Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Review of "Black Man (UK) / Thirteen (US)" by Richard Morgan

Like drugs for techno-action junkies, Richard Morgan did the futuristic, world-weary warrior story well in his Takeshi Kovacs series.  A wild west style of justice continually seeping through the scenes of blood and gore, he also indicated there may be a little more on his mind than just action. The nihilism left without an explicit voice, Morgan set out to rectify this in his 2007 Black Man (Thirteen in the US).  Slowing plot to allow ideological exposition a place, the novel finds the author highlighting the prevalence of vice in unabashed, overt style.  Thematic content not always matching character representation and premise, the result is a story with conflicting agendas.

Black Man is the story of Carl Marsalis, a genetically modified British super-soldier working for the UN’s GLA (like the CIA).  Using his experience as a special forces operative, he travels the world apprehending criminals, usually rogue thirteens, of which he is one.  Called “hyper-males”, thirteens are fueled by testosterone doses, have been upgraded physically, trained to violence, can be easily goaded, and yet retain a sense of logic to help them plan their moves—Conans with guns.   Marsalis himself a thirteen but on the right side of the law, his skills prove invaluable toward catching those of his kind who disrupt society.
Tiring of his job but motivated by genetic wiring, Marsalis passes life catching and often killing criminals, always regretting the violence of the most recent.  There is quickly a change in his routine, however: when asked by the Rim States (the part of the US which remained united after the South, known as Jesusland, seceded) to apprehend a particularly dangerous thirteen who is on a killing spree, he accepts.  The job arranged by Sevgi, a female detective from the Rim’s version of the FBI called COLIN, and her partner, Tom Norton, a public relations specialist, the three set out on the trail of the killer, hoping to end his run of violence.  The further they go, however, the more they realize murder is only a piece of the puzzle.

In between scenes transitioning plot, Morgan wields a weighty hammer of exposition.  He goes to great length detailing the social and psychological premises buttressing his vision of society 100 years from now.  The feminist movement of the West, particularly the feminization of men, has allowed other countries to become more politically and militarily powerful.  Areas of the US south have become so fundamentally religious as to break away from the Union, thumping their bibles every inch of the way.  And perhaps most importantly, technology has not been put to use in a fashion which sees society civilize itself to any greater degree; social Darwinism continuing to permeate humanity’s behavior.  It is all well and good to express one’s philosophy in ideas, which Morgan is obviously doing in Black Man.  However, this expression needs to be consistent and clear, an area he fails.  

For example, while the feminist movement is blamed for taking power and weakening men, there are no female characters which occupy prestigious positions, e.g. presidents, CEOs, chairmen, etc.  These positions are occupied by men.  Worse yet, none of these male characters behave effeminately.  All act like typical comic book men, macho to ambitious, ultra-logical to greedy, leaving the reader to wonder: where’s the background support to the premise?   A secondary issue is the presentation of these “emancipated” women.  Of the three main female characters, two sleep with the hero for no reason beyond animal lust.  That they are presented as being attracted to the testosterone-filled rather than the intelligent, and therefore, more financially well to do male, makes one wonder just how in touch Morgan is with modern/futuristic society, not to mention Darwinism.  

The second major ideological inconsistency is how Morgan posits that taking justice into one’s own hands is the only means of setting matters right.  In seemingly every scene of action, Marsalis is the one stepping in to invoke fairness, most often bloodily.  There is one scene wherein his one-man posse kills a “bad” man, a man who also believed he was making the world a better place, albeit with larger, more effective political and military means.  Suffice to say, the other such impasses don’t help define Morgan’s agenda, but rather confuse it. 

Regarding style, Black Man is different than what Morgan produced with Takeshi Kovacs.  The author caring too much about the themes at stake, the novel shows every sign of being over-revised.  Trying to ensure every ounce of meaning is squeezed into dialogue, the narrative noticeably drags on numerous occasions.  Additionally, there are fewer unique ideas.  Things like “evercrete” (permacrete), “datahawk” (hacker), and “to cryocap” (to cryogenically freeze), and other neologisms show Morgan playing more with the letters than ideas, the number of original concepts limited in the context of other sci-fi available.

In the end, Black Man is a novel with a split personality.  (I was going to write “the novelized version of Universal Soldier without Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren”, and it seems I did).  Despite that the front cover declares the book a “blistering new thriller”, it is in fact more of a police  procedural, and a slow one at that.  Though motivated by typical plot devices of the sub-genre, e.g. assassination attempts, chase scenes, villain twists, etc., the action is salted heavily with indirect dialogue on the Darwinian nature of humanity, which slows the narrative considerably.  Morgan identifies holes in mankind’s behavior (little mention of its virtues) and plugs them with frontier justice: civilization can’t be trusted, so the individual must take aggressive action.  (“Brutality is a fucking fact of life.  Haven’t you noticed?” one prominent character can be quoted as saying.)  Thus, readers who liked the Takashi Kovacs novels will like Black Man, but perhaps be put off by the slower pace.  Those who were on the fence about Altered Carbon but saw potential in Morgan will have to read for themselves to find out whether his more ideological side is for them.  If you’re looking for a world-weary portrayed with more aplomb, check out Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons.  If you want sci-fi noir with a finely honed moral edge, try William Gibson’s Virtual Light or M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing.

(Publisher’s views in the US aside, Thirteen is a more appropriate title.  Given Morgan’s focus on the hyper-male, survival-of-the-fittest qualities, and that Marsalis never occupies the role of a figurative “black man”, that is, a true societal outcast (despite that he is literally black), Thirteen seems a far better summing up of the novel.  But, that’s just my opinion.)

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