most good sci-fi does, present day ills by holding up a mirror using some kind of technology or development in the future and saying, 'Look, this is what will happen if this goes unchecked. This is a cancer on our society.'"
"Not to lay it on too heavily, but I've always been incredibly moved by Malcolm X's 'The most disrespected woman in America ... The most un-protected person in America … Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair?' speech," Kalogridis says. "Lizzie is an embodiment of the way in which I regard women of color to be treated by women at the highest echelons of privilege, like white women, and that's what that whole storyline was about. I can't even tell you how hard those scenes were to film, but I felt it was necessary to include that story to show how, historically, damages are inflicted on black women's bodies by white women."
While it should seem obvious that a woman would be the best person to handle a story about women's experiences, you'd be surprised at how often Kalogridis has had to fight for those kinds of opportunities.
"There are so many people who I credit as never thinking for a moment that there was any reason why my gender would affect my ability to do this show," she says. "I did have quite a different experience when I was doing [2007 NBC series] Bionic Woman. It was a while ago but I was specifically fired because I was told that I didn't know how to write women as opposed to a man."
At this, I couldn't help but let out a sound of shock, because how could that be true? But Kalogridis just gives me a sardonic laugh in response, because this kind of institutional sexism is something she's been fighting her entire career.
"It's very important to me to represent women, but the only way we can move forward is if we talk about it," Kalogridis says. "People have asked me about the violence towards women in the show and that's because the world is violent towards women. That is why I'm talking about it on the show because I hope that it will change, and the only way to change is to talk about it. I started writing this before the reckoning, before Harvey [Weinstein], before the Nassar situation and the widespread realization that women should be believed about the things that happen to them."
She continues, "I'm writing fiction but my fiction is informed by my experience as a woman and how the world treats us. I hope that part of what I can do is move the needle a tiny bit so that more women can get the opportunity to do what I'm doing. Those voices are valuable. The only profession that's for women is gestating. Everything else is fair game."
When asked how she feels knowing that she's helping to trailblaze for aspiring sci-fi female showrunners, Kalogridis counters that she sees it "as part of a larger movement for women making inroads in showrunning generally."
"I'm part of, if I do say so myself, a really spectacular group of women like Shonda [Rhimes], like Jenji Kohan, like Marti Noxon, like Melissa Rosenberg," Kalogridis says. "I exist in a larger movement of women who are able to find their voices more and more in all sorts of different genres in television as well as movies. I'm very excited to be in a place where I'm able to represent a little bit the kind of shows that often times are not considered to be women's strong suits, which is obviously a position I completely disagree with."
And her work has certainly paid off. Altered Carbon is ambitious, interesting, and a whole lot of fun, and Kalogridis is paving the way for more women in sci-fi.
"There are so many women who want to write and direct and produce this kind of material and I do believe that there's some unconscious or sometimes conscious institutional pushback against that, that's part of a larger societal movement," she says.
But not for long, if Kalogridis can help it. "It's a bit like chipping away at a giant rock. That is what we're doing," she says. "I'm part of that chipping away and I'm very proud of that but we're far from where we need to be in terms of the kind of representation in our fiction that I would like to see. We are just beginning to work hard to reflect what I regard as the most vibrant kind of society, which is one in which people's differences are celebrated and we don't all look the same." And thanks to Kalogridis' tireless fight against the limitations placed upon her by others, she's truly making that dream a reality.
This story was created in support of Bustle's 2018 Awards Season pledge. Read more here.