Saturday, May 03, 2008

Further Thoughts on Black Man

I've written already about Richard Morgan's Black Man (Thirteen in the US), which on Wednesday was the highly deserving winner of this year's Arthur C. Clarke award, in my review of the Clarke shortlist for Strange Horizons. I left some of my thoughts on the book out of that review, partly because I wanted it to be roughly the same length as my write-ups of the other nominees, but mostly because Strange Horizons didn't feel like an appropriate venue for discussions that include massive spoilers. This piece, therefore, isn't precisely a review of Black Man, but more a continuation from and expansion of the one from Strange Horizons. This means that I'm not going to repeat the points I made in that review, and that in order for this post to make sense you should probably read the Strange Horizons piece first (and, as I am going to be revealing major twists and plot details left, right, and center, that you should have already read Black Man--which indeed you should do anyway).

To briefly recap, however, Black Man is Richard Morgan's fifth novel, following the Takeshi Kovacs series (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies) and Market Forces, a standalone novel. It takes place in about a hundred years, in an America broken up into two nations along the red/blue state divide, and with forays to South America and Turkey. Carl Marsalis is a variant thirteen--a lab-made throwback to pre-agrarian, pre-civilization, humanity, an ultra-type-A male prone to violence and sociopathic behavior, and constitutionally incapable of cooperation or empathy (and, Morgan tells us, religious belief--presumably under the assumption that human morality, and our willingness to accept hierarchies, are rooted in our ability to believe in a judgmental deity, which is only one example of Morgan tossing off the kind of interesting and controversial observation which in another novel might be the meat of the entire endeavor and in Black Man is nothing but an aside). He and others of his kind were bred and raised to be super-soldiers by the world's industrialized nations, but years later those projects have been shut down and their products disavowed. Thirteens are now forcibly relocated to Mars or rounded up into camps, and it's Carl's UN-sanctioned job to track down escapees and make sure they do either one, or die trying to escape him. When a Martian thirteen returns to Earth and embarks on a killing spree, Carl is recruited by representatives of the Martain colonial initiative (COLIN), former cop Sevgi Ertekin and her partner Tom Norton, to track him down.

I started thinking about expanding on my Strange Horizons review when Niall Harrison returned his edited version of it to me with the observation that I had written so little about Sevgi. As he pointed out, so did most of the novel's reviews, and when I started thinking about why this was I realized that I had a lot more to say about the novel's treatment of gender. Sevgi is, as Niall wrote, an important character, in certain lights almost a secondary protagonist. Sizable portions of the novel are told from her point of view--it's about a hundred pages before she and Carl even meet, during which she is our point of access to the investigation of the escaped thirteen and his killing spree. There's also a lot of effort spent on exploring her history and developing her issues--as a former policewoman now working for a corporate and amoral organization, as a Muslim woman who often finds herself attacked from without by a hostile Christian- and male-dominated society, and from within by a religious establishment that disapproves, sometimes violently, of her life choices, and as the former lover of a thirteen, who was killed by a SWAT team sent to apprehend him once his genetic status was revealed.

More importantly, Sevgi is an enjoyable character. In her review of Black Man at Eve's Alexandria, Nic Clarke points out that Sevgi is introduced to us through her appearance--we find her scrambling to locate her 'profiler cups' (the bra of the future--to which I say kudos for the effort but I remain unconvinced) and regarding herself critically in the mirror, but from that point on it's all uphill. There are times when it seems that, when creating Sevgi, Morgan was checking items off the 'strong female character' checklist--she's smart, good at her job, tough, capable of and good at physical activities, including violence, and sexually assertive--but he infuses the end result with enough life and personality to make her appealing in her own right. And even if she weren't, surely characters of this ilk are not so common as to have become a cliché? Aside from Black Man, the only other Clarke nominee that makes the effort to portray women positively and non-stereotypically is Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army (once again, Daughters of the North in the US) an explicitly feminist work, and even in that case I had issues with the novel's attitude towards feminine strength. Ultimately, Sevgi is the kind of character who ought to be celebrated, and her execution is deft enough to make her more than a type.

And yet for all that, it was hard for me to think of Sevgi as a character on par with Carl, and when I tried to understand why this was I realized that it is precisely because she has so many important roles in the novel that it's hard to think of her as a person. Playing a role is what Sevgi exists to do. She's a point of view character early in the novel, providing the readers with access to events that Carl can't witness. Once she and Carl meet, she's a foil for him, challenging his assumptions about human society and allowing him to challenge her assumptions about thirteens. She's a window into early 22nd century American society, and a way of exposing the prejudice that still underlies it--as she tells Carl, she's experienced many varieties of prejudice that he hasn't, as a woman among men, as a Turk among Greeks, as a Muslim among Christians, and as the lover of a thirteen and the mother of his unborn child. When she becomes Carl's lover, she provides him with an emotional anchor, which is of course nothing but a way of setting both him and the readers up for a fall. Two thirds of the way into the novel, Carl comes face-to-face with the thirteen he's been chasing and is about to be killed by him when Sevgi steps in, saves his life, and pays with her own. For the rest of the novel, Carl is driven by the desire to avenge her death.

