Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Richard Morgan: Black Man (2007)

Published in the US as Thirteen.
Published: Gollancz, 2007

On the assumption that any technology developed by the human race will be used in for short term gain without consideration of the consequences or of ethics, the outlook for genetic engineering is frightening. That is the basic premise of Black Man, Richard Morgan's latest novel (published in the US as Thirteen, presumably because the publishers there - Del Rey - don't want readers to assume that it is about racism). Richard Morgan envisages the production of three types of genetically modified human being: the hibernoids, considered ideal for space exploration because they hibernate; bonobos, submissive bimbos produced for the sex trade; and thirteens, sociopathic individuals expected to be super-soldiers. None of these groups performed as expected by their makers, and by the time in which Black Man is set, they are rarities, feared and hated by many. The thirteens are the most feared, with the result that they have been declared non-humans, not covered by human rights legislation. Most of them have emigrated to Mars to escape the restrictions placed on them on Earth.

Carl Marsalis is not just a thirteen, but a renegade: he hunts down other thirteens for the UN. However, when he is arrested in Miami, he is left to rot in a brutal Jesusland jail - Jesusland being the fundamentalist state that has seceded from the US - until his expertise is needed. A thirteen has escaped from indentured service on Mars, getting back onto a ship returning to earth. A glitch in the hacker code needed to override the normal cryogenics so that he could get on board means that this thirteen has been woken up only two weeks into the journey, surviving the remainder by brutally butchering the other passengers and eating their body parts. The shuttle crashes in the Pacific, and a killing spree begins. So Marsalis is freed from prison, and sets out, abrasively and violently, to track down the missing thirteen.

In many ways, Black Man is a maverick cop thriller with added science fiction elements. I can't really think of a way that the SF ideas really add anything to the story at all. In the Takeshi Kovacs novels, starting with Altered Carbon, the ideas are fascinating in themselves and a vital part of the plot and atmosphere of the novel. It seems that without Kovacs, Morgan has problems putting together anything beyond a science fiction inflected violent thriller; his other non-Kovacs novel, Market Forces has similar problems. Here, things are worse, because Marsalis is too much like Kovacs (minus a sense of humour), making it look as though Morgan is incapable of writing a range of characters.

My feeling is that publishing this novel as it is was a mistake. Morgan should have been encouraged to revise it, beefing up the science fiction content, improving the characterisation (particularly of the female characters) and reducing the violence. Genetic manipulation is obviously a topic that science fiction should be exploring at the moment, but this is not the novel to start a debate on how it should be handled.

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