This is a book that wears its heart on its sleeve. Or, at least, it does in the U.K. In America—the country that occupies the heart of the novel—Richard Morgan's Black Man has become Richard K. Morgan's Thirteen. It is an act of cowardice on the part of the publishers that is so minor as to be baffling. Both titles relate to the central character, but only the original gets straight to Morgan's concerns, lets us know up front that this is a novel about identity politics. This is not the only time Morgan tries to tell us something directly, outside of the story: there is a substantial acknowledgements section that precedes the text. In this he namechecks biologists like Matt Ridley and Stephen Pinker alongside social psychologists and American and Islamic cultural commentators. The novel also bears epigrams from voguish moral philosopher John Gray and militant atheist Richard Dawkins. So before we have read a page of the novel we have certain expectations. An overtly intellectual and political text certainly; perhaps a gently liberal political extrapolation in the vein of Kim Stanley Robinson, perhaps something a little less pipe-and-slippers. And then we get to the prologue, and find ourselves reading what appears to be a brash serial-killer-in-space novel. It is more than a little incongruous. It is not, however, entirely unexpected from a man whose previous standalone novel, Market Forces, was inspired by Mad Max, Rollerball, and Noam Chomsky.
Carl Marsalis is black, British, and genetically engineered: a "variant thirteen, the avatars of purified violence, our saviours and our nemesis" (p. 594). Thirteens were created to be super-soldiers, engineered and conditioned to be the epitome of a masculine hunter-gatherer, throwbacks to a time before humanity softened into agrarian society and evolved such restraints as morality and religion. As you would expect, thirteens do not play well with others, and a backlash soon followed their creation. At a time when overt prejudice against black people has never been less acceptable in Western society and yet such prejudice against Muslims increases daily with the tacit approval of the most senior levels of society, Morgan suggests that we will never be short of an other to fear. Slurred as "twists" they are no longer the heroes of Middle Eastern wars but monsters to be feared and hated, interned in camps, or exiled to Mars. Marsalis is an exception. Operating under UN licence, he has his freedom at the price that he must hunt down others of his kind. Returning from just such a job in Peru he is (rather implausibly) entrapped by the Miami vice squad and then imprisoned in a Jesusland correctional facility.
Not long after the 2004 presidential elections in the United States a map started to do the rounds on the internet. It was a map of Jesusland, a reimaging of the borders of the U.S. predicated on the Red State/Blue State idea that the country was actually two distinct entities: a liberal, progressive one more akin to Canada clustered around the West Coast and the North East; and an intolerant, conservative one in the heartland and the South. It caught Morgan's eye and in Black Man he has made the concept a reality. The map itself is a facile piece of propaganda borne out of understandable frustration at the reelection of George W. Bush, but Morgan uses it as a starting point for an examination of whether there really is a war for civilisation; not the spurious one between the West and Islam so beloved of professional punditry but the far more compelling intrasocietal one between conflicting conceptions of the morally just life:
"America split up over a vision of what strength is. Male power versus female negotiation. Force versus knowledge, dominance versus tolerance, simple versus complex. Faith and Flag and patriotic Song stacked up against the New Math, which, let's face it, no-one outside of quantum specialists really understand, Co-operation Theory and the New International Order. And, until Project Lawman came along, every factor on the table is pointing towards a future so feminised it's downright un-American." (p. 116)
As the quote makes clear, Morgan's conception of social justice is bound up with his conception of gender. He has never appeared on the Tiptree Award shortlist, and it is doubtful he ever will, but it is hard to think of a contemporary, male SF writer who has so consistently examined such issues. This is perhaps hidden by the fact his books appear to be so unremittingly masculine. The character of Marsalis will be instantly recognisable to readers of Morgan's previous novels because he is a writer who specialises in self-aware alpha males. He made a big splash with his overhyped debut novel, Altered Carbon. The hero of this and its two sequels—Broken Angels and Woken Furies—was Takeshi Kovacs, another UN hired gun with the ability and mandate to impose his will. The protagonist of Market Forces, Chris Faulkner (a strong, masculine literary name if ever I heard one), is a more contemporary and recognisable version of the same: a city boy with a social conscience. Marsalis is a combined, and deliberately extreme, example of these archetypes.
