Review: Black Man, by Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan Black Man Thirteen

Gollancz, ISBN 978-0-575-07767-6

(Review first published on the ASIM website, May 2008)


Carl Marsalis is a twist, an unluck, a variant thirteen. Which is by way of saying that he’s a ruthlessly trained genetically enhanced combat specialist, in a future-Earth society that has no need for military action. The thirteens are the most despised, most feared of several now-quenched lines in human (or post-human?) genetic tweaking. Carl is an object of open hatred across much of the Earth’s surface, because of the public’s sense that his genotype can’t be trusted, can’t be tamed, can only be obliterated. It’s a sense of prejudice his skin colour doesn’t help out with, too, in some sectors of the globe.

Richard Morgan has made a name for himself as an expert craftsman of fast-paced, intelligent, violent near-future SF thrillers. Several of these books, such as Morgan’s debut, Altered Carbon, explore an interstellar civilisation in which death has effectively been tamed, through the ability to faithfully store and transfer living memory from one body to another. Black Man inhabits a distinctly higher-stakes world wherein death still retains its sting.

Morgan’s books are a delight to read, provided that you can get past the violence. The worldbuilding is impressively detailed, and plays off against the intricacies of the plotting in a manner that only very occasionally suggests info-dump. And the characterisation is also solid, with a weighty sense of backstory behind each of several principal players. Tom Norton and Sevgi Ertekin, who are effectively Carl’s minders, are drawn in the greatest detail, but even down to the characters who never actually appear upfront, such as Carl’s mentor Sutherland, and Sevgi’s murdered lover Ethan, there’s an impressive depth to their implied portrayal and personal history.

At the kinetic core of Black Man is a chase, a hunt to capture Allan Merrin, a rogue thirteen who has escaped from indentured labour on Mars to have embarked on an inexplicable and apparently random Earthside killing spree. Carl, who has made a name for himself as a troubleshooter specialising in the liquidation of fugitive thirteens (and therefore, of course, alienating just about the only group that doesn’t already hate him for his genetic heritage), finds himself assigned to the team of Colony Initiative investigators who are responsible for bringing Merrin to justice over the brutal cannibalisation of the spacecraft crew with whom Merrin shared his interplanetary flight. Carl is highly skilled at what he does, and manages to hew ever closer to Merrin’s trail (although I found that some of the deductive leaps made in this process were a little obscure). Nonetheless, the plot holds together remarkably well, and the factors behind Merrin’s killing spree are gradually laid out, leading to a surprising and well-conceived resolution.

Piggybacked onto the book’s kaleidoscopic rush of action sequences is a great deal of observation and comment on Morgan’s future society, and a detailed exploration of the prejudices, both familiar and exotic, that operate against Carl and his kind. The blend of thought and action is usually very successful, although I felt that a patch at about the book’s midpoint did drag rather more than was necessary, while Morgan moved his artillery around in the background in preparation for the next explosion.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about Black Man. Morgan’s writing style is clear and almost cinematic, his protagonists are believably flawed, and his villains come across as victims in their own right, people who just happen through circumstances to have ended up in opposition to Carl and his fellow investigators. I confess that I find the recourse to combat or to forensically detailed depiction of the aftermath of capital crime to be a bit off-putting in places – there’s a sequence involving a folding shovel that I found particularly troubling – but like just about everything else within its pages, the violence flows reasonably logically from the premises that Morgan has drawn. And the novel’s opening horror, dealing with Merrin’s cannibalisation of the Mars freighter’s flight crew and passengers, is exquisitely and plausibly set up. If one don’t necessarily find some aspects of Black Man‘s future society all that palatable, there’s no denying that it all has a disconcerting consistency to it. The SF/crime mix is innately difficult to do well, but Morgan makes it look easy.

I’ve read somewhere that Morgan has been seeking to branch away from the Altered Carbon novels, to explore a more limited and higher-stakes world. In Black Man, I’d say he’s chosen well.


(Review by Simon Petrie, 2008)


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