Black Man (book, Richard Morgan, 2007)

From Death Ray issue 1, out in May 2007.

Richard Morgan

Gollancz/ £10.99/ 647pp/ 978 0 575 07767 6

In a world of genetic variation, only one man can stop the most dangerous killer the world has ever seen…

Richard Morgan writes pumped-up, steroid-fuelled Cyberpunk. This is an unashamedly male, rip-roaring, boy’s own thriller for the 21st century. If Andy McNabb ate a year’s worth of issues of New Scientist, this is the kind of stuff he’d write afterwards.

The “Black Man” of the title is Carl Marsalis, one of a group of genetically engineered soldiers known as Variant Thirteen, created by various governments to counter the lack of alpha-male aggression in western populations during a century of war. He’s specifically designed to be a throwback to man’s lost primitive past – and he’s a dangerous sociopath because of it. Now it’s peacetime, and he’s become a freelance hunter of his own kind, many of whom find it hard to play by the rules of the rest of civilisation. When Marsalis winds up in a Florida jail, he buys his way out by agreeing to hunt down another ‘13’, one who has butchered and eaten a spaceship crew on his way back from Mars, and who is now slaughtering his way across North America.

There’s a lot to like about Black Man. It’s fast, gory and exciting with a character that one suspects Morgan (and most of his male readership) yearns to be. He’s a GM James Bond – the chicks fall at his feet, as do the men, usually after he’s beaten the crap out of them. If this sounds like post-feminist male wish-fulfilment, then it probably is, and is all the more fun for being so.

Morgan’s 22nd century future is believable, its intricacies explained in a slew of mostly snappy dialogue that only occasionally dulls. It posits a time where globalisation of government is becoming a reality, Mars colonisation is well under way, AIs are quietly beginning to overtake humanity and America has been broken into bits (If this sounds like British wish-fulfilment, ditto).

Though the book has pretensions to discussing issues of prejudice and genetic determinism, it doesn’t do so very deeply (Marsalis is black, so has to put up with racism and speciesism, with many a heavy-handed comparison between the two). But this lack of political sophistication does not matter, this is kick-ass SF from the hard end of the spectrum.


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