Violent confrontation is the engine of all Morgan's novels. What makes them unusual is that this confrontation is almost always verbal. At least at first. Marsalis is always happy to crush a windpipe or break a kneecap, but only after trying to assert dominance through words. It is not just winning the fight that is important: you have to win the argument. It is the praxis of force and knowledge, and it brings out the key difference between Morgan and his peers. Black Man is what you might call paramilitary SF, a point on the thriller-to-war-story spectrum somewhere between cyberpunk and mil SF. It is also very different to anything else you might group under that bracket. Just as "sci fi" has connotations beyond science fiction, so "mil SF" is not straightforwardly a contraction of military SF. The publisher that mil SF instantly conjures up is Baen and, in particular, gung ho all-American writers such as John Ringo. One of his recent novels (co-authored with Tom Kratman) was Watch On The Rhine by John Ringo in which the Waffen SS are re-animated to battle invading aliens. If dominance over tolerance often sounds like crypto-fascism then you can't make it much balder than that. Ostensibly Black Man is about something similar: the waking of buried monsters to fulfil a service that humanity is no longer capable of providing itself. However, it is very hard to imagine Ringo or Kratman including a paragraph of dialogue such as:
"Well, Valipour cites Idris, yeah, but really she's tracing a line right back to Rabiah Basri herself, and she's arguing that Rabiah's interpretation of religious duty purely as religious love is, uh, you know, the proto-typical feminist understanding of Islam." (p. 294)
To belatedly return to plot synopsis, Marsalis is incarcerated without trial and the UN do not find it politically expedient to petition too hard for his release. (The analogy isn't exactly obscure but it is notable that it is one of the few instances where Morgan actually refers, even indirectly, to Britain's (rather than America's) place in the world.) Instead, Marsalis is freed by the immensely powerful colonial corporation which is settling Mars. They, of course, expect a bit of quid pro quo: to catch and kill their serial killer. The rest of the novel unravels towards the realisation of this goal, very much in the manner you would expect from a book which proclaims itself a "blistering thriller." For all that Morgan steps outside some of the usual conventions he is still recognisably working in the format and Black Man comes with some of its bad habits. My Advance Reader Copy is the size and weight of a small car, running to 656 pages; even the finished version will be 560 pages, according to Amazon. It is replete with the red herrings, reversals, and misdirection that you would expect, word count for the sake of page turning, and prose that is utterly without ornamentation. This rush and density does not necessarily fit with Morgan's more contemplative philosophical urges and there is a tension between the two very different types of writing he is engaging in: not so much head versus heart but brain versus balls. As Adam Roberts put it in his review of Market Forces:
It is the plot and the violent set-pieces, not the political subtext, that keep us reading, and they keep us reading because they're exciting. As any Hollywood action-blockbuster director would tell you, car-war battles, executives bashing out client's brains with a baseball bat, explosions, revenge eyeball-puncturing, adulterous sex—these things make compelling entertainment, howsoever morally dubious.
Morgan is aware of this and explicitly addresses it but he has never been wholly successful at reconciling his differing impulses. There is also a question of credentials here. Morgan spends considerable time tackling race, gender, and religion but does the reader want to be lectured on these topics by a white, male, atheist writer? Is it all just camouflage to allow Morgan to indulge in the sex and violence that he clearly enjoys writing? I don't think so: he is obviously sincere and his examination is too intelligent and considered to be merely a fig leaf. At the same time, however, Black Man is clearly still a case of the author having his cake and eating it. So Morgan's approach is problematic but at the same time it is so utterly different to anything else out there that it is almost impossible not to admire it.