is not going to be easy. There won’t be any ride on the "Carousel
of Progress," and tomorrow, when it arrives, is not going to be
great, big or particularly beautiful. But while society at large spins
downward, technology climbs ever higher. It doesn't make anything better,
but it does lend a certain evocative complexity to the lives we must
lead. Humans are pretty complicated creatures and we like our world to
mirror our souls. Unfortunately.
The world of Richard Morgan's 'Black Man', in the US titled 'Thirteen',
is in messy disarray. The United States has long since disintegrated.
The heartland of America today is the Jesusland of tomorrow, a Christian
fundamentalist theocracy with a penchant for prisons. The Coasts have
retained their freedom but America is no more. Unchecked genetic experimentation
in a murky past created the "thirteens" who look human but
aren't. They lack all the social brakes that keep us civilized and made
great soldiers while they were needed. Once they were no longer required,
they were shipped off to Mars or rounded up and shut away in concentration
camps. Or, in the case of Carl Marsalis, hired to hunt their own kind.
The setup for Morgan's latest novel is not particularly promising. Jesusland,
based on an Internet map, lends itself to all the televangelists-in-charge
clichés. As the novel opens, Marsalis is banged up in jail for
attempting to aid a woman in obtaining an abortion. He gets sprung to
track down one of his own, a Merrin, a fellow thirteen and a super-serial
killer who has managed to escape from Mars and come to earth to exercise
his greatest talent. Soon it's thirteen versus thirteen, with a pretty
female NY cop to help Marsalis.
The idea of genetically engineered supermen duking it out in a splintered
non-Tomorrowland is not exactly original, but Morgan brings some serious
talent to the enterprise. From the surreal and chilling opening scene
to the fitting finale, this is a book that is a pure pleasure to read.
The prose quality works for Morgan in any number of ways. In the first
place, it keeps what might have been a simplistically-rendered future
gritty, complex and very realistic. We're there at ground level each
step of the way, and the big picture of Morgan's future, as it is evoked,
is particularly powerful. What might have been cliché seems instead
intense, a bit murky in the manner of reality itself, and becomes one
totally compelling reading experience. Though some of the ideas behind
the world are familiar, Morgan's writing makes them seem fresh and exciting.
The prose also turns Morgan's characters in some of the most powerful
and poignant he's yet created. Marsalis is a cold fish, but since we're
privy to his point-of-view, he's a cold fish we can come pretty close
to identifying with. Moreover, the difference between Marsalis and the
rest of the human is race is subtle. He looks human. It's just that some
switches are missing in his mind. He's a sociopath by design, meant to
hunt down the monsters when he is not being a monster himself. It's a
nuanced, careful characterization that Morgan offers. Marsalis is an
enjoyable perspective from which to experience in which our journey to
hell in a handbasket has been considerably furthered.
But it's not just Marsalis that makes the book. Every character gets
enough grit and spit to step off the pages. Sevgi, the female cop who
attached to Marsalis as he tries to hunt down the elusive Merrin, is
a complicated jangle of a futuristically-modified Islamic faith and hard-boiled
NY cop. Where the novel gets really successful is in the creation of
the third tier characters, particularly Sevgi's normal partner, Norton.
What could have been a cliché instead turns out to become a full-blown
favorite. Morgan turns in some fine detective prose to evoke the machismo of the best mysteries with poetic feel.
From the seemingly simple setup, 'Black Man' unreels a very enjoyably
messy plot, full of conspiracies and side-trips into corners of his crumbling
future peopled with the dregs and pegs of society, the hangers-on and
the ruefully reliable. His slightly murky prose creates a real atmosphere
of mystery, underpinned by what proves to be a carefully complicated
plot. You won’t need to take notes, but you will want to pay attention.
What seems like a simple journey turns into clever and often powerful
creation. Morgan cranks up the tension and offers a series of spectacular
set-pieces, but for all the testosterone on display, there's an expansive
and relaxed feel to the work that gives the reader room to move around.
This is a world that you'll be able to revisit in your mind even after
you've finished reading.
If it's starting to seem like 'Black Man' is a layered novel, then it
won’t come as any surprise to learn that Morgan has a lot of really
interesting ideas rattling about. What it means to be human, racism,
sexism, violence, misogyny, misanthropy, where the monsters are and what
they mean – all of these themes are effectively explored and evoked
in the course the novel. Morgan doesn't offer any easy answers to the
thorny questions he raises. If you think that we live in a brutal world
now, you'll be able to wrap your brain around the brutality of Morgan's
future with ease. There's not a lot of happiness to be found, but individuals
can choose to lead worthy lives. That's always a choice, even now.
A brief note about the two editions; while they are the same book in
terms of the edit, the DJ copy is not at all the same, and obviously
the title is not either. While one might wish that the US publishers
had the stones to offer the novel under the author's title, at least
they published it. I read the UK edition, and it was indeed a finely-produced
book. A friend read the US edition, which literally fell apart. If you're
a reader who is hard on book, you might want to opt for the UK edition.
No matter what version you read, however, the upshot is likely to be
the same. 'Black Man' is Morgan's finest novel since 'Altered Carbon'.
It's intense and horrifying, gripping and visionary. Morgan writes with
a brutal poetry. He's a monster by his own definition with a pen and
stunning command of language, unafraid to challenge himself or his readers.
It might be wise to retain your fear.