There are very few instances in Black Man in which Sevgi is allowed to simply exist, to be a person independent from either her many functions in the novel's plot or her relationship with Carl Marsalis. These usually occur when Carl is sidelined--when Sevgi discusses her fraught relationship with her religion, and her attempts to remake it into a feminist, humanist creed, with a Turkish official--or when she and Carl about something that isn't directly related to thirteens or the investigation. At one point, Sevgi launches into a rant about the division of America, complaining that the right-wing, chauvinistic, homophobic, fundamentalist heartlanders "got exactly what they wanted" when they seceded from the union. It's a subject on which Carl has little or no opinion, and as he just stands back and lets her talk Sevgi comes to life. Most importantly, Sevgi is blazingly herself in the period before her death. Though the bullet that hits her causes only minor damage in itself, it comes from a Haag gun, which infects its victims with an AIDS-like virus, to which Sevgi succumbs after weeks in hospital. For about 50 pages, Sevgi becomes the focus of the novel, as she struggles to come to terms with her impending death, and finally, overcome with pain, accepts it.

Even this final shifting of the novel's focus, however, is ultimately in service of Carl's characterization. As I wrote in my Strange Horizons review, Morgan is working very hard here to pervert one of the most common tropes of the testosterone-heavy action thriller, the death of the protagonist's loved one.
Usually, in these kinds of stories, the hero will do one of two things—kill the villain, thus satisfying the audience's bloodlust, or recognize that vengeance is futile, thus satisfying their sense of morality. Carl does both, and the marvel of Black Man is that by the time he executes his revenge we, the readers, feel the conviction that is so often stated, but so rarely believable, in these stories—that it's futile, that it will accomplish nothing and help no one—while simultaneously realizing, on that same visceral level, that Carl's nature compels him to take it anyway.
The realization that vengeance is futile is achieved primarily through the careful construction of the circumstances of Sevgi's death. The man who kills her, a thirteen called Onkebend, isn't targeting her, either as a person in her own right or as someone that Carl cares about (the point is made, later in the novel, that he doesn't realize how important she is to Carl). Sevgi simply gets in his way, and it's just dumb luck that he grazes her with a weapon that's lethal at every hit. As Carl later recreates the events of that night, Onkebend was shadowing him in the hopes of killing him and making it look like a suicide--hence the Haag gun, the only weapon even a thirteen might be afraid of. When Carl picks a fight in a bar, Onkebend sees a chance to orchestrate his death in another way, making it look like the result of a brawl, and leaves the Haag gun in his car, where it's the first weapon to hand when Sevgi interrupts him in his attack on Carl and pursues him.

It's a stupid and tragic coincidence, and I have no doubt that Morgan created the Haag gun precisely in order to bring about such a stupidly coincidental death, and in order for Sevgi's death to take as long as it does. Her protracted death puts the readers through the stages of grief, so that by the time she's gone we're sad, not angry. When, after Sevgi's death, Carl announces that he plans to take revenge on her killer, we, like the other characters who cared about her, don't see the point. We can see that revenge won't make Sevgi any less dead or the people who loved her any less heartbroken, and Onkebend isn't evil enough for us to want him dead for his own sake. Obviously the whole exercise would all fall apart if Sevgi weren't an appealing character, but what's impressive about this sequence isn't directly connected with her. In the final accounting Sevgi is more a plot device than a person.

There's a similar utilitarianism about the novel's other major female characters, both of whom are, like Carl, the products of genetic engineering. One, Detective Rovayo, one of the cops who contact Sevgi and Tom Norton when the thirteen's escape from Mars is first discovered, is half-Bonobo--submissive, subservient women created as sex slaves. She spends the night with Carl, and later reveals her genetic status to him and goes on to say
'You know what it feels like, Marsalis? Constantly testing your actions against some theory of how you think you might be supposed to behave. Wondering, every day at work, every time you make a compromise, every time you back up one of your male colleagues on reflex, wondering whether that's you or the gene code talking. ... Every time you fuck, the guy you chose to fuck with, even the way you fuck him, all the things you do, the things you want to do, the things you want done to you. You know what it's like to question all of that, all the time?'
Which is, of course, a major theme in Black Man. Carl constantly runs up against people--even people who know and sort of like him, like Sevgi and Tom Norton, who thoughtlessly reduce him to his genetic tendencies, and repeatedly assume that his emotional reactions are derived from thirteen qualities, not Carl Marslais qualities. That they may, at least some of the time, be right doesn't change the fact that they are expressing a social tendency, an unspoken assumption that underlies their society--that nature triumphs over nurture.

