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Black Man / Thirteen

When I started this blog, it was not my intention to post reviews of the books I read. Well, not unless they were part of some annual “challenge” I’d set myself – and where I’d be charting my response to the challenge as much as writing about the books themselves. There are plenty of other places to find book reviews – both on and off the tinterweb. (Including my other blog, A Space About Books About Space, which is specifically about non-fiction books about the Space Race.)

However…

At some point during the Easter weekend, I’ll likely be voting on the novels shortlisted for the BSFA Awards. Unusually for me, I’d read half of the shortlist before it was announced. And I’ve now read another two from it – Black Man by Richard Morgan and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. And here’s what I thought of them…

When a novel opens with a man on a spacecraft travelling between Mars and Earth eating the other passengers in order to survive, you know it’s not going to be an easy read. And so Black Man proves. Morgan‘s premise is that some 20,000 years ago humanity bred some sort of super alpha male out of the gene pool as the type was not suited to the newly-created mode of agrarian civilisation. But during the late Twenty-First Century, various nations genetically engineered a generation of these “variant thirteens” to be super-soldiers. In the UK, they were known as Osprey, and in the US as Project Lawman. Later the programmes which had created them were outlawed, and the surviving variant thirteens restricted to secure reservations.

But not all of them.

Some were exiled to Mars. One of them, Carl Marsalis, went to Mars but returned. He now works as an agent for the United Nations, tracking down and killing rogue variant thirteens. One such rogue has escaped from Mars – the cannibal mentioned earlier – and is now on a killing spree in the US. Marsalis is co-opted by COLIN (Colony Initiative), the pan-national agency responsible for the settlement of Mars, to find the killer.

Morgan pulls no punches. His US of the Twenty-Second Century is a grim, corrupt and selfish place. It’s two parts American history to three parts a European’s view of the country as it is now. The North and South have split, and the South is now a backward Bible-bashing regime cynically known as “Jesusland”. The Western seaboard has also seceded, and remains the economic and industrial powerhouse of the continent. From this side of the Atlantic, it seems all too frighteningly plausible a future.

Black Man is also an extremely violent novel. You have to wonder what Anthony Burgess would have thought – the forty-year-old A Clockwork Orange‘s “ultra-violence” seems tame in comparison to that in Black Man. Of course, the violence is there because the variant thirteens are sociopathic killers. I’m not quite convinced such behaviour would have been useful 20,000 years ago, never mind during the late 21st Century. And to have one as a sympathetic protagonist and another as an immoral villain is a difficult balancing act. Morgan pulls it off – just about. He perhaps uses the fact that Marsalis is a Brit a little too much as justification for his more sympathetic character. No reader, of course, would identify with a true variant thirteen – although I’ve seen blustering reviews by one or two on the Web who seem to think they’re kindred alpha male souls. It’s all bollocks, of course (no pun intended). Marsalis might as well be an alien – and as any sf writer knows, make your alien too alien for your readers… and you’ll have no readers. Morgan is a smart enough writer to know that Marsalis can’t carry the story if he hews too close to the line of his central premise.

There are other viewpoint characters – such as Sevgi Ertekin, a Muslim Turkish-American COLIN detective; her partner, Tom Norton; and even a believer from Jesusland working illegally in California, Scott Osborne, who gets caught up in the plot (and later disappears from the story, only to pop up near the end). To me, Ertkin seemed more like a stereotypical NYPD cop, and not that much different from Olivia Benson in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Her background struck me as one of Black Man‘s few weak notes – as well as the unfortunate inspiration for some unnecessary and over-long info-dumps when the story takes the characters to Istanbul.

World-building and premise aside, Black Man is a tautly-plotted thriller. Morgan is in control of his material throughout the story. Perhaps one or two of the clues necessary for resolution are a little too peripheral, making the scenes in which they appear seem somewhat unnecessary. But that’s a minor quibble. The writing is strong, with several nice turns of phrase. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the central premise – or rather, I wasn’t convinced that variant thirteens would ever be useful or necessary. I suppose that’s little different to believing time travel will ever be possible, but I’m not sure I can let it go enough to choose the novel above Alastair Reynold’s The Prefect or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My thoughts on The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to follow soon…

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