Saturday 9 January 2016

Black Man, by Richard Morgan

This is the third book by this author I have read, the first two being Altered Carbon and Broken Angels (only the second of which is reviewed here – I read the first one before starting this blog). Black Man, known as Thirteen in the USA, was published in 2007 and won the 2008 Arthur C Clarke award. Unlike Morgan's other books I have read, this is a stand-alone novel.

This story is set on Earth a couple of centuries into the future. A thin but breathable atmosphere  has been generated on Mars, which has been settled but is still very much a tough frontier world. The USA has split apart into the the Confederated Republic (a bigoted and backward state popularly known as Jesusland), the north-eastern Union (closely associated with the UN) and the Pacific Rim states, based on commerce. Genetic engineering had produced a warrior race known as Variant Thirteen to fight humanity's wars, a throwback to the ferocious, asocial individualism of primitive humans with characteristics which had historically been bred out of humanity in the interests of an urban civilisation. They had proved uncontrollable, and were soon demonised and referred to as "twists". The survivors had been given a choice: live in a secure reservation in a barren part of Earth, or be transported to Mars.

Carl Marsalis is a Thirteen, one who earns a living with the UN as a bounty hunter tracking down his few fellow warriors still at large. He is also black, and meets prejudice on both counts. He is the focus of the action, along with an assorted cast of detectives, COLIN operatives (Colony Initiative) and criminals. A ship from Mars has crashed into the Pacific and it is soon discovered that the crew, supposedly in cold sleep for the journey, had been killed and eaten. It doesn't take long to realise that the perpetrator of this atrocity was a Thirteen escaping from Mars; he is now in North America, carrying out what appear to be a random series of murders. Marsalis is hired to track him down, but finds himself involved in an increasingly complex situation with one plot twist after another.

There are obvious echoes of Bladerunner, but the plot of the book is a lot harder to follow and Black Man is frankly too cluttered with people, themes and events.  I had a particular problem with the author's tendency to introduce minor characters briefly near the beginning then not mention them again until much later, by which time I had forgotten who they were and spent an exasperating amount of time trawling back through the book trying to find out.

While the descriptive writing is good and a lot of space is devoted to developing the main characters and their relationships, the story seems strangely impersonal. It is told in the third person and there is little sense of association with any of the characters; the viewpoint keeps switching but is principally that of a dispassionate narrator. We are left to learn about the characters mainly through their words and actions, rather than getting much insight into their thoughts. Given that the personality of the Thirteens in general and Marsalis in particular is the key plot element in the book, it might have been better to let the reader to see the world more through his eyes.

I was sufficiently engaged to read to the end, but only just, and it is unlikely that I will want to read this one again.


Becky G said...

I like Morgan's books, they are always pretty good for me. I am reading Robert Gryn's series Suns of the End, it's absolutely fantastic! is his site. If you are into series' and you love Tech, he's got it all in this, likely why I love it!

Anthony G Williams said...

Thans for the tip, Becky, I'll take a look at them!