Black Man, by Richard Morgan
One of the very few book awards I bother following is the Arthur C. Clarke award. One of the very few science fiction writers I bother following is Richard Morgan. In 2008 he won the Arthur C. Clarke award for his fifth novel, Black Man, which makes it slightly ironic that it’s the first of his I’ve not enjoyed.
Black Man is a novel that uses SF techniques to comment on real world racial and gender politics, showing how people can be demonised and caricatured. In the US the book was published under the alternative title Thirteen, a fact that makes Morgan’s points more effectively than his own text ever could.
The novel takes place in a dystopian future in which genetic engineering has allowed us to create human subspecies, bred to purpose. As with any new technology, the early applications focus on new ways to get people off and to get people dead. Sex and war, driving human development since 4 million BC.
Carl Marsalis is the black man of the (original) title. That’s true in two senses: he’s black British, which in his future isn’t particularly important as Europe is largely post-racial; and he’s a variant thirteen. Variant thirteens are one of those new subspecies, bred from early human hunter-gatherer stock for size, strength, aggression and charisma. They’re genetic sociopaths, engineered hyper-alpha males.
Variant thirteens are the nearest this future has to monsters. They’re everything Western culture tells us men should be. They’re naturally dominant, and they don’t care who knows it. They’re so feared that generally they’re only allowed to exist on the offworld colonies on Mars. Marsalis is an exception – when a variant thirteen somehow escapes the colonies and makes it to Earth it’s his job to hunt them down and bring them in.
If you’re thinking of Blade Runner at this point you should be, the book contains clear elements of homage:
he carried his suitcase along broad, bright concourses lined with ten-by-two metre holoscreens that admonished Think it’s all Red Rocks and Airlocks; Think Again and We only send Winners to Mars.
Now one of these nightmares has made it to Earth in a crashed spaceship, and worse it’s killing people according to a pattern nobody can understand. The NYPD and colonial administration officers on Earth team up to track the rogue down, but they need help. They need an expert. They need, obviously enough, Carl Marsalis.
‘You don’t understand what you’re up against.’ The smile came back, fleeting, as if driven by memory. ‘You think because Merrin’s killed a couple of dozen people, he’s some kind of serial killer writ large? That’s not what this is about. Serial killers are damaged humans. You know this, Sevgi, even if Tom here doesn’t. They leave a trail, they leave clues, they get caught. And that’s because in the end, consciously or subconsciously, they want to be caught. Calculated murder is an anti-social act, it’s hard for humans to do, and it takes special circumstances at either a personal or a social level to enable the capacity. But that’s you people. It’s not me, and it’s not Merrin, and it’s not any variant thirteen. We’re not like you. We’re the witches. We’re the violent exiles, the lone-wolf nomads that you bred out of the race back when growing crops and living in one place got so popular. We don’t have, we don’t need a social context. You have to understand this; there is nothing wrong with Merrin. He’s not damaged. He’s not killing these people as an expression of some childhood psychosis, he’s not doing it because he’s identified them as some dehumanised, segregated extra-tribal group. He’s just carrying out a plan of action, and he is comfortable with it. And he won’t get caught doing it – unless you can put me next to him.’
Black Man is essentially an SF thriller with a philosophical underpin. That could be said to varying degrees of all Morgan’s novels so far, but here it doesn’t quite come off. Almost everyone in Morgan’s future buys the genetic determinist viewpoint. They believe that the variant thirteens represent an extension of male traits, just as another much more submissive variant represents an extension of female traits. They ignore the fact that every variant thirteen was raised from birth by the military, trained to be what they were bred to be.
For much of the book it’s easy to miss how Morgan undermines his own characters’ viewpoint, which is very close to a modern pseudo-scientific Anglo-American viewpoint. Marsalis believes his own press – as far as he’s concerned he is genetically predisposed to certain behaviour patterns. He’s paired with an ex-NYPD detective named Sevgi. She finds herself attracted to Marsalis which doesn’t surprise her as she considers herself no less subject to genetic predisposition than he is. This is genetics both as destiny and excuse, but more as a seemingly apolitical justification for the status quo.
