Richard Morgan was the recipient of the Philip K. Dick award for his debut novel, Altered Carbon and now Black Man, (or Thirteen as it has been rather cowardly renamed in the US), has collected an Arthur C Clarke award.
Unlike the previous novels featuring Takashi Kovacs, Black Man introduces us to an equally harsh but much nearer future setting. Morgan does a superb job in the way that he introduces the world in which Black Man takes place it is not a simple world, but the background is not laboured, there are snippets of information which allow you to piece together a complex geo-political background as the story progresses. The USA is no longer the worlds largest super power; it has broken into three large states. These comprise the republican Jesusland, the technology-rich Pacific Rim, and the North Atlantic Union which is very much the liberal remainder of the US aligned with the United Nations as we know it.
Black Man is still very much in the mould of the previous novels in that it centres on some recognisable and overtly confident, wise-ass characters. The novel is also bathed in the recognisable sex, violence and rollercoaster action that readers of the previous novels will be used to. As someone else said to me about Black Man; …yyou know you are reading a Morgan! But there the similarities end, Black Man is a novel that asks many more questions than those that have come before it; humanity, racism, religion, ethics, genetics (nature vs nurture), gender politics and I could go on. It is a Sci-Fi Novel that is more than just another Space Opera or cyberpunk regurgitation. It deals with issues that relate to us and our world today and specifically challenges some of the decisions that we are making and where those decisions will ultimately take us.
The central character Carl Marsalis, the Black Man of the story, is a Thirteen a genetically engineered super soldier a group which are now strictly regulated, licensed or exiled, forbidden to reproduce and generally feared. The thirteens are very much one of mans mistakes, the consequences of which are dealt with in a variety of ways within the book. A strong theme is the fallout of over enthusiastic genetic engineering preceding the time in which the book is set for me there were many resonances with the issues raised in P.K Dicks Do androids dream of electric sheep and the subsequent movie Bladerunner. In keeping with that theme Carl Marsalis is portrayed as a licensed bounty hunter who tracks down other rogue thirteens.
The story kicks off with a number of scenes which set up the world view and introduce Marsalis before going on to set up the core story based around another thirteen who returns from Mars and starts a bloody and seemingly random killing spree, Carl Marsalis is recruited by the colonial authorities to hunt down the killer. A simple storyline becomes more complex as the bloody trail left by the rogue killer is exposed as a complex cover for more sinister activities.
The novel has an intriguing set of characters, particularly Sevgi Ertekin, an ex-cop who is going through an emotional low after the death of her boyfriend, (who it transpires was also a thirteen) and who ends up working alongside Carl Marsalis.
If I have a criticism it would be that I found the ending a little unsatisfactory, without giving anything away, I suspect that Morgan is, with the final pages of Black Man, hedging his bets for a sequel or at least a follow up novel with the Carl Marsalis character.
I have very much enjoyed all of Morgans novels and whilst I dont think that Black Man is his best, I do think that it is definitely his most thought provoking. If you liked Morgan’s previous novels, you are most likely going to enjoy Black Man.