In theory, he should have checked in with the GH site manager on arrival. It was procedure, written into the Charter. Extensive previous experience, some of it sticky with his own blood, had taught him not to bother. There was a whole shifting topography of dislike for what Carl Marsalis was, and it touched on pretty much every level of human wiring. At the high cognitive end you had sophisticated dinner-party politics that condemned his professional existence as amoral. At a more emotive level, there was the generalised social revulsion that comes with the label turncoat. And lower still, riding the arid terminology of the Jacobsen Report but swooping into the hormonal murk of instinct, you could find a rarely admitted but nonetheless giddy terror that he was, despite everything, still one of them.
If there is a common concern linking the books on this year's Clarke Award shortlist - or, at any rate, linking the four I have read so far - it is the pervasive power of fear as a shaper of human social interaction. Ken MacLeod's The Execution Channel explored how the fear of external enemies might produce a tunnel vision so narrow as to block out reality. The second - and longest - shortlisted book, Richard Morgan's Black Man, casts a broader net. Set a century from now, on the far side of significant developments in genetics, it examines how we create and label our internal enemies: how we perceive, and fear, differences between ourselves and Others, and attempt to make those differences into universal, immutable principles of judgement.
Carl Marsalis is a thirteen, one of the much-loathed genetically-engineered 'variant' humans, created during the latter half of the twenty-first century to be supersoldiers, the latest stage in the interminable arms race that is modern geopolitics. Thirteens were only one of several different variants produced by the genetics boom, such as "bonobos" (women designed to be the ultimate obedient bed partners); all of them were effectively slaves of one form or another. As one character observes:
"Nobody ever built a human variant because they thought they were giving it a better shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of fucking happiness. They were products, all of them, agenda-targeted."
Bred to violence, with lightning-quick reactions, enhanced strength, and deadly focus, demobbed thirteens were about as popular off the battlefield as any other war-hardened troops with no obvious social role to fall back into; a couple of very public acts of violence on home soil later, and the mob were soon waving their pitchforks. The various thirteen projects - Carl is a product of the British one (Osprey), but we also hear of the US (called, typically, "Project Lawman") and French versions - were closed down, and around twenty years before the events of Black Man, legislation was enacted to segregate thirteens from the rest of human society. They were given a choice: permanent incarceration on Earth, or virtually-permanent exile on terraformed Mars.
Carl, having won (or rather, secretly, fixed) a lottery allowing him to return to Earth, now works for an arm of the UN, chasing down rogue thirteens and either killing or capturing them. Unlike Deckard in Blade Runner, he is all too aware that he's one of those he hunts; Carl, however, doesn't really do angst, taking the contradictions of his position (mostly) in stride. Then a rogue thirteen, Merrin, escapes from Mars - apparently by stowing away on a UN Colony Initiative* ship and eating his fellow passengers slice by slice to maintain his nutritional balance en route - and crashlands in the Pacific off the coast of what used to be the south-western US. Merrin escapes and goes on a killing spree, and Carl is called in to help with the investigation.
[ * COLIN for short, and referred to as such throughout. I know. ]
Sevgi Ertekin, a Turkish-American former NYC cop and now a COLIN operative, sums up what it is they are facing, and in doing so sets the scene for much of the debate that follows: what sets thirteens apart? Wherein lies the danger they represent? Are their thought processes innately inhuman? Or are other humans just redrawing the lines, arbitrarily?
A cold conviction was growing in her. "You wouldn't have to be insane to do these things. You'd just have to have a goal and be determined to attain it. Let's get this straight, early on. What we've seen aboard Horkan's Pride are not symptoms of insanity, they are only evidence of great force of will. Evidence of planning and execution shorn of any socially imposed limitation. Any mental problems this person was suffering by journey's end are going to be a result of that execution, not a cause."
Before we delve into the thematics, though, what is first apparent about Black Man is the narrative style. After a brief, chilling prologue - introducing us to Merrin from the perspective of one of his victims aboard the Horkan's Pride - Morgan launches us straight into Carl's world. Chapter one begins thus:
He finally found Gray in a MarsPrep camp just over the Bolivian border and into Peru, hiding behind some cheap facial surgery and the name Rodriguez. It wasn't a bad cover in itself, and it probably would have stood standard security. Security camps in the prep camps were notoriously lax; the truth was that they didn't much care who you'd been before you signed up. But there were still a few obvious signs you could look for if you knew how, and Carl, with a methodological intensity that was starting to resemble desperation, had been looking for weeks.