In a conversation with Sevgi's father while his daughter lies dying, the older Ertekin discusses this very issue with Carl, and proposes an unusual definition of communism: the belief "that you can make of a human anything you choose to. That humans can become what they choose. That environment is all. It's not a fashionable view any longer." Carl himself refuses to take a stand in this discussion (which may, in itself, be the result of a genetic predisposition against introspection, or of simple fatigue after a lifetime's struggle with the question of what he is), but it's one that the novel keeps bumping up against, both as an SFnal issue and as an offshoot of its exploration of prejudice. Black Man isn't Gattaca--even as she laments her situation Rovayo points out that she has an absolute right to secrecy about her genetic status, and that discrimination because of it is illegal--but unlike that film it refuses to comfort us with platitudes about the triumph of the human spirit over biological limitations, and Rovayo's primary function in the novel is to offer another slant on the nature vs. nurture debate.

The third and least important of the novel's female characters is Carmen Ren, who appears several times throughout the story to perform a mysterious function somehow connected with Carl's investigation, encounters him briefly--and makes a strong and confusing impression on him--and then shows up towards the end of the novel to drop the last piece of the plot puzzle in his lap. She'd be nothing but a plot device if it weren't for the revelation, in that final conversation with Carl, that she is also a variant thirteen. All of the thirteens encountered up to that point have been male, and the variant's core qualities are repeatedly linked, in the minds and words of most of the novel's characters, with masculinity. It's even stated that no one ever tried to make a female thirteen--Ren is the result of a top secret Chinese project. Apart from a few largely stereotypical observations about the difference between her and Carl, however ("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?" "you're a male thirteen. I'm a little smarter than that. ... I don't have to be there and smell the blood."), Ren doesn't have much to add to the discussion of genetic tendency versus personality and upbringing, or for that matter the issue of gender, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is because Morgan couldn't come up with a persuasive idea of what a female thirteen would be like.

All of which leads me back to the conclusion I reached in my Strange Horizons review, that Black Man is ultimately a novel about masculinity, and that its female characters therefore serve to highlight that topic rather than exist as people in their own right. Which, in turn, leads me to conclude that Sevgi isn't nearly as important a secondary character as her partner, Tom Norton. Tom's role, for most of the novel, is to act as an observer--of Carl and his interactions with humanity, of Sevgi and her relationship with Carl, of his brother Jeff's troubled marriage, of COLIN's internal politics--but what he's actually doing is being educated in masculinity. Tom starts out the novel unformed--a nice guy, but with very little idea of who or what he is, content to toe the line, follow the rules, and believe what he's been told. Over the course of the novel, Tom is exposed to proof of his government's corruption, and to various facets of masculinity. The most obvious example is Carl, but Tom also spends long interludes in conversation with Jeff, with whom he has had a fraught relationship ever since Jeff confessed an affair with a Bonobo female, a lapse for which he refuses to apologize, claiming that it is simply the result of his male wiring (it certainly doesn't help that Tom is guiltily in love with Jeff's wife, and still haunted by their single encounter). It's Jeff who attempts to explain to Tom the rationale for creating the thirteens, in the wake of what he terms the 21st century's plague of 'virilicide,' the loss of traditional masculinity.
'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 quantum specialists really undestands, 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 just downright unAmerican.'
Most of the reviews I've seen of Black Man have highlighted this passage as one of its core statements, but only Nic Clarke recognizes it for the slanted, revisionist history that it is. How, she asks, can any clear-eyed examination of either history or of our present society (which the society in Black Man very closely resembles), dominated as both are by male hierarchy, male-oriented institutions, and the celebration of traditionally male qualities such as aggression and ambition, result in the characterization of either one as 'feminized'? It's an observation, she concludes, that says more about Jeff, and his infatuation with thirteens (who, he tells Tom, "gave us back our manhood") than it does about society.
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.)
Jeff's obsession with explaining the world to his brother (the conversation quoted from above is only one of several in which he tries to argue that human behavior is determined strictly by wiring, and that said wiring leads inevitably to games of dominance), much like his unapologetic admission of infidelity, stems from the bitterness of an entitled man who is still shocked that the world wasn't handed to him on a platter. He desperately wants to prove to Tom that he has the world worked out, that he understands its system--and the ways in which it is biased against him, the ordinary, unenhanced man not gifted with the thirteens' genetic advantages--even though he hasn't been able to make it work for him. He presents Tom with one possible version of masculinity--defeated, and using that defeat as an excuse for all sorts of immoral acts. Another is offered by Ortiz, Tom and Sevgi's COLIN superior and a prominent politician on the verge of becoming the UN secretary general. According to Jeff, Ortiz is an example of the kind of man who replaced and drove out the thirteen genetic variant when agrarian civilization started taking off--the charismatic leader, the kleptocrat, the man who can inspire others to risk their lives while he remains safely in the rear. (Another facet of masculinity is briefly, and only somewhat jokingly, alluded to when Tom, in a press conference, states that "Hypermale genetic tendency is, to put not too fine a point to it, autism.")

