Black Man/Thirteen by Richard Morgan


Published by Gollancz

ISBN 978 0 575 07767 6

May 2007
647 Pages


As a recipient of the Philip K. Dick award for his debut novel, Altered Carbon, Richard (K.) Morgan has already made a name for himself in his brief career as a published author.  That novel was marked by violence, action with over-the-top characters in a far future where death was no longer a problem. In Black Man (Th1rt3en in the US), Morgan reveals an even more harsh (albeit more near) future, with an uncompromising political map where death is still a factor.  No longer is the United States of America the world’s leading nation, it is a broken collective of three Super-states struggling to break through the quagmire of what humanity inflicted on the world. The republican Jesusland, the technology-drenched Pacific Rim, and the North Atlantic Union the liberal remainder of the US aligned with the United Nations comprise what was once the United States. Morgan does not provide an explicitly detailed background to the why and how of the current state of the world, rather he focuses on the current state and how the characters in his novel cope and survive. Through these characters, some hints are dropped about how the world came to be at the start of Black Man. Specifically, Morgan focuses his story on Carl Marsalis, the Black Man of the book.  


Marsalis is a Thirteen, a genetically and artificially created man bred to be a soldier and killer.  Like all 13s, Marsalis was designed to deal with the conflicts of the previous (in this case 21st) Century’s conflicts.  Thirteens are reviled, feared, and often looked upon with scorn by the populace at large.  What separates the 13s from normal humans is their unrelenting drive, their strength, their honed-from-birth fighting ability, and their flat-out savagery.  The basic genetic enhancement of the thirteen is bringing out abilities that were lost through evolution. Because of this marked disdain, many of the 13s have emigrated to the colonized planet of Mars.


Many 13s who remained on Earth hold jobs as secret agents, working Black Ops missions. In Carl’s case, he tracks down rogue 13s for the UN. From the outset of the novel, Carl is a marginalized character. His very essence, being a 13, separates him from the majority of people with whom he comes into contact. The 13s he hunts down and communicates with consider him a traitor, almost an Uncle Tom.  Furthermore, Marsalis is a black man (hence the title, though it is not only because of his skin color) and as Morgan demonstrates throughout his extrapolated future, race still is a dividing issue. This is where the book most closely parallels today’s society, if for no other reason than the US publishers deciding to title the book Thirteen over the racially flavored Black Man.


Back to the story of the book – Morgan draws the reader in off the bat with some great action. In the prologue, he crashes a space ship only to jump to a scene of criminal pursuit with the first chapter.  Marsalis takes his pursuit a little too far and is subsequently thrown in prison where his skin color makes him a target.  He keeps his true nature as a 13 hidden, since it would only make him more of an outcast. Marsalis receives an early reprisal – if he decides to pursue a thirteen responsible for a string of murders.


From there, Morgan takes the reader on a political journey throughout his imagined future.  While the novel starts with a great deal of adrenaline-inducing scenes, the middle is comprised of dialogue.  The characters (Marsalis, Sevgi Eretkin [his security partner/envoy], other 13s) debate their individual roles in the current society. These debates are a great way for Morgan to explore his future, plausibly fractured from where we stand today.  I was reminded a bit of David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake in the way Morgan’s character spoke of the world before “today” and the hints they floated about how the world arrived in its current state. Morgan’s portrayal of the fractured United States is particularly chilling in its plausibility – a civil war has split the country along political and religious ideologies. Where the strength of Morgan’s future lies is that nothing is safe, that is to say the characters lambaste all ideals and beliefs in one way or another. 


Since the title of the book is a reference to Carl Marsalis, much of Morgan’s focus throughout the novel is on Carl.  The theme of duality is probably Carl Marsalis’s most consistent attribute and recurring theme.  As I stated earlier, since he is a 13, he is marginalized by both humans and his fellow thirteens; a monster by the former, a traitor by the latter. Throughout the novel, Carl struggles against himself, providing a symbolic nature v. nurture struggle. He was trained to be a killer, a man who was taught to give into his baser instincts.  It is against these base instincts he struggles, trying to become more “human” in both his actions and his outlook.


While Morgan’s imagined future is plausibly laid out and the action scenes flip the pages briskly, I found the overall pacing of the novel to be uneven.  Many of the dialogue scenes moved well, while some others felt as if they were lengthy info-dumps. Some of the characters introduced in the early scenes felt almost to be throwaway characters for a large middle portion of the novel.  On the one hand, it felt as if they were forgotten. However, on the other hand, Morgan did a decent job of weaving them into the deeper plotline later in the novel, and not making them come completely from far out.  The storyline seemed to resolve itself much earlier than I expected, and while the reasoning for this was logical, I felt the final portion of the novel dragged a bit and felt somewhat tacked on.


Black Man, by its very nature could be a dividing novel for many people.  It has the potential to spark a great deal of discussion about our world, both in the political climate, how far we will engineer ourselves and one of the oldest dividing lines, race. While not a consistently even novel, the power of Morgan’s bravado and ideas make for a significant (and entertaining) book in the genre. Despite the flaws, Black Man is a plausible story and when the scenes move well (which is most of the time); they are fantastic.


© 2007 Rob H. Bedford


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