Looking around the real world today what Morgan’s talking about is much in evidence. I saw a while back a newspaper story about how scientists in the US were working on understanding the genetic underpinning for why girls prefer pink. They seemed unaware that in the 19th Century pink was seen as a colour for boys, blue was then the preferred colour for girls. Those scientists had assumed a genetic basis for what is clearly a cultural phenomenon, and a very recent one at that. That’s fairly harmless in that instance, but it’s a tiny step from that to assuming that under-representation of of women in engineering or of men in nursing is due to irrevocable genetic differences.
In my own profession it’s striking how few black lawyers there are, and of those who are almost all are of African rather than Caribbean descent. If we see that as a societal issue then it suggests that something has gone wrong at some point in the training and recruitment process. If though we reach to genetics (which hardly anyone does now for race thankfully, but which increasingly seems to be the default answer for gender-based outcome differences) then we can sit comfortably in our privilege reassuring ourselves that we find ourselves where we are not because we benefit from an unfair society but because that’s how nature made us.
That’s meaty stuff. The question is whether an SF thriller is the best place to explore it. Morgan spends most of his frankly rather fat book driving the plot along. The characters don’t see how their own assumptions are questionable, which means that for the vast bulk of the book nobody questions them and it’s very easy to miss the fact that they’re not actually supported by the text.
More problematically, it’s all very well showing that Marsalis isn’t as unique as everyone likes to think he is, that without genetic engineering we’ve produced more than our fair share of charismatic monsters anyway, but all of that pales when put against Marsalis beating up everyone in his path and getting the girl. The book’s plot undermines its philosophy. There’s a sense here of Morgan having his cake and eating it, treating the reader to exciting action scenes then saying that violence is bad, m’kay.
More successful is the portrayal of Marsalis’ partner Sevgi. She’s a moderately observant muslim who takes her faith seriously but who isn’t very good at it. That’s actually quite revolutionary. It’s a sympathetic depiction of what it’s like to practice a faith at the everyday level even though you’re not some paragon of virtue. She has a drink and substance abuse problem, she’s attracted to the wrong kind of men, she has all sorts of issues but none of that changes her faith or her hope that it might make her a better person than she is.
Morgan clearly isn’t religious himself, but here Sevgi’s faith is no worse than any other belief system, and since hers is a particularly progressive strain of Islam it’s arguably better than many:
‘Angels and demons, heaven and hell, god, morality, law and language. Sutherland’s right, it’s all metaphor. Scaffolding to handle the areas where base reality won’t cut it for you guys, where it’s too cold for humans to live without something made up. We codify our hopes and fears and wants, and then build whole societies on the code. And then forget it ever was code and treat it like fact. Act like the universe gives a shit about it. Go to war over it, string men and women up by the neck for it. Firebomb trains and skyscrapers in the name of it.’
You could read that as being about religion, and it is, but it’s about politics too, nationalism, and of course the absurd belief that somehow evolutionary theory tells us not just how we came to live but how we should live – the idea that girls like pink because their genes tell them to (to be fair this is a trap Dawkins himself has never fallen into, but plenty of his followers have).
In the end, the problem with Black Man is that it’s just far too long. My copy came in at 644 pages. That allows for an ocean of plot, of action scenes, twists and turns. The thematic underpin gets lost in all that. This should have been a 300 page novel. That would mean losing well over half the plot and likely entire characters and storylines, but the result would have been a book that had a much better balance between adrenalin and social critique. As it is the book risks celebrating exactly that which it sets out to challenge, and for that reason I think it ultimately fails.
There’s a very good review by Martin Lewis at Strange Horizons here which I recommend both for analysis and for a better explanation of the plot than I’ve sought to provide.