Richard Morgan’s Black Man won the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Award, beating out amongst others Stephen Baxter’s YA effort The H-Bomb Girl and Sarah Hall’s literary confection The Carhullan Army. I’d repeatedly been told that Black Man did things more cleverly than you’d hope to expect from Morgan’s brand of mil-sf-noir-thriller – Abigail Nussbaum, for instance, sounded faintly surprised that the novel had “something of substance to say”; Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria says plainly that, “Morgan is far from a one-note writer.” This not, I was told, your standard thriller.
So it proved, but only so much. In her follow-up blog post on the novel, Abigail focused on gender, and undoubtedly this Morgan’s neatest trick is to take the thriller’s staple protagonist – the powerful, sociopathic male loner – and make an interrogation of him. Carl Marsalis, the black man of the title, is a thirteen, a genetically engineered throw-back to the violent proto-humans who were weeded out of the genepool when society first went agrarian. Brought back into the world by the superpowers’ need for super-soldiers, they are now bound in red tape, unable to procreate and limited to either serving their masters (something they are not genetically disposed to doing) or living in either terran or Martian deserts.
This makes for some wordy conversations about biological imperatives, identity and the difference between masculinity and femininity. But as Abigail points out in her blog piece, the book’s major female character, after 100 pages of characterisation prior to her first meeting with Marsalis, rapidly becomes a cypher once she shares the page with a thirteen. Nic argues that Sevgi “humanises Carl, both in the traditional narrative sense of being the reader’s window on his unusual world and mind, and because she anchors him to human society”, but it’s hard to buy this line entirely when later in the novel another female character comes along and slots right in to serve a similar purpose. (In Nic’s defense, she recognises that women are treated problematically throughout the text.) Sevgi’s page count plummets either way – her principle role is to provide counterpoint to Marsalis. Once they become a duo, she ceases to have much in the way of her own agency, following Marsalis around when she can and disappearing when she doesn’t. Where she does have her own story, for instance in her fraught relationship with her father, ultimately that too becomes about Carl: we are treated to scenes of Carl and Ertekin Senior discussing the woman in taciturn, masculine ways.
Is this the point? Perhaps: Black Man makes great play of the idea that we are trapped by our biology; Marsalis and Ertekin may sideline the “feminine” (defined in Black Man, at risk of appearing flippant, as anything which does not make things explode) just because that’s how they’re wired, and where Sevgni becomes Carl’s sidekick likewise. But if this is true of the book’s characters (and what a useful handwave for the author), it is doubly true of the book itself. I think Martin hit the right note when he wrote that “Black Man is clearly still a case of the author having his cake and eating it.” That is, Black Man is locked into the tropes, structure and outlook of the average thriller, but has stirred into the mix some opportunities for the characters to sit down and talk about things which appeal to critics. The follow-through, however, is more war-war than jaw-jaw: though undoubtedly its investigation of identities biological and cultural is at times challenging and thoughtful, when it comes time for action and plot, Morgan knows on which side his bread is buttered.
I was also struck by Morgan’s constructed future: both Nic and Abigail rightly point out that the world-building in Black Man is sinuous stuff, managing both to inhabit its own milieu whilst reflecting ours. Superpower struggles, religious tensions, and racism shape a time which is no dystopia but whichs seems regardless less comfortable than our own. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Morgan’s literalising of the Jesusland meme – it made for a good joke, but a less compelling political reality. Its execution was not helped, alas, by a cast of characters pouring disparagement of cartoon proportions upon ‘Jesusland’, with only one poor dupe to defend it. It’s not just that the explanations given for secession are inadequate; it is also that we are asked to accept prima faciethe worst prejudices of Guardianistas, and this alone – aligned a less than rigorous engagement with ideas of economic collapse, climate change and nationalism – undermines our conception of the practical political basis by which Morgan’s states might operate. Again, perhaps these questions are not ones the thriller is best placed to answer – but the reader in that case wonders why they were posed in the first place.
Black Man is superb at action set pieces, competent with its dialogue and characterisation, and possesses a welcome intellectual curiosity. Once the reader becomes used to being impressed that Morgan even tried to put all these elements together, however, it is possible to begin to wonder to what end they are ultimately used. (Nic says some very wise things about how the book’s nobler ideas are twisted by its baser instincts.) It isn’t that Black Man is a cynical book – merely that Morgan enjoys writing the sort of novel which cannot ultimately support the thematic weight he tries to graft onto it. This creates a book very much with two sides, one of which always holds the trump card (which is naturally the one marked ‘explosions’). The question to be asked of Black Man, a novel which manages to be an exciting but ultimately a curious read, must inevitably be, “if you’re so self-aware, why don’t you change?” The Jessica Rabbit response – I’m just drawn that way – proves less satisfying than it read when coming from the mouth of Carl Marsalis.
EDIT: For some reason, I’d been sure I’d linked to the reviews mentioned in the opening paragraph; it was brought to my attention I’d forgotten to, for which apologies to the reviewers. Curse my puny human memory etc. Links now (albeit belatedly) in place!