‘The way I see it, anyone who’s proud of their country is either a thug or just hasn’t read enough history yet.’

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.

Black Man

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.


Filed under Morgan, Richard, SF

10 responses to “‘The way I see it, anyone who’s proud of their country is either a thug or just hasn’t read enough history yet.’

  1. I worked in Borders book when this was released – one of our managers at the time was a guy called Richard Morgan. Much hilarity ensued (well.. not really…)

    I’ve never read any of his books, but I’ve been kinda tempted by that fantasy series ‘The steel remains’ (just because I like the title), which he’s written under the name Richard “K” Morgan (wondering if he’s added the K to nervily invoke Ursula K. Le Guin? Or maybe the use of an initial is a kinda Banksian differential technique..). Given your review, I’m not sure I’ll be trying this one any time soon….

  2. That’s my next of his, in a while. If you do try him out I’d start with his first, Altered Carbon, which I loved. There’s a review here (by sheer chance of when I started reading him I’ve reviewed more Morgan here than most other writers I’ve read a lot of – it’s what comes of discovering him after setting up the blog).

    You could well be right about the K. Or it could be an Iain M Banks thing, to distinguish between his SF and fantasy. No idea.

  3. This sounded like a really interesting book initially, but my interest fizzled as the review continued. Too bad really. And 600 pages. A book’s got to be really good to be able to sustain that length. I can see the appeal though–SF infused with crime.

  4. It’s not his best. If you go back and check out my Altered Carbon review that’s the one I’d suggest you go for, or Market Forces. I liked both sequels to Altered Carbon, but I’m not sure either would interest you as he departs from the crime angle to explore other ideas.

    SF and fantasy tend to bloat, partly as the fans often demand volume. I agree though, at 600+ pages you’ve really got to do something special. In a way though 600 pages or 60, if the reader is counting how long the book is something’s gone wrong somewhere. Jared Lanier’s book, which is my next review, is about a fifth the length of this but felt ten times as long.

    The review’s ended up very critical, but in part that’s because I think Morgan can do better (and has). I did enjoy much of the book, but I didn’t love it and I was more than ready for it to end (though it ends well, which is something after how long it takes to get there). I was a little surprised that it was this title he won his award for.

  5. It’s so hard to get rid of essentialism.
    I’m surprised that there are more African than Caribbean lawyers around. I think that could be the opposite in France. Obviously it’s another situation.
    This sounds entirely too long. Too bad. I immeduately thought of Blade Runner. Since you mentioned it I had a look at the prize and some titles looked interesting. I’m reading Drowned World at the moment.
    There are a few interesting newer Sci-Fi titles like Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin and Susan Palwick’s Shelter.

  6. Given my track record with SF, I’ll stay away from this one.

    When I read this “They’re genetic sociopaths, engineered hyper-alpha males.”, I thought “what kind of monsters are they” and then it was in the next sentence.

    I don’t agree with the idea that we are what we are because of our genes. (except for the colour of eyes, etc, obviously) It’s too easy to use it to justify oppression of different people (women, homosexuals, coloured people) and it’s just too depressing. (what’s left for me to do if everything is predetermined?) This goes along with the distasteful idea of FATE deciding everything for us.

    Incidentally, I read today an article about how women are supposed to be attracted to men who ooze testosterone. The more testosterone, the more chance to get the girl. So guys, according to this scientific stuff, give up soap, nice clothes, kindness, sense of humour and focus on the testosterone pills. How silly is that?

  7. To be fair to Morgan, the point of the book in part is precisely to criticise the idea that we are what we are because of our genes. Pretty much every character in the book believes that, but there’s plenty of evidence in the text to suggest that they’re wrong. Marsalis is bred for violence, but he was also trained for it from infancy including specific training to deaden empathy. Nature and nurture are at the core of the book.

    Though as I say, that’s undermined by then making so much of the book about Marsalis doing very violent things very effectively.

    The testosterone one is interesting. Even if true, it’s just one factor among many. That’s where this research often gets misused. I understand there’s evidence that woman are more likely to be unfaithful while ovulating. Perhaps so. Even if true though, that doesn’t make women robots or mean that there aren’t other factors. There’s evidence similarly that men are more attracted in general to women with certain body ratios, but that has no predictive value for any individual man.

    Equally, it is telling how often biological theories seem to fit current sociological needs. I’m not denying that biology influences behaviour, but I do think it’s a much more complex interaction than tends to be appreciated.

  8. Different colonial histories lead to different patterns of racism I imagine Caroline.

    It’s a good award. I’ve not read Spin but I have read a few other Robert Charles Wilson. He can be very good, so hopefully this is one of those times. He has the most remarkable ideas – in his Chronoliths for example monuments to conquests begin to appear ahead of the battles they commemorate. The monuments appear from nowhere, are massive and soon that which they commemorate starts to come true as a Central Asian warlord begins to conquer vast territories. The question becomes how you challenge a foe when the monument to his future city has already appeared fresh from the future? Clever stuff.

    I’ll be interested to see your thoughts on Drowned World. I may reread it in a bit myself. Susan Palwick I don’t know so I’ll check her out.

  9. For me, Black Man was peak Morgan. I thought the Takeshi Kovacs series got a lot better as it progressed and I’m not massively sure about his new fantasy series (though I need to read the whole thing). However, I’d be interested in re-visiting the novel in the light of more sceptical reviews like this one and Sherryl Vint’s one for Straneg Horizons.

    Oh, and I believe the K was added by his US publisher to all his fiction (so it is Thirteen by Richard K Morgan, for example).

  10. Peak? Interesting. That makes sense, because if people didn’t feel that way he wouldn’t have won the award. You didn’t find it a bit bloated then I take it?

    I’d forgotten the Sherryl Vint review, so thanks for that link. She puts the point well – “But sadly, I suspect the pleasure of seeing the alpha male achieve victory at all costs will stay with most readers far beyond any consideration of egalitarianism.” though she also said it was a tremendously fun book to read which wasn’t how I found it (though it certainly had its moments, but then I struggle to imagine an outright bad Morgan book).

    How far have you got with the fantasy series? What’re your concerns?

    Thanks for the info on the K.

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