After Sevgi's death, Carl and Tom, who had previously been at each other's throats, team up. Though Tom is less interested in avenging Sevgi's death by tracking down Onkebend (he has undergone the same grieving process as the readers, and, being human, has come, like them, to see the futility of such revenge), he wants to find the people responsible for the killing spree and for placing Sevgi in Onkebend's path, who turn out, not surprisingly, to be Jeff and Ortiz. Tom takes the lead in dealing with both of them, with Carl acting almost as his muscle--though later on he helps Carl track down Onkebend, and takes a supporting role in Carl's quest for vengeance. In their last encounter, Carl muses that "Something had happened to Norton since he'd seen him last ... like a driven athlete with pain, he looked to be learning to enjoy the power he'd been handed. In the vacuum vortex created by the death of Ortiz and his brother, Tom Norton was the man of the hour, and he'd risen to it like a boxer to the bell, like the reluctant hero finally called to arms."

Tom, in other words, is no longer unformed. The novel's survivor--perhaps its sole survivor, as the ending is ambiguous about Carl's fate--he is the one who learns its lessons and applies them to his society, which he is now in a position to shape, the new face of masculinity. What kind of man Tom has been shaped into, however--a warrior like Carl, a user like his brother, a kleptocrat like Ortiz, or some combination of all three--is unclear. Which may very well be Black Man's final statement on manhood and its changing definition.

6 comments:

Greg G said...

I've actually had the most tremendous difficulty in finishing this book. The discussions on gender and behavioural genetics are overwhelmingly didactic, but maybe I could cope with that if everyone in the book didn't keep going on about how thirteens are a somehow a"throwback" to hunter-gatherer days.

As if hunter-gather societies didn't still exist in the 21st Century, with a marked lack of sociopathic alpha-male leaders amongst them.

Foxessa said...

[ "...thirteens are a somehow a"throwback" to hunter-gatherer days.

As if hunter-gather societies didn't still exist in the 21st Century, with a marked lack of sociopathic alpha-male leaders amongst them." ]

The concept that a certain sort of male died out via genetic selection post the rise of agrarian technology based societies just makes no genetic sense, as I understand genetics, anyway. Which could well mean I don't understand what I think I do!

Nevertheless, these two parts of such a thoughtful and intelligent inquiry into this novel makes me want to check it out and give it a try.

Thank you, Ms. N!

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

BTW, did you see the blog about the Award night on the U.K. Guardian site?

He writes:

[ "That passion was evident in the selection process. Each judge I managed to speak to described the process of choosing a winner as "interesting" - and each stressed the word so heavily that I could almost hear the inverted commas. One dropped dire hints about foot stomping, sulks and - best of all - hissy fits. Another philosophically explained that: "Not everyone's favourite will win, but then if we all knew who would get the prize from the off, it wouldn't be a contest, would it?" In other words, they seem to have had the mother of all battles.: ]

It's posted here.

Love, C.

Niall said...

As if hunter-gather societies didn't still exist in the 21st Century, with a marked lack of sociopathic alpha-male leaders amongst them.

Indeed, but present-day hunter-gatherer societies also have a marked lack of from-birth military conditioning.

Greg G said...

Indeed, but present-day hunter-gatherer societies also have a marked lack of from-birth military conditioning.

Granted, though I guess what bothers me is that it's a fairly needless addition to both the character and the story, and excising all the late-night uni student blather directly related to the issue could have shortened the novel to its benefit.

Foxessa said...

For better or worse the book in question has been acquired, though it will be a few days before I can get to it.

For one thing -- book party tonight, with performance and everything, the culminiation of 4 1/2 months of touring promo of the partner's history of New Orleans (yes, I helped :). It's been really crazy around here.

Love, C.

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