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Black Man by Richard Morgan (US title: Thirteen)

01/04/2009. Contributed by Paul Skevington

Buy Black Man in the USA - or Buy Black Man in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 546 page hardback. Price: 14.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-07513-9. pub: Gollancz 630 page enlarged paperback. Price: 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-07813-0.

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When called upon to leap to the defence of Science Fiction, a favourite tactic is to remind the listener of the ability of the genre to provide enough distance from a subject that a fuller and more valuable discussion of it becomes achievable. In 'Black Man" by Richard Morgan, we are presented with a text which can be held up as a fine example of this capacity.

It is a tale of intolerance, set in a world not unlike our own. Like the sources of prejudice itself, the book cannot be so simply described though, as its themes and concerns spread outwards from the initial slash into a route map of damage that is depressingly familiar.

In 'Black Man', we are presented with a near-future society where genetic engineering has been pursued virtually unchecked for a considerable period of time, with the end result being the creation of a number of genetic variants on the standard human template. The existence of these variants, derogatively known as 'twists', angers much of the general populace and, like much anger, its roots can be traced to an underlying fear. Perhaps the greatest focus for this unease are the variants known as 'Thirteens'.

They are human beings who have been bred for war, their genome manipulated so that the characteristics of an earlier humanity can come to the fore. They are the hunter-gatherers of pre-history, not the socialised farmers of the present age. In camps around the world they have been trained in combat, pain resistance and any number of other militarily useful subjects. They have also been taught to contain and utilise their inherent rage. They are deployed to hot-zones in secret strike-squads, but eventually, the Thirteen's activities are revealed to the world, resulting in reactionary legislation that forces them to choose between imprisonment in designated Thirteen reservations or life as a colonist upon the harsh and unforgiving surface of Mars.

Carl Marsalis is a Thirteen who hunts his own kind, those who have opted to remain on Earth but who have escaped from their confinement. In doing this, he obtains freedom for himself, but at the cost of the betrayal of other Thirteen variants. This doesn't bother him too much. As Marsalis states later in the novel, 'Thirteens don't do abstract relationships too well.'

At one point, Marsalis finds himself in prison in the Republic - one of the three splintered sections of what was previously known as the USA. Whilst there, he is offered a chance to escape his unpleasant surroundings by representatives of COLIN (COLony INitiative) who need his help in solving a crime. Somehow, a Thirteen has stowed away aboard a ship returning from Mars. Unfortunately, he was woken out of stasis too soon and, inevitably, he got hungry.

In 'Black Man', prejudice is but one of many chains that are turning a world that purportedly experiences more freedom than ever before into one gigantic trap. Antique ships remind Marsalis of 'an era when travel could still mean escape', impossible now that the invention of sub-orbital hops means that even the furthest destination is only mere hours away. These chains are forged from the corroded iron of history.

It pins the novel's characters down with its weight and drives the world itself into a state of agonising immobility. Marsalis cannot escape the burden of what he was created to be and, despite his occasional protestations, appears to have bought into the idea that everything he is has been determined by the things that they did to his genes before he was born. Marsalis knows that the behaviour of the Thirteens could be largely due to their childhood indoctrination and vicious training regime.

As there are no Thirteens who have been brought up outside of this environment, he can never truly know if his actions are his own or are prescribed by his biology. COLIN agent Sevgi Ertekin is also a captive of her past. The vanished era of her youth has determined the course of her career, causing her to desperately pursue a faint hope that will almost certainly never come to fruition.

Both of them, like everyone else in 'Black Man', are attempting some form of escape from these bonds. Sometimes they fly from the terror of the family, like Sevgi's colleague, Norton. Occasionally, it is their own country and heritage they run from. Such am example is Scott, who leaves the religious tyranny of the Republic for the promised land of the Union only to find that, like illegal immigrants of other ages, his gilt-edged dreams are grounded in the soiled reality of a low-paid job and constant discrimination. The novel is centred on the Thirteen Merrin's flight from Mars and I've already told you how that one ends.

Perhaps the novel's only failing, if it can be considered to be one, is that Morgan provides no easy route for us, the inhabitants of this century, to avoid enmeshment in the same constraints. It could be argued that by pointing out their very existence, it at least partially achieves this goal. As a reader, you will find yourself ready to absorb such lessons as Morgan fills his work with compelling characters and emotionally engaging sub-plots that negate the coldness of the science with a human reality of blood, death, sex and love. Although the work doesn't offer hope of escape, it offers some consolation by emphasising the importance of human relations in traversing a harsh future and an unrepentant past.

'Black Man' won the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke Award. No one should doubt the wisdom of that choice.

Paul Skevington

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