Spilled Thrills: Richard Morgan’s ‘Black Man’

Black Man, by Richard Morgan
Black Man, by Richard Morgan

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.

Also Black Man, by Richard Morgan
Also Black Man, by Richard Morgan

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!


15 thoughts on “Spilled Thrills: Richard Morgan’s ‘Black Man’

  1. You haven’t traveled lately in the parallel and separate xtian warrior state of the South and much of the heartland, have you?

    This is the part Morgan got most likely, it seems to me.

    Have you watched Jesus Camp?

    I wrote about it on Fox hall-LJ and on blogspot-Fox Home.

    In any case the election of Obama didn’t change any of that a jot — it’s even more intense and more determined and crazier. The latest, current gopneoconxtian sex scandal of South Carolina’s gov Standford underlines it.

    Love, C.

  2. Hi, C – I fear we’re going to disagree!

    I’ve actually travelled quite extensively within ‘Jesusland’ – and as much as it’d help liberals like you and I if everyone there were a gun-toting Jesus Camp maniac (and you’re right that that film is truly terrifying) … it just isn’t true. Saying so isn’t a million miles away from the stuff put out by Fox News about the north-east elites. It’s all just propaganda, shorn of complexity and dissent and the exception.

    And therein lies my problem with Morgan – I just don’t buy the simplicity of it, the broad brush charactatures. Yes, there are people who believe these things; but the politics of it – that is, the book’s representation of communities, and the way in which it pretends the only political issue in the south is religion – just didn’t convince me as complex enough. He saw that map and thought it was funny, then wrote a whole book about it.

  3. Hi Dan – thanks for the nice, balanced review; appreciate it. Couple of things though:

    1) “If you’re so self aware, why don’t you change”. Hmmm. Try this – think of the two things you most hate about your personality and behavioural trait set, and ask yourself how easy it would be to change them. Come to that, ask yourself why you haven’t *already* changed them if you hate them so much.

    I think your desire for a more “satisfactory” response from Marsalis (and you;re not the only one who reacted that way) betrays an essentially “nurturist” faith in the human ability to transcend our hard-wiring; and while I have a lot of instinctive sympathy with that viewpoint, I’m afraid it’s looking increasingly as if the cold hard truth is otherwise. The transformative redemption so beloved of Hollywood and other purveyors of narrative comfort is, if not a lie, then at least a vastly over-inflated optimism. Generally, people don’t change. Rehabilitation of, for example, violent sex offenders or pedophiles has depressingly low rates of success. Ex- special forces guys very often end up serving as mercenaries of one sort or another when they demob, or keep driving themselves to do insanely tough and stupid things like walking across the Arctic until they finally lose their fingers to frostbite or climbing large mountains until they fall terminally off. A social worker friend of mine here in Glasgow told me that in his experience if you don’t get to a dysfunctional child before the age of five, then all your subsequent efforts will amount to nothing more than damage limitation, that essentially the damage has been done and cannot be undone.

    The long reach of the genes (whether directly or through more modulated epigenetic interaction) is a disturbingly powerful thing, and so is strong early conditioning – few human beings have the conscious will to beat these factors convincingly. There are of course exceptions, and very uplifting and consoling they are too, but then it was never my intention to write a particularly uplifting or consoling book.

    2) Jesusland – the book “pretends the only political issue in the south is religion”. Not really. Of course, religion is not the only political issue in the South. But it is *the* major channel through which almost all American political debate is mediated; foreign policy, scientific research, education, medical treatment, civil rights – all are tarnished by their brush with dumb-as-fuck praise-the-lord and-pass-the-ammunition stockade christianity. Presidents Reagan and Bush junior both held (were pretty much required by their voting base to hold) regular meetings with politico-religious figures from the fundamentalist fringe, and every US President since Reagan has been required to demonstrate publicly the extent to which “Gahd” is a part of their life and policy-making. Like it or not, religious extremism (along with a fanatical and related blind nationalism) is *the* major blemish on the map of America’s great experiment with modern democracy.

    Black Man does not pretend that all several hundred million inhabitants of “Jesusland” are therefore barking mad fundamentalists. But it does suggest that if you let the vociferous minority forces of such religious fervour entrench themselves sufficiently well, you can very easily end up with a de-facto theocratic state (such as, shall we say, Iran or Saudi Arabia). As to the crass caricaturing that the book’s characters indulge in – ask yourself for a moment what the thumbnail sketch of Iranians or Saudis is for the average citizen of a western nation. Ask yourself also how, in the wake of the Obama victory, *Sarah Palin* came to be seen as Republican America’s next Great Hope and future Presidential candidate. Now that is *beyond* caricature……….

  4. Hi, Richard – thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful comment. As I say in the review, I enjoyed and was excited by the book – I suspect my little piece, as I suspect you’ve picked up on, addresses the critics of the book more than the book itself. So thanks for taking the time.

