The year is 2107. A century from now, the United States no longer exists. Religious and political strife has torn the country into three nations: the high-tech, rich Pacific Rim; the God-fearing, ultra-right-wing Republic (aka 'Jesusland'); and the liberal, UN-aligned North Atlantic Union. China is now the world's dominant economic superpower, whilst Europe and India's political and economic might continues to expand. After (another) lengthy period of war and turmoil, the Middle-East is relatively quiet. On Mars mankind's efforts to tame the Red Planet continue unabated. Forty years earlier, genetically-engineered supermen known as 'thirteens' were created to serve as unstoppable soldiers. But, in the wake of America's collapse, they are now feared and hunted. A few thirteens serve the UN, hunting down their fellows, but most have fled to Mars, or turned to crime.
Carl Marsalis is a black man in every sense of the word: a thirteen, a 'twist' who genetic pattern is based on that of the ultimate human alpha-males who became extinct twenty thousand years ago. Whilst most of the world doesn't pay a second glance at his skin colour, in the increasingly regressive Republic it is a target for prejudice and hatred. Luckily, Marsalis is more than capable of looking after himself. When his usual employers hang him out to dry after he is thrown in a Florida prison, he takes up an offer from the Martian colonial office: to hunt down another thirteen who has come back from Mars and embarked on a bloody and apparently senseless killing spree.
Black Man is the fifth novel by British SF author Richard Morgan. It is set in the same universe as his Takeshi Kovacs series (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies), but roughly 400 years earlier. It is a totally stand-alone work: you may glean a few insights from having read the Kovacs books first (particularly the source of the increasingly advanced technology that is being shipped back from Mars), but the book stands up by itself. Which is just as well, as it is by far his finest book to date and sets the bar improbably high for all other science fiction released in 2007.
The book has been retitled Thirteen (or Th1rte3n according to the cover) for the American market and it's easy to see why. This is an incendiary novel that absolutely pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. Morgan analyses the problems he sees in the USA's political and sociological make-up and uses them skillfully to tear the country apart. Not since Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy have I seen an author so convincingly show what can happen to a nation, to a mass of people, and how they develop. As an SF book relegated to the darker corners of bookshops, it's likely that the book will escape widespread scrutiny, but I can imagine this book being banned and then burned in certain parts of the American South, which it is not particularly flattering to (although the rest of the human race doesn't exactly come off lightly either). Morgan has said previously that he doesn't pay as much attention to his backdrops as he does to his characters and plots, but in Black Man the worldbuilding is exemplery. The San Francisco of Altered Carbon could feel somewhat cold and sterile at times, but the same city in Black Man is a vivid, three-dimensional place which fairly leaps of the page, as does 22nd Century New York, Miami and the other key locations in the novel.
The thriller element of the story is compelling. Morgan knows how to set up an intricate web of intrigue and mystery and when to make new revelations and bring in new characters. The world that Marsalis inhabits is a murky one of dubious loyalties and betrayals, through which a classic noir story unfolds (albeit a noir story with moments of extreme ultraviolence, a pretty explicit sex scene and a lot of swearing). Unlike the Kovacs novels, Black Man is told in the third person and there are several key POV characters as well as Marsalis, particularly the Martian colonial office agent Svegi Ertekin and her partner, Tom Norton. All are expertly drawn and deconstructed by the author. Marsalis himself is a fascinating character and hopefully Morgan will one day write books further exploring him further.
Black Man (*****) is everything modern SF should be: edgy, intelligent, compelling and deep. It is without hesitation I give it the first five-starred review of a book since I started this blog. The novel will be published in hardcover in the UK by Gollancz on 17 May and in hardcover in the USA by Del Rey on 26 June. The author has a website at this location. Sandstorm Reviews has an excellent (and far more concise) review of the novel here.