So far, I’ve read the first two of Richard Morgan’s trilogy of fantasy novels (the last of which is due out later this year). Black Man, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2008, was an opportunity to see what his sci-fi (for which he is better known) is like.
The title could refer to a few things, but the most obvious is the protagonist…who is black (i.e., of African descent, not literally black like a Tiste Andii). By foregrounding race in this way, the title is clearly advertising the book as one concerned with ‘issues’. That being the case, ‘Black Man‘ also evokes concepts of race and racism. Of course (inextricably bound up with issues of race via metaphor and linguistics), the colour black suggests other things too, evil, perhaps, and covert acts. In what seems to be a peculiarly hand-wringing gesture, the American printing of this book has changed the title to Thirteen (or Th1rte3n), possibly to avoid any accusations of non-PCness over there.
Somewhen between now and the early 22nd century (when the novel is set), the wealthy nations of the world decided to create genetic supersoldiers, hypermasculine throwbacks, to fight their wars (in the Middle East and elsewhere) for them. In the aftermath of this, a time of relative peace, it’s been decided that having highly trained psychopaths running around is not the best idea. Accordingly, all of these soldiers (termed Thirteens) have been given a choice: Mars or death. Most choose the colony on Mars, but a few need hunting down. Enter our proagonist: Carl Marsalis is a thirteen from the UK who pays his way by tracking down (and killing) other rogue thirteens.
The central plot begins with Carl being offered release from a Union prison (America has splintered into a conservative and religious heartland [the Union], and a liberal and progressive Rim). In a nice bit of scene-setting, he was arrested after offering to help pay for an (illegal in the Union) abortion for a utterly miserable prostitute. In fact, the entire situation was an elaborate entrapment operation. Anyway, yes, he’s offered release. If, that is, he’ll track down a thirteen who has managed to make it back from Mars, killing and eating all of the other people on the ship en route. Replace thirteen with replicant, and you have something rather similar to the story of Blade Runner.
Marsalis teams up with various agents and cops in his quest. They’re all pretty interesting and well developed characters, and, in their bouncing off of one another, Morgan gets to elaborate on his chosen themes (of which there are many — this book is packed to the gills with philosophical musings). Thereafter the plot progresses in typical thriller mode (clues uncovered, chases had), gradually encompassing more and more players — from the seediest of criminals to the most influential of politicians. The book is set up as one superman battling another superman, and there are, as one would hope, brilliantly exciting fight scenes where people get very badly injured in really ingenious and brutally effective ways. About three quarters of the way through, though, this (more stimulating) side of things winds down, and we’re left with the protagonists trying to clear up a convoluted morass of political intrigue. The tangled web that eventually emerges is almost baroque in its complexity, and, compared to the fairly action-orientated stuff that went before it, ultimately quite forgettable.
The plot, then, is fine, but by no means the reason it won the Clarke Award. No, it’s the issues that Morgan deals with that makes this one worth reading. Race, obviously, but being an outsider and a minority more generally; reproductive rights; AIDS (there is a gun that literally shoots out AIDS); bereavement; abortion; masculinity (and how!); religion; and violence. And probably many more I’m forgetting. Above all, the main recurrent theme is genetic determinism. To what extent is Carl programmed to do the things he is? To what extent are we (non-thirteens) programmed to respond to him in the way we do? The characters certainly seem to come down on the genetics side of things, though there are various clues that suggest that Morgan himself may be somewhat more undecided. Sometimes it’s all a bit blunt (I think the Union [Jesusland] is a bit too black and white for instance), and sometimes it feels a bit didactic, but by and large it’s handled very well, and his choice of targets is impeccable.