    On the nurture point – undoubtedly. You’ll notice that I say that, coming from the mouth of Marsalis, this nature-over-nurture position is very satisfying. My point was more about the book itself: that is, I wasn’t as sure as the critics who pointed me towards it that it was some brave new reinvention of its genre, so much as a successful instance of its kind with some extra thoughts bolted on. I agree with everything you say about the characters. I think my nature-versus-nurture quarrel is with the text’s nature.

    We disagree more, I think on the second point. First because to compare the US’s experience of religion with Iran or Saudi Arabia simply doesn’t convince me, and secondly because to conflate a primary channel of political expression with a primary form of political policy seems to me a tad cheeky; I might argue that the British political debate is largely mediated through the channel of class – and yet I would not suggest that the working class north is about to secede from our particular union any time soon. Religion is in the US a vehicle for policy – it is the lipstick on the pig. This is why the political existence of Jesusland didn’t quite ring true for me: as a modern Confederacy, it lacked that complexity possessed by every political entity. (Saudi Arabia has stripmalls; Iran its urban middle class.) My problem was less with the caricaturing your characters indulged in (which I agree is fairly and depressingly convincing), and more the total absence of a character who could counter those prejudices, no representative of those inhabitants of Jesusland who aren’t barking mad fundamentalists.

    This second objection in particular is to be fair a quibble more than a substantive criticism, though, so thanks for engaging on the issue anyway. 🙂

  5. Hey Dan,

    Sorry, upon re-reading I probably wasn’t making myself at all clear with that Marsalis comment; what I was trying to say is that our hard-wiring negates the option of withdrawal from the context, whether at the level of character or of text itself – that’s to say, it’s not possible to fully examine a character like Marsalis unless you enter into his framework. You can’t write a quietly considered moral piece about the (male) human predilection for violent resolution, (and the political capital that is so frequently made of it) because such a novel will leave out exactly the guilty gut-rush of pleasure from violence that ensures those patterns of behaviour endure. Basically, you have to see the appeal of being Marsalis as well as understand the horror that it entails.

    Hope that’s clearer.

    Further to the point, I suppose you could usefully call Black Man a “deconstructed thriller” or some such thing – the requisite thrills delivered, but with their inner workings and scaffolding laid bare. Now I’m perhaps implying rather more coldly analytical thought in my process here than there actually was at the time of writing, but I am of the firm belief that where fiction is concerned you have to get inside the thing (whatever thing that is) in order to say anything useful about it. Black Man had to be a thriller, because any other approach would have come across as po-faced as the downstairs neighbour who hasn’t been invited to the noisy party upstairs, and just can’t see why people want to listen to that dreadful thumpa-thumpa music or take those pills or wear those disgracefully short lycra skirts.

    There’s an obvious hypocrisy in that approach, a sort of Guardianista just-say-no-ism, at the heart of which is a denial of our own basic nature. And unfortunately I think the more thoughtful end of so-called literary fiction is too often guilty of being that downstairs neighbour – whereas of course basic airport thrillers and genre fiction in general too often just go to the party, take the drugs and shag the girl in the lycra micra up against the bathroom wall, without ever giving a shit if something somewhere might be awry. (Was that girl really only fifteen? Why do I keep doing this when I have a wife and baby at home? What’s this pounding in my chest? Why is my mate lying on the carpet there heaving and foaming his guts up?) There is too often a yawning gulf between the two modes of fiction, and I (among others) spend a lot of time and effort trying to straddle and close the gap. Problem is, I keep getting told I can’t have my cake and eat; seems I’ve either got to go to the party and get faceless, or stay downstairs with the miserable old gits.

    I find this either/or insistence bizarre. My question is: why can’t we go to the party, but take along a modicum of intelligent self-possession with which to navigate while we’re there? Why can’t we accept that we like the thrills and spills of high octane fiction, and demand them – but also demand that we shouldn’t have to check our brains at the door as the price for that enjoyment. The duality that denies that as a valid approach is, to my mind, spoiling a huge potential for intelligent but dynamic, and above all else, inclusive fiction. That’s not to insist that Black Man necessarily succeeds in walking that line (that’s for readers and critics to debate and decide, not for me to say), but what I find strange is the insistence that we shouldn’t attempt to walk the line in the first place, because that would be trying to have our cake and eat it.



  6. Good stuff, Mr M. Again, appreciate the discussion.

    That’s not to insist that Black Man necessarily succeeds in walking that line (that’s for readers and critics to debate and decide, not for me to say), but what I find strange is the insistence that we shouldn’t attempt to walk the line in the first place, because that would be trying to have our cake and eat it.

