By Richard Morgan
The genre of hard-boiled, noir fiction has always had a retro flavour, but as the popularity of the film Blade Runner proved, its sense of dark brooding style projects just as well onto our imaginings of a dystopic future. It’s somehow comforting to know that a few centuries hence there will still be a criminal underworld filled with tough guys in trench coats engaging in fisticuffs, gunfights, and snappy patter.
Black Man is a book that owes an awful lot to Blade Runner, and even more to that movie’s inspiration, Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Instead of android replicants, bounty hunter Carl Marsalis is tracking down genetically engineered super soldiers. Just to get you up to speed: Some hundred years from now, fed up with the weakness of “feminine” civil society and distressed at the decline of Western manhood (no, really), a race of alpha “hypermales” has been bred to wipe out the jihadis (apparently still a problem). Alas, once this mission has been accomplished the very qualities that make “genetic variant thirteens” such accomplished warriors – “readiness for violent acts and suspension of empathy” – also make them unlikely candidates for entry-level office jobs. And so they are either incarcerated in vast prison tracts or shipped off to our new colonies on Mars.
The twist here is that the hero is himself a “twist,” the derogatory name given to the thirteens. As soon as Marsalis enters a room testosterone alarms start going off. Men feel intimidated and inadequate in the presence of his conspicuous mojo, breaking down under the intensity of his anthracite stare, while women simply melt into puddles of hormonal heat. The addition of special anger management training and proficiency in the Martian martial art of “tanindo” only make him more of a force to be reckoned with.
And then there are the toys. As any good video-gamer knows – and they are clearly a large part of the target audience for this book – it’s all about the hardware. Among the weaponry on display here is the sadistic Haag gun, whose shell miraculously makes a large hole going in and never comes out, while instantly infecting its victim with the lethal Falwell virus. This certainly magnifies its intimidation factor (“Even if you get me, I don’t have to do more than scratch you on the way down. It is over.”). Then there is the “shark punch,” a kind of aquatic shotgun “that punches razor-sharp spinning slivers of alloy through water hard enough to eviscerate a great white shark” and which merely blasts people into ribbons of confetti on dry land.
As befits a traditional noir thriller, the plot never entirely gels. But it is only there anyway to provide a loose structure for Morgan, one of Sci-Fi’s hottest new properties, to showcase his ability to write great action sequences. And to develop the novel’s theme, which is tolerance.
Yes, tolerance. Marsalis is, as the title indicates, a black man. And so he faces prejudice on several levels, from the fundamentalist, racist bigotry of “Jesusland” (the redneck states down south have finally seceded from the union) to the edgy species hatred between the “cudlips” (the normal human herd of “wimps and conformists”) and the archaic “twists.” And this is where the novel starts sending off mixed messages.
The thirteens are genetic descendants of early hunter-gatherers, those fierce individualists who were wiped out by the agricultural revolution and the rise of civilization. In theory they can feel no empathy, love, or even religious feeling. Religion is a tool to rule the cudlips and it can’t be maintained in the face of the thirteens’ Nietzschean will to power. As Marsalis explains, “Even if you could convince a variant thirteen, against all the evidence, that there really was a god? He’d just see him as a threat to be eliminated. If god were demonstrably real? Guys like me would just be looking for ways to find him and burn him down.” You go, superman.
The awkwardness in all of this is that, even without making Marsalis a sympathetic victim of prejudice, most readers will find it easy to relate to the individualism and lack of empathy of the thirteens. This is the same paradox explored more provocatively in Dick’s book, that the non-humans (or in this case the ur-humans) are more human than the rest of us. We don’t view their unsociability and aggression – which, given the number of common or garden variety thugs and yobbos in this book, has hardly been bred out of existence – as something other but as something inner. The pure products of contemporary corporate civilization are just as often psychopaths as sheep.
As a meditation on intolerance and prejudice Black Man is a well-meaning mess. And as a simple action thriller it is much too long. But it is still an inventive, suspenseful work that will do no damage to Morgan’s growing reputation. While it does have a message worth reflecting on, readers might not want to sort it out and instead just enjoy it as a spectacular summer ride.
Review first published in the Toronto Star July 1, 2007.