Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Review: "Black Man" by Richard K. Morgan

Just finished Black Man by Richard Morgan, which is apparently also marketed under the title "Thirteen".

The book has a fair amount in common with the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy ("Altered Carbon", "Broken Angels" and "Woken Furies"), in that it's a mix of Science Fiction and noir detective drama. The book is set about a hundred years in the future, and the science is accordingly a shorter leap from the present day.

I'm continually impressed with how well Morgan can tease new variations out of concepts that he and previous writers have already explored. In the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, the key concept was that of stored human experience and the ways in which it would change individuals and their society. Class dynamics, warfare, family, death itself were all still present, but were changed by the key concept. The key concept in "Black Man" was genetic manipulation, and that was similarly explored, although again, not extrapolated as far because of the shortened projection into the near future rather than the distant future.

A secondary concept in the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy was that of virtuality. The same concept is touched on lightly in "Black Man", but as befits a nearer future, it's not as widely explored. Given that, it was all the more surprising that Morgan managed to tease out another variation on the territory he mapped so extensively in the Kovacs trilogy. My favorite concept from his earlier works was the dilation and contraction of perceived time in virtual environments. In "Black Man", the concept of a virtual visitor's ward in a hospital is put forward, such that the terminally ill can interact with visitors free from the weakness and pain of their flesh, such that their final days are lived in greater strength and confidence.

Although there is certainly a fair amount of technical flair, "Black Man" is more firmly focused on the human condition, and what could happen if we as a society had the ability to produce less domesticated humans to deal with challenges civilized people are unable or unwilling to handle. The undercurrent of both "Black Man" and the Kovacs trilogy is that it is experience and discipline that make the indvidual, even if their physical and mental abilities are enhanced by technology or superior genetic material.

On the whole, a good read, and I look forward to further work from the author. It will also be interesting to see if a reasonable film can be made from "Altered Carbon" (aimed for release in 2009, apparently).

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