Note the "finally" and the "just over" of the first line, or the fact that we don't get learn our protagonist's name until several sentences in. This action-film immediacy, the sense that we are jump-cutting into a faster-than-life ongoing story, is a large part of the novel's make up, suiting both the story being told and the characters we meet in it. But Morgan is far from a one-note writer. He is perfectly at home in quieter, non-action moments - though his tendency towards stodgy dialogues in which characters outline the debates and/or the plot does get wearing - and has a disarming turn of phrase, a self-aware inventiveness that often undercuts what might otherwise be potboiler-ish scenes. (Upon two characters jumping each other's bones the moment the door closes behind them: "Their restraint shattered in hungry pieces on the floor." Upon a villain being confronted with our heroes' knowledge of his nefarious plan: "The moment hung in the room, creaked and turned like a corpse at the end of a rope." An alarm is anthropomorphised: "Above his head, the sirens made it to their first hitched-in breath and started the cranking whine all over again.")
In outline, Black Man could be mistaken for a potboiler - and indeed, Morgan's reputation prior to Black Man was for writing precisely that. But the book is much more than that, filled with mature, engaging character dynamics, rich future-building, and thoughtful, nuanced issue-raising. The characters feel like individuals, with their own lives and their own complex ideas and responses; their past histories are not just devices to excuse plot developments, but powerful contributions to the people they are (which, of course, feeds into the book's wider meditation on nature, nurture, and the forces that shape personalities).
Sevgi, our viewpoint character for about a third of the book, is probably the standout creation. She has a believably complicated relationship - guilty, affectionate, confused, impatient - with her parents and her cultural heritage, together with the more recent pain of attendant upon the murder of her lover, another thirteen (in hiding) named Ethan. She is stubborn, blunt, smart and loyal, wryly aware of her faults and with more insight than most, as we have seen, into what might have motivated Merrin; she recalls very strongly, from the days after Ethan's death, what rage feels like, the desire to cause harm without consequence:
I can't help you if you won't help me [the therapist had] said at the end, an edge of anger finally awake in his soporific, patient voice. He was missing the point. She didn't want to be helped. She wanted to do damage, gashed red, bleeding and screaming damage to all and any of the bland facets of social restraint that meshed her about like a spiderweb.
Sevgi humanises Carl, both in the traditional narrative sense of being the reader's window on his unusual world and mind, and because she anchors him to human society, giving him someone to laugh with (or at least be faintly amused by; Carl doesn't really do laughter much, either) and something to care about - something to fear losing. Carl without her, even though the narrative takes his viewpoint in more than half the chapters, is much more inscrutable, although it is notable that only is his viewpoint chapters is he called "Carl" - everyone else refers to him as Marsalis, for the most part. This reflects his training (and, he would undoubtedly argue, his genetics). Locking down emotions, controlling thoughts and actions, assessing situations impassively: these are what does, how he lives. He is not, however, nearly as amoral as he first appears, or as either himself or others tend to claim. When he attacks, it is generally in response to an actual or potential threat; it is just that he is quicker about making such assessments than those around him, and more thoroughly and ruthlessly violent about carrying out his responses.
At the end of the encounter with Gray, for example, we get the following (which, again, reads not unlike the shooting script for a film) sketch of how Carl treats a woman who got caught in the crossfire:
Haag shells were designed to stay in the body [...] but they made a lot of mess going in. She looked up at him, making a tiny panicked grunting in the back of her throat over and over.
He shook his head.
"I'll go and get some help," he said, in Quechua.
He stepped past her to the door and opened it.
Then, in the flood of light from outside, he swivelled quietly and shot her once more, through the back of the head.
We later learn, however, that the Haag shell with which the woman had been shot initially is a death sentence anyway - it is a biological weapon, a carrier of countless, relentless diseases - and that Carl was here giving his version of mercy.
