Sunday 5 August 2007

Black Man by Richard Morgan

Black Man is a departure from the recent run of emotionally fraught novels that have come my way. Out goes the carefully drawn characters and the observance of literary sensibilities, and in comes a 500-page avalanche of high power ├╝ber-violence.

Richard Morgan's first novel, Altered Carbon, caused a minor literary flap when it was published in 2002. Its fusion of mindless brutality and cyberpunk somehow captured the post-9/11 sci-fi zeitgeist. Since then, he's spun off two further novels, Broken Angels and Woken Furies, in a sort-of trilogy. All three feature Takeshi Kovacs, a psychopathic Mr Fixit-type commando character (officially entitled an 'Envoy') used by the powers that be to put down rebellions against corporate-owned colonies. All are set several centuries hence and see our anti-hero hunting down ne'er do wells even more despicable than himself. The unique selling point to the novels - the "intellectual" angle if you can call it that, is most people have "stacks" implanted in their necks that record a one's memories, which can then be implanted and downloaded into other "sleeves" (bodies). I suppose this dissociation of identity from the body got some postmodern literary types excited, somewhere.

Black Man differs from the Kovacs novels on two counts. It's set only a century from now. And intellectually, the cyberpunky-Cartesian transcendence of the meat is replaced by a renewed focus on the potentials of the flesh. Carl Marsalis, our anti-hero, is genetically engineered. And this is where the difference between this and Morgan's earlier books end. Marsalis is a psychopathic Mr Fixit-type commando character used by the powers that be to put down rebellions and clean up their messes. Part detective story, part gore fest, Marsalis and Sevgi Ertekin (ex-NYPD and partner) have to hunt down Merrin, another "genengineered" bad boy who turned his transport ship back from Mars into an abattoir. As they close in the protagonists are entangled in the tendrils of a complicated conspiracy, and true to form can only extricate themselves with extreme prejudice and copious violence.

So why am I bothering spending time on something as transparently trashy as Black Man? Well, bizarrely, just like The Amateur Marriage, it can be read as a meditation on masculine crisis. As is usually the case with hardboiled sci-fi, social commentary rests in the premise rather than the playing out of characters' relationships. In Morgan's timeline, the USA one century hence has ceased to exist. The North Eastern and West coast states have ceded from the union, and a Republican-dominated Confederated States of America have arisen. The rump is deregulated, dog-eat-dog, backward, and dominated by Christian fundamentalism. Small wonder the characters dub it Jesusland. By contrast the secessionist states are technologically sophisticated and socially permissive. I can't help the feeling that someone has been taking the last electoral college map of the USA a little too seriously.

The products of the gene technologies at the heart of the novel are crudely gendered. The Variant 13 technology (of which Marsalis is product) created a sub-species of male psychopaths, unencumbered by social solidarity or notions of abstract morality. They really don't give a shit about anyone. Morgan then goes into a flight of fancy about the thirteens being an evolutionary throw back to when we were a hunter/gatherers. But when humans became "feminised" (i.e. settled down into surplus-producing agrarian societies), the prehistoric thirteens lost their evolutionary niche and were bred out of the human gene pool. That was until feminised humanity became too soft to fight its battles and resurrected them to sort out capitalism's pathological violence.

So here we have it - ruthlessness, single mindedness, detachment, sociopathy, are biologically determined masculine traits. As if to underline this, the other main kind of genengineered human frequently mentioned are the bonobos - a subspecies of women genetically manipulated to be submissive, ultra-feminine, and fulfil a man's every sexual desire. Weirdly they hibernate for four months of the year - as if they weren't already enough in thrall to male protection And if that isn't enough, we learn the USA fractured was because the Jesus freaks in the US heartland wanted to reassert Christian-patriarchal values.

Sociological absurdities aside, does Morgan really believe this thesis is a going concern? Is his celebration of the hyper-macho a counter-blast to what he sees as the feminisation of contemporary society? It's hard to say. Black Man is probably his most violent book so far. When Marsalis is not breaking necks and blowing brains out, the dialogue - involving him or not - are nearly always confrontational. The normal human characters tend to be cardboard and interact with one another as if they're all hard men, including the women and the one bonobo who has a speaking part. You could think Morgan's being intelligent here ... except to say stilted characterisation and unintentionally funny-but-menacing dialogue are features of his previous books. That said, complexity tries to get a look-in. Marsalis and his arch nemesis do break their genetic programme and start caring about their female significant others, but gendered simplicity soon reasserts itself. Without giving the game away, the resolution involves lots of guns and buckets of blood.

One for the Andy McNab wannabes I think.

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