Black Man (aka Thirteen) by Richard Morgan

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008

Black Man by Richard Morgan (called Thirteen in the US) is set about 100 years in the future. The USA has split into different countries, and a corrupt-but-stable democracy is now locked in a cold war with a racist theocracy. Robots are no longer militarily viable, and a transatlantic programme has artificially created Variant 13s, hyper-aggressive men who are used as soldiers and apparently hark back to a long-extinct variety of human (the book is rather unclear as to whether the 13's are inhumanly strong or just berserk fighters). Unsurprisingly, the project is a failure, and so the 13s are put on a reservation on Mars. Our hero, Carl Marsalis, is a slightly saner 13 than usual, who works as a bounty hunter capturing or killing escapees. When a 13 leaves Mars and goes on a killing spree on Earth, Carl helps to track him down, with bloody results.

This is a violent, bleak, overlong book, written in 2007, that feels worryingly relevant today. It contains a lot of political commentary that I can't really get into here, much of it concerning religious fascism, class, race, genetic engineering and the pointlessness of revenge. While the actual science and logic behind the 13s isn't that convincing (creating an army of raging psychopaths who can't follow orders doesn't sound like a great plan to me), it certainly enables Morgan to discuss some interesting issues.

The real centre of the novel, I think, is the question of masculinity and what exactly that is. Carl, with his instinct for violence and revenge, feels like a parody of a tough-guy hero (he's also both English and black, which adds an extra level of complexity – and gives him a lot of bigots to kill), but he is also an anachronism and an evolutionary dead-end. His reluctant partners, Sevgi and Tom, people capable of fitting into society, push him in interesting directions.

I’m not sure how well the strong violence of Black Man fits with its politics and philosophy. This is clearly a novel of ideas, perhaps a warning, and probably one that deserves a wide readership. I wonder if some of those readers would be put off by its length and brutality. That said, you could probably have said the same thing when 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale were released. Dictatorships are cruel and vicious places, after all. That’s the whole point: they’re meant to be.

Black Man is perhaps a bit didactic at points, with characters making too many speeches, but its main flaw for me is that it is just too sprawling, especially given that it is essentially a noir political thriller. It would pack more of a punch if it was 200 pages shorter. That said, if it isn't a perfect novel, it's a good piece of science fiction that has a lot to say and now, 15 years after publication, feels disturbingly prescient.
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Nice review, Toby.

I read Black Man when it was released and i remember enjoying it, although i did struggle with the amount of swearing, which i found to be more hostile than the actual violence.
I read it back in 2018 and liked it. My somewhat less eloquent thoughts seem to mirror many of yours:
Very good, dark look at a moderately near future world. It's essentially a thriller but along the way it touches on a lot of issues very relevant to today, including racism, genetic ethics, bigotry and religious fundamentalism. Interestingly the latter focuses more on Christian fundamentalism rather than Islamic or any other. The American bible belt receiving particularly harsh treatment. My only complaint is, pretty much as always, Morgan does like to introduce very explicit sex; unnecessarily so in my opinion. But it's easily skipped.

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