    Right. I think that both Martin and I make clear that, though as you accept there is an element of cake-having and cake-eating about the affair, the book is clearly not a cynical one and does honestly engages with what it’s trying to do – and that it indubitably should be allowed to try. I agree entirely that such an attempt needs to have the visceral excitement of the thriller. I agree less that this necessarily means that the book must therefore be an out-and-out thriller, that such a book must get inside that mode and stay there. Genre can profitably be (respectfully) used as well as (fully) inhabited. It may be that the straddling you mention requires a gathering that both the partiers and the old gits can attend.

    Which brings us right back to the question of success – which I concur is one party the author probably should stay away from. 😛

  7. Good stuff, Mr M. Again, appreciate the discussion.

    Yeah – enjoying this too.

    I agree less that this necessarily means that the book must therefore be an out-and-out thriller, that such a book must get inside that mode and stay there.

    Hmm – but if it doesn’t stay there, then you’re opening the door to exactly that Guardianista sense of denial I mentioned earlier – rogue male sees the error of his genetic ways; damaged woman rallies and resists the siren-song allure of powerful “heroic” male and so is not destroyed; Violence Is Not The Answer; enemies are defeated without descending to their level; inner demons are exorcised and satisfactory resolutions reached through redemptive personal change. Fade out to a comfortably left/liberal humanitarian ending.

    But – what if none of that is true?

    What if looking for some transcendental level to the narrative is in fact like going to see a production of King Lear and hoping that Gloucester won’t get blinded and Cordelia will be saved?

    What then?

  8. What if looking for some transcendental level to the narrative is in fact like going to see a production of King Lear and hoping that Gloucester won’t get blinded and Cordelia will be saved?

    Let’s ignore that the best productions of Lear achieve precisely that reaction in the audience! I’m more interested (for now! :P) in why you imagine that anything that is not an out-and-out thriller will necessarily require a pretence that violence can’t be exciting? Because you’re right that thrillers achieve that effect very well (Black Man nails that side of itself, and I’d recommend it on that level to anyone) … but I’m less convinced that only pure thrillers can.

    You were right earlier that ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction too rarely speak to each other. But what is the point of dialogue if, as you seem to be suggesting, to achieve a particular effect a book does indeed have to be one thing or t’other? To achieve an effect we use techniques, not forms; we need to understand those techniques and their contexts, for sure. But do we need to leave them where we found them to make them work, or can we create a new space for them, and even ally them with techniques from somewhere else?

    If we reject the characterisation of thrillers as necessarily head-banging literary hedonism, I’m not sure we can then accept that not inhabiting them fully will naturally – of course! – make us wishy-wasy left/liberal Guardinista wets. I’d suggest what you need to achieve a true fusion of the kind you’re talking about is not a pure form with a few talky bits, but a sort of non-form which, magpie-like, picks out its techniques from elsewhere. I don’t think this dooms the resulting text to hand-wringing wish-fulfilment.

  9. Let’s ignore that the best productions of Lear achieve precisely that reaction in the audience!

    Hmm – let’s not, though. Because what makes Lear such a devastatingly powerful piece of drama is exactly the dynamic you describe, the fact that however much we long for those consolations from the play, we ain’t getting them! It’s the epitome of brilliant tragedy – Shakespeare basically gives you nowhere to hide. Similarly (ahem, not wishing to compare myself in canonical terms here, y’understand) Black Man is supposed to deny the reader the consolation of believing (or at least of being confident) that Marsalis is wrong and the human condition is susceptible to an altogether more reasonable and “truer” reading, with civilisation and peace for all at the end of it. Hopefully, that has a similarly tragic effect.

    But what is the point of dialogue if, as you seem to be suggesting, to achieve a particular effect a book does indeed have to be one thing or t’other?

    I’m not really suggesting that – what I’m suggesting is that we make a mistake when we assume that a bloody and violent thriller can’t by definition be an effective novel of ideas at the same time. I’m not so much suggesting we bridge that gap I mentioned by meeting somewhere in the middle, as I am suggesting we should just write exciting visceral fiction at levels of quality and intelligent address that give it the same heft as your average introspective literary piece. The problematic dualism I’m talking about resides not in the difference in book type, but in the assumptions made (by both consumers and purveyors) about what those book types entail; eg: it has a spaceship in it, it must be pulp. It’s very violent and exciting – it can’t possibly be a novel of ideas. These are category errors – they assume that subject matter and narrative type define the worth of a book, rather than the simple issue of quality.

    Eg: the reason The Da Vinci Code is a poor novel isn’t because it involves thrills and spills, car chases and conspiracies – it’s because it’s appallingly badly written and full of one dimensional characters. And flipping the coin, the reason, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go isn’t a very good SF novel (or indeed a very good novel of any description) isn’t because it’s slow moving and doesn’t have any cool tech or gun battles – it’s because it does a very poor job of addressing the issues inherent in its subject matter. And so forth.
    We don’t so much need the magpie fusion you talk about (though there is nothing wrong with such stuff), we just need the same expectations and levels of quality to be applied to our visceral, dynamic fiction as are applied to the “literary” type. And conversely, we need the same expectations of captivating, dynamic story-telling to be applied to the “literary” end of our fiction. If this were somehow magically to happen, writers on both sides of the genre/literary divide would find themselves having to work very much harder on their respective weaknesses, and the reading public in general would be the beneficiary.

