Though I had heard countless positive things about Richard K. Morgan, I had yet to sample some of his work. But with Altered Carbon (Canada, USA, Europe) winning the Philip K. Dick Award and Market Forces (Canada, USA, Europe) winning the John W. Campbell Award, I was aware that I needed to discover what the buzz was all about. His latest, Black Man/Thirteen, being a stand-alone, it proved to be just what I needed. For those of you who are a bit confused, Black Man is the title for the UK edition, while Thirteen is the US title. You can probably guess the reason why. . .
Carl Marsalis is a variant Thirteen -- one of the genetically engineered subjects of a failed government/military program to create the deadliest of soldiers. He is now a hit man with a UN mandate to find and dispatch rogue Thirteens. The problem is that Carl has lost the will to kill. When a job takes a turn for the worse and he's arrested in Miami, Carl believes that he can now leave his troubled past behind him. Unbeknownst to him, what appears to be a mentally unstable Thirteen returns from Mars and crashes the ship he's on in the Pacific, only to reappear later and leave a trail of corpses in his wake for no apparent reason. Soon afterward, government officials show up to bail Carl out of jail. In exchange, they want his expertise to help them deal what those seemingly random murders. Unfortunately, it won't take long for him to realize that there is much more to this than meets the eye.
Morgan's writing style and his fine eye for details make the narrative leap off the pages. The author truly knows how to make the story come alive, and I found the imagery quite compelling.
The worldbuilding is interesting, though Morgan doesn't delve too much on how it all came to pass. The USA have imploded and the country has split into three separate States: the Pacific Rim, the North Atlantic Union, and the Republic, also known as Jesusland. China is now a superpower and the rest of the world appears hard-pressed to keep up with them. It is a fascinating backdrop, to be sure, and it's too bad Richard Morgan didn't spend a bit more time explaining how it all unfolded.
The characterizations are well-done, the dialogues gritty. The author knows how to keep the readers interested by allowing us to learn more about the characters by increments. The Carl Marsalis/Sevgi Ertekin tandem provides a nice balance between the Thirteen and the COLIN agent. The supporting cast is comprised of a good bunch of characters, including the Norton brothers and Carmen Ren.
The pace is great -- Black Man/Thirteen is a veritable page-turner! However, the storytelling is at times a bit uneven. Nothing that really takes anything away from the novel, mind you. But Morgan sometimes takes the "easy" route, and Marsalis' hunches prove to be on target, though they're coming from way out of left field. With such a absorbing and convoluted plot, I felt decidedly short-changed when that happened.
My only true complaint in what is an otherwise nearly flawless work of science fiction lies in Morgan's depiction of Jesusland. I am well aware that the southern States of the USA are a land of contradictions, not easily understood by outsiders. But to portray the majority of their inhabitants as God-fearing, Bible-waving, racist dumbasses is quite a stretch, in my humble opinion. As I mentioned, Richard Morgan's backdrop is an interesting extrapolation of a possible future for the United States of America. Yet his depiction of the Republic goes a bit too far -- as if there's not a single soul in those States with a single shred of common sense and judgement. I mean, when it comes to human rights, they have as much moral celirity as countries like Libya. Again, that's pushing the envelope a bit too far. Honestly, there is a lot more to those States and their citizens, and the differences between the north and the south are a bit more complex than that. Hence, although most people likely will not even notice this (it doesn't particularly have much of an impact on the tale), it made me grit my teeth on more than one occasion. I guess I'm just tired of what has become a somewhat Western European misconception about the southern States, namely that religious fundamentalism is the norm everywhere. Heck, not everyone born there is a traditionalist right-wing inbred hillbilly fuckwit! I figure it irked me to such an extent because everything else is so well-crafted that it appears that Morgan let his Leftist side take over for just that facet of his creation. As I said, this doesn't affect the overall quality of this novel, but it left something to be desired.
Black Man/Thirteen is a high-octane, action-packed and violent book. It is also an intelligent and thought-provoking thriller, one that will even satisfy readers from outside the genre.
Like Ian McDonald's Brasyl, Morgan's latest is a sure nomination for a Hugo Award. Moreover, despite its flaws, Black Man/Thirteen might well be the book of the year!:-) I commend this one to your attention, as it is one of the books to read in 2007.
The final verdict: 9.5/10