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Richard Morgan
Black Man
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007

Black Man
Victor Gollancz / Orion
UK First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-575-07513-9
546 Pages; £14.99
Publication Date: 05-17-2007
Date Reviewed: 07-23-2007

Del Rey / Ballantine Books / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-345-48525-0
548 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: 06-26-2007
Date Reviewed: 07-23-2007

Index: Science Fiction  Mystery

The future 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.

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