Fiction Reviews


Black Man

Published as Thirteen in the US (2007) Richard Morgan, Gollancz, 7.99, pbk, 630 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07813-0,

 

This is the paperback edition of the hardback previously reviewed. It is the 22nd century. Humanity has factioned. The US is not the power it once was and it too has split with the Bible belt becoming effectively its own state, Jesusland. China is, as is now, largely doing its own thing where it comes to (political) ethics. Yet there has been progress. Mars is now colonised and is producing high-tech goods and the colonization initiative (COLIN) seems to wield as much power as the UN. Genomics and gene modification has been applied to (some) humans. There is artificial intelligence. In short this is a scientifically mundane SF (i.e. believable) future with nothing in it that we cannot foresee as being at least theoretically possible.

Of course the new technology has to be controlled, especially some of the technological avenues that have been considered unethical/undesirable. One of these avenues was the creation of 13s: genetically modified humans, alpha males, using Neanderthal genes. 13s either live in controlled reservations or are sent to Mars. Carl Marsalis is one such 13 alpha male who had been on Mars but won a lottery back to Earth and now works hunting down rogue 13s who do not accept either of the Martian or reservation options.

Then a ship from Mars crashes into the ocean. On cracking open the ship, the rescue team find the crew have been eaten. A 13 from Mars has made his way back to Earth. And then the killing starts. DNA from the murder scenes confirms that the 13 from Mars is behind these crimes. What to do? Get your own 13 onto the case and so Carl Marsalis is tasked to hunt the criminal down...

At Black Man's heart is an exploration of bigotry. It is gritty and violent, and so much for the par as far as Richard Morgan's previous novels are concerned. Yet given that it does appear to be a genuine exploration of bigotry the violence is not gratuitous. The novel is well thought out with very good characterization. (Though has perhaps one SFnal plot blemish but it is necessary for the plot and it is not huge: you can't even these days expect to go through life without ever having your DNA picked up and checked against a database.) So overall this is a compelling novel. I say overall because I did find some of the scenes - especially parts of the middle of the book - drag a little. I suspect though this to be me even if at over 600 pages losing a hundred or so would not have hurt and as far as I am concerned would have greatly improved the story. As I said, perhaps it is me or perhaps, faced with arguably good copy, the author found it difficult to trim. That the book came in well after its editorial deadline had passed (so I understand) may have been a contributing factor.

If you like your SF with a dash of the old 'ultraviolence', easily believable (and humanly flawed) characters, a number of 'twists', all wrapped up in a whydunnit crime story, then this is for you. The book has also done very well on the awards front: it was a runner-up for the BSFA Award and a winner of the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke (book) Award. Don't be put off by the fact that the Clarke is a variable award that seems to reward a different aspect of excellence each year depending on the jury's predilections that year. Do be turned on by it being a winner. It is.

Jonathan Cowie

See Tony's take on Black Man (hardback).

Other reviews of Richard Morgan books on this site include: Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Market Forces and Woken Furies.


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