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Black Man
Richard Morgan
Gollancz paperback £7.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Richard Morgan has a reputation for violence. Even the title of Black Man is confrontational, and sufficiently provocative that his American publishers substituted it with Thirteen. This is a valid alternative, as both terms describe Carl Marsalis, a black man who is feared and hated for being a variant 13. In the latter part of the 21st century, secret government programmes genetically engineered these super-soldiers. Gene-selected for aggression and independence and brought up in training camps to ensure that nurture reinforced nature, they are a return to the stone age alpha male. They were deployed to trouble spots around the world at the end of the 2080s; the same period when the depth of exploitation of the human genome became public - from hibernoids to women bred for prostitution.

Public outrage and UN action has allied with advances in technology to bring such experimentation to a close by the first decade of the 22nd century. Whilst most variants have been allowed to make their own lives, the 13s are considered a danger to society. They have been constrained to prison camps - at least those who didn't take parole and go to Mars. For this is not a one-note future. The western nations colony initiative - COLIN - runs the terraforming of Mars and the transport system between the two planets. COLIN is the largest commercial organisation on Earth, able to ignore the UN in a way that only China can among the nation states. The United States has split into three. The rim states on the Pacific coast and the Union in the northeast have escaped the drag of the Confederated Republic. Morgan's acknowledgements make clear the political boundaries of North America are derived from the 'map meme' generated after the USA's 2004 presidential election.

This geopolitical background shapes the novel at both large and small scales. The book opens with Marsalis in action at a COLIN camp in Peru. A British subject and UN accredited agent hunting down other variant 13s, he swiftly executes his mission. In the rim states, an Earth return ship crashes into the sea when it should have docked at the top of a space elevator; a 13 has escaped from Mars. So far, so Bond movie... On his way home, though, Marsalis is entrapped by Miami Vice and finds himself in a South Florida prison, out of reach of his UN handlers. The inmates don't know he is a 13, but in the old south, being a black man is still crime enough. Marsalis is unused to the trivial matter of his skin colour being held so much against him; the genes which make him a 13 form a much more significant differentiator.

It's hardly surprising, given the title, that racial prejudice and its motivations is a key theme of the book. Morgan uses dumb racism to access more subtle discussion of the repercussions of race and genetic difference. His 13s despise the herd mentality of massed humanity. Equally, to the extent that their genes trap them, they are genuinely to be feared. The creation of monsters from our own gene pool and our visceral reaction to them is reminiscent of the vampires from Blindsight. Like Blindsight, there is genetic, biological determinism in this novel. Morgan, though, shows a little more hope for us - a suggestion that we may be able to overcome at least some of our programming.

The COLIN team extract Marsalis from his hell and set him to work tracking down their nightmare - the rogue 13 is on a murder spree with no apparent motive. Marsalis and one of the COLIN investigators, Sevgi Ertegun, bounce around the planet, chasing down leads which only Marsalis can identify. This 'planetary romance' gives convincing depth to our world 100 years hence, in its combination of the new with the familiar.

"More modern additions to Istanbul's diverse collection of water transport had a boxy, plastic look that made them out no more than the seabuses they were... [but] the high, wide bridge, hunched smoke stack and long waist of the antique ships still on the Karakoy-Kadikoy run spoke of departure to further-flung places" (page 243). Morgan has done a beautiful job of realising a future that still isn't evenly distributed.

These jaunts also have room for dozens of pages of talking, of humans working out who they are by describing themselves to each other. Morgan combines this self-representation with a view into the interior of his protagonists to build rounded, convincing portraits. Marsalis is an individual as well as an archetype, working against the limits of both nurture and nature. Ertegun is a Turkish-American former NYPD detective; she provides an angle on normal human perspectives and her reactions to Marsalis provide considerable insight, reinforcing the reader responses of both fear and admiration. Even the most minor characters are well rounded, though Morgan struggles more with a bible reader than a serial killer.

The book closes with as satisfying a series of set pieces as it opened, though there is a 'false bottom' two thirds of the way through, where the story is nearly wrapped up. This is followed by a meditation on dying and death that sits a little awkwardly within the book. Marsalis has been so busy killing people; it seems a little strange to see him so strongly affected by the end of someone he cares about. And yet, that is also the point of this section - the yearning for a belief that would soften the blow, or at least a way of overcoming the desire for belief.

"When people are gone some deeply programmed part of his consciousness was insisting, it's because they're somewhere else, right? ... Fine. So where's she gone? Let's find that out, because then we can fucking go there and find her, be with her" (page 610). From such straightforward fragments, Morgan builds up complex ideas. He delineates arguments as clearly as firefights. Richard Morgan has a reputation for violence, but on the evidence of this outing, he also deserves to be known for the quality of his engagement with the human condition.
Black Man by Richard Morgan, hardcover

Black Man by Richard Morgan, paperback

Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan, USA edition

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