Gollancz, 2007, 546 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-575-07767-6
Anyone can get an idea, but the measure of true professionals is what they do with it. It’s the difference between luck and talent: how an author masters the tools of the trade in order to deliver a satisfying experience. If anything, Black Man shows how much progress Richard Morgan has made over five novels, from a gifted amateur to a solid professional.
At first glance, Black Man struggles to distinguish itself from so many thriller/SF hybrids: It’s a serial killer novel. It’s a genetic discrimination novel. It’s a buddy-cop story. It’s a near-future thriller with chases and fights and mysteries and United Nations operatives. Worse yet: whatever elements do come up in plot summaries are the kind of tedious clichés seen so often seen in naive small-press Science Fiction: a race of men genetically engineered to be killers, an America divided between liberal blue and conservative red states, and so on. We’re far from the high-concept sleeving of Altered Carbon and its two sequels, or the corporate advancement through car combat in Market Forces.
But don’t let any of this fool you: Black Man is written by a professional, and there’s a lot of clever material under the surface sheen of this SF thriller. Morgan is able to take all of those elements and spin them into a thought-provoking, genre-savvy exploration of issues that even seem fresh once he’s done with them.
The hero of the tale is one Carl Marsalis, a genetically-engineered “variant thirteen” whose talents include an innate propensity toward violence. This seems to be a good asset in his chosen career as an enforcer for the United Nations. Though never called a “blade runner”, his job is to track down and take care of unregistered thirteens. Things don’t always go well, however, and within chapters of the opening, he’s in a Florida prison for moral offences against the ultra-conservative government of the “Red” United States. When agents from the “Blue” States come to him with an offer to track down a thirteen who came back from Mars and left behind a trail of partially digested bodies before even landing on Earth, he’s unusually receptive to their offer.
The ensuing chase takes place on three continents and in virtual reality, but Morgan has much more in mind than a simple adventure tale. Before even realizing it, we’re tackling speculations about the feminisation of western society, the need for aggression in protecting metaphorical flocks of sheep, the role of genetic determinism, the place of politics in shaping our futures and the lasting consequences of what seemed like good ideas at the time. As the title of the book suggests, it also has something to say about racism and gender. (Although regular Morgan readers may be excused if their first though upon hearing “Richard Morgan’s Black Man” is thinking “cool; covert ops” before seeing the more literal meaning of the title.)
Best of all, Black Man discusses those issues in ways that ground their pedestrian description in credibility. Setting a novel in a world where “Jesusland” is a reality smacks of cheap Internet memes given form, but it works really well in the novel itself, as the reasons of the split between the two United States feel plausible (indeed, the “Blue” states are the breakaway states) and are described with enough detail to make them feel natural. Much of the same care is spent in making the “genetic determinism” issue more complex that it may seem at first glance. Marsalis himself is a classic Morgan protagonist stuck between his alpha-male base impulses, his awareness of his flaws and everyone else’s view of him. In the end, there isn’t much to differentiate him from other humans, and that, of course, is the entire point. (And so is the recognition that violence is a non-optimal problem resolution strategy. In a chase thriller. Now that’s either being clever or hypocritical.)
If there’s a significant flaw with Black Man, it’s to be found in the amount of prose it takes to tell its story. As complex and nuanced as Morgan may want to make his story, no thriller actually deserves to go over 600 pages. The numerous tangents do nothing to tighten the impact of the story, and the consequent impact on the novel’s narrative drive is unpleasant. The contrast with the rush-ahead pacing of Market Forces is telling.
But even with superfluous hundred pages, Black Man still manages to find a place atop the year’s best SF novels. It’s particularly impressive for the way it manages to overcome overused SF elements and make something worthwhile out of them. Morgan’s attempt to look at his own tough-guy preoccupations is just another facet of his growing effectiveness as a writer. There may not be anything radically new or original in Black Man, but the end result is worth a look, and even a thought or two.