But Carl is seen by most as nothing but the product of his genetics, variously a danger to society or its disposable henchman, willing to do the dirty deeds that 'civilised' humans cannot. The other characters fall over themselves to declare what he is, or is not, often without ever having encountered him. Jeff, brother of Sevgi's partner Tom Norton, is an unabashed admirer of (his idea of) thirteens. He is also, not unrelatedly, the worst culprit - or vehicle - for lecturing us about the possible evo-psych origins of thirteens. "Variant thirteen gave us back our manhood," he says, decrying "feminised society" as the root cause of America's instability and weakness in the face of its enemies:
"America split up over a vision of what strength is. Male power versus female negotiation. Force versus knowledge, dominance versus tolerance, simple versus complex. Faith and Flag and patriotic Song stacked up against the New Math, which, let's face it, no-one outside of quantum specialists really understand, Co-operation Theory and the New International Order. And, until Project Lawman came along, every factor on the table is pointing towards a future so feminised it's downright un-American."
The background is that the US broke apart during the twenty-first century, forming three new countries: the Union on the east coast, the Rim states on the west, and the "Confederated Republic" (popularly known outside its borders as "Jesusland" for its emphasis on fundamentalist isolationism) in the middle, sealed off from its neighbours with a huge fence - only this time, the fence is not to stop people getting in, but to prevent its desperate poor from getting out in search of a better life. Jeff's explanation for this state of affairs, quoted above, speaks to his frustrated insecurities, like so much about him; later, another character gives Sevgi a less romanticised, less face-saving view:
"[It went] extinct because it failed to adapt. America couldn't cope with modernity, it died from the shock and was torn apart by more adaptive entities. Though I think she tends to skate around the edge of what America really died of."
"Which is what?"
Yavuz shrugged. "Fear."
Jeff can never seem to quite decide exactly when this astonishing sea change took place; at other times, often within the same rants, he also theorises that thirteens are the alpha males of hunter-gatherer times (apparently ignorant of the fact that hunter-gatherers still exist today, and that not all humanity went pastoral way back when). "'Pre-civilised humans,'" he calls them, "'Everything we used to be, everything we've been walking away from since we planted our first crops and made our first laws and built our first cities.'" It is unclear how this proto-society, or its various successors over the centuries, fits with his notion of civilisation - which he characterises as the rule of law, etc. - being inherently "feminised", what with settled society, in most parts of the world and at most times, tending to be built upon notions and practices of control of women and female sexuality/fertility. He also, rather oddly, waxes lyrical on how thirteens would probably take over all democratic societies ever given half a chance, even though only one thirteen that we meet during the course of the novel shows the slightest inclination towards holding power; overwhelmingly, thirteens appear to be lone wolf types, preferring to avoid ordinary humans where possible.
It becomes increasingly apparent, though, that what Jeff is talking about is a disenfranchised (i.e. no longer automatically dominant) man's dream of the thirteen; that, like the florid-faced bigot moaning about "political correctness gone mad", what he really wants is an excuse to be a bastard, and he sees the opportunity in the genetic destiny of the thirteens. (Even though little idiots like Jeff would probably be the first to get squashed in such a world.) But Jeff is only the most extreme example; as I have said, everyone - including Sevgi - projects their ideas, and more particularly their fears - onto the thirteens. Whether enthused or repuled, everyone wants to label him rather than engage with him. Carl remembers the words of his mentor on Mars:
"[Sutherland] used to say humans live their whole lives by metaphor, and the problem for thirteens is that we fit too fucking neatly into the metaphorical box for all those bad things out beyond the campfire in the dark, the box labelled monster."
They are Other; the latest in a long line of bogeymen and enemies-within, of people judged and condemned as members of a group rather than treated as individuals. There is a clear resonance, here, with the fact that Carl is a black man, and Morgan uses fear of thirteens to explore the impulses behind racism. Conventional racial prejudice itself is much less prevalent in Morgan's future world, but Carl gets a dose of it during a stint in a Jesusland prison:
Over the last four months, he could track his own change in attitude towards the antique racial epithets still in wide use across the Republic. Nigger. The first couple of times, it was disconcerting and almost quaint, like having your face slapped with a duelling glove. With time, it came to feel more and more like the verbal spittle it was intended to be. That his fellow blacks in the population used it of themselves did nothing to stem the slowly awakening anger. It was a locally evolved defence, and he was not from there. Fuck those Republicans and their chimpanzee-level society.
Sometimes Carl himself seems to buy into the Othering. (Sometimes the narrative does too; I was struck by this apparently throwaway description of Carl in a fight: "The flashing lights lit [Carl] amidst the dust, turned his face demonic with tension and focused effort"). He tells Sevgi:
We're not like you. We're the witches. We're the violent exiles, the lone wolf nomads that you bred out of the race back when growing crops crops and living in one place got so popular. We don't have, we don't need a social context.
