Monday, June 28, 2010

Black Man

by Richard Morgan, also known as "Thirteen" in some editions.

Builds on its strengths to an extremely satisfying story. This book was on my to read list in a couple ways, both as a Clarke winner and as the last Richard Morgan novel I hadn't yet read. Overall it's a strong success, and a deserving winner. Like everything Morgan writes it's ultra-violent, extremely sexually explicit and very pessimistic about political prospects. As well, it's an even more explicit examination of masculinity and its identification with violence than usual. What's new is the idea of the "thirteen", a breed of humans including the protagonist who were genetically engineered to be the pre-agrarian equivalent alpha males---opposed to hierarchy, capable and fundamentally lacking empathy towards most people. I don't really buy the main argument behind this on several levels, from genetic detterminism to rigified gender roles to the historical context, but it makes for a powerful scenario and Morgan effectively depicts the psychology of someone that's not quite human normal. The side characters in this also shine, with some very good use of ambivalence and intense confrontational psychologies.

The worldbuilding wasn't quite as good as most of Morgan's output. It was an elaborate, high-tech and lived in future, but it felt somewhat convincing in a number of ways. There are enough little details relating to the economy and daily social life that it fleshes things out more than some of Morgan’s other books, but in a couple of ways the main structures feel less credible. Particularly in that, purportedly the twenty second century so many of its norms were a hyper-extention of current issues. So there’s a theocratic society called Jesusland that particularly feels like a partisan extension rather than a longstanding theocratic regime as it would actually function. Related to this in particular is the background to the American civil war and fragmentation, with none of the characters talking about the events like they happened generations ago, instead there’s too much focus on showing this as being out near future. While it is valuable to imagine what happens next after that and offer a long-term depiction that’s a lot more nuanced than one might expect and has a mix of new political and technological elements, thre’s still a lot of obvious present/near-future directed anger here, and to an extent it undermines the main credibility of the account.

My quibbles with this novel aren't small, and overall I don't think it's nearly as effective as Woken Furies or Market Forces. Still, it has some major successes as well, poses some very intriguing questions in an unfamiliar way, and the last hundred pages of the narrative are very powerful. It combines some ambitious philosophical meditations with a very engaging, full on energetic narrative that builds up momentum and a sense of crisis inexorably. In terms of intensity and sheer effectiveness of prose this remaining section is probably the most effective thing Morgan has written, building to very poignant tragedy, character-defining focus and high adrenaline action. The earlier part of the book is a lot slower and shaky in some elements, and does suffer from some awkwardness with the anthropological arguments present within it, as well as a slow initial pace. It’s still a plot structure built with a lot of complexity, and it’s fascinating to watch the theories of a serial killer plot get pealed back and show forceful political and sociological reflection. The book was definitely a more deserving winner of the Clarke shortlist for '08 than H-Bomb Girl would have been, and I'd say better than the Execution Channel as well, though by a much narrower margin.

Similar to and better than: Blindsight by Peter Watts
Similar to and worse than: Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. LeGuin

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