    Applying some of this to Black Man, then: a reasonable critique might be to say something like “Morgan fails to cover the wider implications of the themes he sets out to explore” or “Morgan’s style isn’t sufficiently nuanced to make us feel the constraints his imagined society places on his characters” (in fact, you make something approaching this critique where my treatment of Jesusland is concerned. Cool). But the substance of most of the (reasoned) complaint about the book has not been along those lines; rather it’s been to say that having all this visceral violent action and then offering a critique of that violence at the same time is just not on. It is having your cake and eating it A book of this sort simply cannot carry the weight of the ideas. The book’s baser impulses twist its nobler ideas. And so forth.

    This is where I detect the Guardianista discomfort and longing for left/liberal redemptive undercut, the noble road rather than the base, so to speak; and it’s also the point at which I demur; by all means tell me I’m not good enough to pull off a certain trick, that I lack the writing chops to make it stick. That’s a critic’s (and reader’s) perogative. But to insist that I’m simply writing the wrong kind of book to deal with these issues hints at an agenda that has nothing to do with critique of quality and far more to do with certain social and political (and ultimately biological) assumptions about the shape of the world and the humans in it.

  10. Hmm – let’s not, though.

    You’re not trying to have your cake and eat it are you? 😉 Before you rather suggested that going to see Lear and hoping for it to be different would be like writing a literary novel with Black Man’s themes … but since we’ve accepted that actually a strong Lear should have exactly that effect (!), let’s move on to …

    what I’m suggesting is that we make a mistake when we assume that a bloody and violent thriller can’t by definition be an effective novel of ideas at the same time.

    I agree. I suppose, though, that what I am saying is that a bloody and violent thriller might need to have some more give and take between its ideas than it might ordinarily have, if it is to be considered a novel of ideas as well as a bloody and violent thriller. And this is where dual techniques come in.

    I concur that to make blanket generalisations about form is to make category errors; but at the same time I think you must accept that different forms have different emphases – that an airport thriller (which can be very a well written thing without having some terribly clever thematic concern) must be different in some way to an idea-driven thriller (which might well be terribly written). Otherwise, and here I’m assuming that you don’t think ideas-driven books are inherently better than ones which aren’t ideas-driven but written with considerably more artistry, both would be an airport thriller. You’re making too much of what they share, whilst I’m probably making too much of what separates them, but you get the point.

    A book of this sort simply cannot carry the weight of the ideas. The book’s baser impulses twist its nobler ideas. And so forth.

    I might say here that I think you take some considerable pleasure in Black Man in allowing the book’s baser impulses to twist its high-falutin’ ideas – that in fact that is the point. Yet I still think that Black Man is the sort of book which struggles under its own (considerable) thematic weight: you’ll note in the conclusion that I don’t say that this is because it is a thriller – I say that a paragraph above, to give the book the benefit of the doubt that perhaps it wasn’t interested in the socio-political questions I was interested in (“rigorous engagement with ideas of economic collapse, climate change and nationalism”). It’s not that thrillers can’t do the job; it’s that the sort of thriller Black Man is doesn’t give itself time to do so. And so we reach again that thorny issue of adaptation.

    I know what you mean about detecting an agenda beneath the dismissal of certain forms. But to go back to my idea about treating genre, form or mode as a toolset … you use certain tools for certain jobs. I don’t know that I want to defend the a priori assumptions some have about what certain genres can and should be used for, but by the same token it does appear to me that, for instance, science fiction is particularly well placed to answer certain questions, to address certain ideas, that romantic fiction is not; that literary fiction is good at one thing, and crime fiction at another. The way I get around this sneaking sympathy for the position is by insisting that the solution is to mix genres.

    Black Man is very clearly a mixed book – for all the heavy lifting its thriller side does, it possesses elements of other techniques which allow it to do a few other things. My main problem with the book is that those elements aren’t allowed enough room to breathe, because the narrative always needed the next explosion. I’m not sure this is a problem of form – once the bounds of the novel have been set, the form can I believe expand to encompass them, with the help of those extra elements. But a problem of some sort it was, if I was to accept the grander claims of some of the book’s champions.

    Having said all that, this discussion has given me a renewed respect both for you and the book in question (which, again, despite my griping I actually – gasp! – enjoyed); it’s certainly allowed me a renewed understanding of the text and its concerns. Thanks a million.

  11. My pleasure – thanks for having me. And thanks again for the considered (and mostly very kind!) words.



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