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Black Man (a.k.a. Thirteen) by Richard Morgan

Black Man (a.k.a. Thirteen) by Richard Morgan
Book Name: Black Man (UK) Thirteen (US)
Author: Richard Morgan
Publisher(s): Del Rey (US) Gollancz (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Science Fiction / Mystery
Release Date: June 26, 2007 (US) May 17, 2007 (UK)

Carl Marsalis is a Variant Thirteen, a genetically-engineered throwback to a strain of human that died out thousands of years ago. He is a tough, aggressive loner, instinctively cunning and brutal, predisposed not to follow rules. Thirteens are used as elite soldiers by the government and forcibly retired to Mars, where they can be kept out of the way. When a set of grisly murders suggests that a Thirteen has returned to America, Carl is forced to use his skills to hunt the killer down across the ruins of the former USA, from the racist theocracy of the Republic to the corrupt Rim States.

Black Man by Richard Morgan (published as Thirteen in the US) is both a violent thriller set a hundred years in the future, and a thoughtful discussion of issues of alienation and masculinity.

As well as being the product of a genetic engineering project, Carl is both black and British, while many of the other characters are American and white. Every aspect of Carl’s experience is that of a man who doesn’t quite fit in and, thanks to his Variant Thirteen genetics, perhaps can’t. While Carl isn’t evil, he can’t help but be dangerous. Likewise, his partner Sevgi is a cop, a feminist, a Muslim and the former lover of a Thirteen, characteristics that don’t make her life straightforward.

As I’m sure that Richard Morgan is well aware, action stories are often about guys like Carl: sullen, violent, lone-wolf types who are incapable of holding their lives together. Throughout the story, Carl is regarded by other men as something to be feared, hated and envied – the hard-living tough-guy that they wish they were. Furthermore, the Thirteens and their female equivalents have been engineered as super-soldiers and compliant slaves. The world of Black Man is a bleak, warped reflection of the psyche of its male characters.

While Black Man is slightly too long, Morgan throws out so many interesting ideas that I would have liked to read another book in this setting. We get glimpses of Latin American crime syndicates, floating cities, secret Chinese laboratories and even the bleak colonies on Mars, but none is explored in great depth. I hope he returns to this world.

Black Man feels like an angry book, whose lead characters rage and struggle against the corruption and stupidity of their environment. Sevgi has a powerful and timely speech about the way that the USA destroyed itself, and the apparent urge comfortable people have to tear down their surroundings for the hell of it. Black Man seems more like a warning than Altered Carbon.

The various elements – raw violence, detective work and contemplation of the Problem With Men – don’t always sit together comfortably. Morgan writes all of the characters well, however, and I didn’t feel that they were just mouthpieces. The death of one character is genuinely touching. I found the detective story plot rather hard to follow, but that may just be me. It would have been interesting to have a male character – perhaps a gay man or an AI – who wasn’t part of the “beat-rivals-get-women” hierarchy that the book hints at, and which all of the male characters on some level seem to want to join.

Black Man is violent, very sweary and full of adult themes. It is also a powerful corollary to the obsession with tough-guys and super-soldiers in some military SF. It won’t be for everyone by a long way, but for me, this is really good science fiction – not because it talks in great detail about tech or accurately predicts what will happen, but because it uses scientific “progress” to discuss complex and important ideas.


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