Yet there is a sense in which Carl has internalised society's contempt for him, and made it their Othering his own; that his weary agreement, at the end, that he is an unsustainable danger to the world, and not human, is a surrender (and an expression of grief) rather than clear-sighted self-knowledge. He is undoubtedly right in certain respects; he is faster, stronger, and more aggressive than anyone around him. But there are plenty of hints that it does not have to be so. He can control his impulses, and at times he wants to for reasons that go beyond social acceptability. One of the things that comes through most strongly from his encounters with other thirteens is how individual they all are; they share reflexes, but have quite different drives and worldviews. Genetics make them different from other human beings, but genetics also create differences within ordinary humanity, and these are not insurmountable; thirteens are not a species apart, any more than women are from men, and Carl arguably has more common ground with some of the non-modified humans he meets than with some of the thirteens.
Furthermore, Carl's background - hints of which come through during the novel - gives at least a partial lie to the idea. Thirteens were not only bred, they were trained:
"And yet, you - variant thirteens everywhere - were thoroughly environmentally conditioned. They did not trust your genes to give them the soldiers they wanted. You were brought up from the cradle to face brutality as if it were a fact of life."
It was a concentrated programme aimed at creating sociopathic killers, obedient only through longterm violence and fear of punishment. Carl remembers being told, at the age of eleven, "'Your wishes are very small things in this world, Carl. You are valuable because of what you do, not because of what you want.'"
The thirteens-as-alpha-male line of thought is further upset by the late reveal of a female thirteen - something the reader spots some time before Carl (or anyone else) does, precisely because Carl is so convinced that thirteens are the essence of maleness, are men by definition. The female thirteen seems to be a later development of the genetic type, and is somewhat dismissive of her counterpart's effectiveness ("Has it occurred to you that just maybe cramming gene-enhanced male violent tendency into a gene-enhanced male chassis is overloading the donkey a little?").
Gender issues, implicit in the theme of Othering and genetic identity just as Carl's race is, are further explored through Sevgi, who - while certainly not a stone-cold killer - is far from the archetypal action/thriller image of feisty-but-ultimately-pathetic, nailbreaking womanhood. That said, the treatment of women is not unproblematic; call it the conventions of the genre, but there remains an emphasis on women's physical attractiveness, even for Sevgi (when we first meet her, one of the first things she does is look at herself in a mirror and catalogue her body for us, which may be an ironic flipside of the action-film male gaze, but still serves much the same purpose). In addition, and irritatingly, Morgan dips further into the well of thriller cliche towards the end when he places Sevgi in peril and has her menfolk (Carl, Tom Norton), driven by rage at her peril, go off to do Manly Things (like beat up suspects*), to close the case for her sake.
[* as in 24, torture can't possibly be wrong because torture only happens to bad people, who have the information sought, and spill it on cue. ]
As the story winds on, the novel's structural problems begin to hamper it. For a book with such an action-film prose style, the narrative pace is surprisingly unhurried; the overlong middle section with its trips to Peru and Istanbul, in particular, sags, and is only saved by the sparky interplay between Sevgi and Carl. Certain strands of the plot are put on hold for a hundred pages at a time to allow other, meandering threads to work their way to the right point, which makes the whole thing feel rather sprawling and unfocused at times. There is a tendency to signal plot twists (of the character deceit variety) through clunkingly obvious dialogue tics, e.g.:
"He's chosen us, Scott. Sorted us from the, uh, the--"
"Yeah, the chaff."
[...] "Are you his," he tasted the word, awkward on his tongue. "His handmaiden?"
"Yes. That's what he told me. Until one of the, uh, the angels can come to take on the task. Until then, he says he'll speak through me."
All this can be accepted since the characters and the ideas are so compelling. More damagingly, the climax of the book outstays its welcome across a number of long, long chapters in which successive levels of villainy are confronted so that they can explain their evil schemes to our heroes. (Really, if your plot requires that much explanation, it might just be a smidgen too complicated for its own good.) Nonetheless, this is a rich and complex novel, thought-provoking long past the final page - following its ideas and problems down a number of challenging paths, and being entertaining and emotionally-involving with it. More than with any other book on the shortlist, while reading Black Man I was driven, repeatedly, to read sections aloud and debate them (and growl at Jeff). I've been musing about it ever since.
(who is quite disconcerted by how long this became...)