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Black Man cover

Thirteen cover

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.

Jesusland

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.

Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of SF. They have all been longer than 350 words.



Martin Petto has also reviewed for Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He blogs at Everything Is Nice, and generally goes about his business.
9 comments on “Black Man/Thirteen by Richard Morgan”

Strange.
To have a valid opinion on race, gender, and religion, one must be female, minority, and a believer? I won't even begin to point out how sexist, racist, and downright foolish this belief system is.
It seems to me that you just don't get it.
This novel is a lament for the death of the alpha male. It can (and obviously has been) construed as misogynist at times, but an ability to grasp what is being said will make it obvious that this book is ultimately very feminist in leaning. Bordering at times upon misandry. Alpha male = woe.
The entirety of civilization is a female construct according to this novel, and I believe the case is well made. Law, order, peace -- we have the better half to thank for these unnatural phenomenon.
Despite being an atheist, Morgan is very gentle with belief, and does not attack it in the manner in which he attacks the sheepdom of the average human being. He merely points it out to be the bane of the alpha male -- which it undoubtedly is.
To even mention the bastard children of Heinlein in a Morgan review is nigh offensive and goes to show you just don't have a readiness to understand what is being said. That's ok, I suppose. I believe many will be quite ready and willing to misconstrue what is being said.
I believe Black Man to be the most important work of Science Fiction I have read in years. But then, I have been accused of the much maligned Alpha status, and so it struck me deep.
His 'differing impulses' as you call it are the realities, the incongruities of heart that every man must deal with. Our nature and our morality, churning ever at odds with one another.
A man of war has no place in this world, brave and new. Alpha's are buried and subdued by the mundane against their nature, and have no outlet for positive action. Morgan is offering them an outlet. Begging for their action. Demanding they stand up and be counted.
Demanding the end of a sheep-like 'cudlip' existence. A call to fight against the real oppression of our age -- racism, sexism, insane religious belief systems. He laments the death of man while pointing us on the path of action that can still matter. Our very last chance.
Black Man can change lives; change outlooks and viewpoints. It is the very best science fiction can possibly offer. Even in a year with the exemplary Brasyl by MacDonald, Black Man is and will be the most important work of speculative fiction published.
Dismiss it to your own loss.

Mr. Lexner, I think you have misconstrued Mr. Lewis' point (or perhaps I have misconstrued both his and yours:

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.

That doesn't read to me as the damning indictment you seem to have taken it to be.
Mr. Lewis, from your biog blurb;

They have all been longer than 350 words.

That gave me (and I imagine few others) the best LOL of the afternoon! 😉

I also think William (again, and famously) misses the point Martin is making here. But then again, I think William is so utterly wrongheaded in the assertions he's made in his comment that I don't think it merits discussion or attention.
(All us flower-plucking, skirt-wearing pansy liberals would rather spend our time singing Kumbaya in William's world, don't you know?)
Martin, you're a hero. Excellent review. And yes, your bio made me laugh like a braying donkey.

Dismiss it to your own loss.
Since it apparently isn't clear from my review I will note that I enjoyed the book and think it is a very interesting piece of work. I also think it should be shortlisted for the Tiptree and the Clarke. I'll admit that I am quite surprised that someone could take the exact opposite from the review to that intended.
As for the novel being a lament to the alpha male, I think you would be hard pressed to say Morgan mourns the passing of this particular breed of alpha male. He views the feminisation of society as a positive thing and people such as Marsalis as a necessary evil rather the last of a noble breed. There is nothing to suggest the extinction of the thirteens is a tragic event for him. Even Marsalis seems to agree with this.

Martin,
Much like you misread the book, you misunderstood the lament paragraph. Please read it again. The book is more complex than you are either capable or willing to admit, and you discount a point made quite clearly in it.
You say that Morgan is indulging in sex and violence and seem to lack the understanding that this is all that life is or ever has been. I am quite happy for you that you've lived such an insular existence that writing about the chief aims and imperatives in the history of humanity seems like pornography to you.
Gabe,
Your comments are foolish.
1. I am a liberal. Quite so, in fact. I'm of the type that acts instead of screaming about it, and so of no use to your kind. Why not call me Bush or Hitler and be done? It sticks about as well as any of your assertions.
2. You toss about the word hero as if it means nothing. Morgan may very well be a hero for writing this book, but finding seven different ways to disdain and demean the most heartfelt novel of science fiction in a decade or more is hardly the act of a hero.
Perhaps Martin thought it interesting and even of some merit, but I don't think he understood any of it.

An Admirer

William,
If I abase myself before your critical feet, will you endow upon me the One True Reading of the text? I am awed that you have attained this pinnacle of understanding. Your alpha-interpreter status marks you as a leader among thinkers. With a mind such as yours, there is surely no need to engage with another argument - it can simply be dismissed.
Please share your secrets with a fervent admirer.
Yours,
Anon.

Josh Jasper

Hey Martin, have you contacted the Tiptree Motherboard yet? I'd totally second your nomination. It's worthy of being shortlisted. I don't think it's a winner, but my complaints on that are about structural quality (lack thereof) and the ham handedness of the lecturing.

I didn't realise people could nominate works, I've emailed them.

Anna Feruglio Dal Dan

I would certainly third the reccomendation. This may not be as polished and stylistically accomplished as "Air", but from the point of view of gender discussion, I think it if just as interesting if not more.

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