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Literature / Black Man

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Black Man (U.S. title Thirteen) is a 2008 sci-fi mystery novel from Richard K. Morgan that feels like a Stealth Prequel to the Takeshi Kovacs series.

In the future, humans toyed with a wide array of genetic experimentation to create Human Subspecies, to be used for specific forms of labour - servants, soldiers, number crunchers. Each of them tapped into specific human traits, amplifying them at the expense of the others. The most problematic of the bunch? "Variant thirteen", a hypermasculine male variant, a genetic throwback to the eponymous hunters of the hunter-gatherer era, bred out through lack of necessity. Useful in times of war, in peacetime (or during colder wars) thirteens are dangerous, unstable and for that, socially ostracized. These days, they're mostly used as workforce in the terraforming of Mars...

But when a ship headed from Mars to a nanorack on the Pacific Rim instead splashes down in the ocean, the crew apparently eaten by a stowaway, the ugly truth rears its head: nobody catches renegade thirteens better than other thirteens. And Carl Marsalis makes his living exactly doing that...

Aside from minor dating inconsistencies, the book feels very much like the Takeshi Kovacs setting before the discovery of Martians (or, if you will, as an alternate universe where they just weren't there to be found) and so has crude prototypes or precursors of much the same technologies - experia, virtual realities, rampant nanotech use, designer-virus-loaded bullets, etc, etc.

This book provides examples of:

  • Artificial Intelligence: the n-djinns of the Thirteen universe are not defective in any way. They are used as spaceship pilots, powerful search engines (so powerful they can link people through many degrees of separation), and can even map out the spread of a immune system-killing virus. Despite their usefulness, they are fundamentally alien and impossible for any human (or variant) to fully understand, despite being created by humanity.
  • And I Must Scream:
    • The novel opens with a Horkan's Pride passenger who's been woken from cryo-sleep to find herself Strapped to an Operating Table and surgically dissected so she can be Eaten Alive.
    • The nature of the Haag Gun, which even leads Marsalis to Mercy Kill people he doesn't kill in one shot. it's basically an AIDS gun. The sheer nastiness of it is justified, since it's used to guarantee the death of any renegade thirteen if they escape before thirteen-hunters like Marsalis can finish the job.
    • What Marsalis does to Amy Westhoff. Shoots her with a neurotoxin tipped dart, calmly informs her that it will paralyse her skeletal muscle system so she can't run, her lungs so she can't breathe or call for help, that she has about eight minutes to live, and leaves her to it. Turns out he's pretty mean when killing for revenge instead of for work or necessity.
  • Anti-Hero: Marsalis flip-flops between Nominal Hero and Unscrupulous Hero depending on how personally involved he gets in the matter at hand.
  • Armor Is Useless: Weblar averts this, mostly.
  • Artistic License – History: Marsalis, the 'black man' of the title, is told the .357 Magnum round was specifically developed against cocaine-fueled black men, the 'urban monster' of the time. That round was actually developed in The '30s, in response to gangsters equipped with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests.
    • This could also be a case of the character being mistaken, as the author is unlikely to make this kind of mistake. It sounds like a likely future urban legend based on the true story of the .45 ACP.
  • As You Know: Used quite a few times to paint the backstory of the world, usually well-justified by using people from non-overlapping social strata to do it (such as Marsalis explaining life on Mars to Ertekin or Rovayo).
  • The Berserker: The entire reason thirteens were created to begin with. Many of them struggle to overcome the inherent rage issues, usually via meditation techniques.
  • BFG: The sharkpunch, a device for divers for self-defense against sharks. Since it was designed to eviscerate attacking sharks under water, when used on dry land, its results are... rather messy.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Debatable; The book ends with a wounded Marsalis trapped in a house by a dozen gang-bangers. Even if Marsalis kills them all, he's got to get back to civilization to get his wounds treated... but he's a thirteen with multiple fully-loaded weapons and elite military training, while they're a baseline rabble that's already scared out of their wits. The closing quip?
    A dozen shit-scared cudlips. Good odds for the lottery guy.
    • Especially since Marsallis cheated to win said lottery...
    Onbekend: There you go. That’s pure thirteen, brother. Don’t play their fucking games, find a way to fuck them all instead. Marsalis, you’re it. You’ll do fine out there.
  • Boxed Crook: Thirteens not actively employed by government agencies have to choose between internment or being sent to Mars to participate in the colonization effort.
  • Call-Forward: Ertekin relays to Marsalis that she heard of a tech development making the digitization of the human mind possible in thirty or forty years from now. See also Stealth Prequel below.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: The sharkpunch.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The functioning principles of Haag guns.
  • Chick Magnet: The hypermasculinity of a Thirteen makes them very attractive to women. Norton's brother tells him to just accept that Ertekin will inevitably screw Marsallis.
  • City on the Water: Bulkagov's Cat is the city-ship version.
  • Cluster F-Bomb:
    • Thirteens in general, and Marsalis in particular, are fond of swearing up a storm when riled. And most of them are easily riled.
    • Ertekin and even Norton do their part as well, not to mention the various criminals. Basically, every main character of the novel and most secondary ones swear like there's no tomorrow.
  • Category Traitor: Most of the other Thirteens view Marsalis as a traitor for helping the UN hunt down and imprison his own kind.
  • Companion Cube: Marsalis grows surprisingly fond of the orange inmate jacket he gets to keep after he's freed from jail.
  • The Conspiracy: Scorpio Response and Ortiz's desire to kill everyone involved in it (but him) by using Onbekend.
  • Conversational Troping: As is usual for Morgan, half the time tropes aren't invoked or played straight at all, but are discussed by the characters nonetheless.
  • Curse of The Ancients: Pistaco, a white man who skins South and Central Americans for their body fat. Largely believed to be a cultural memory of Hernán Cortés's invasions, the term has been applied to Thirteens for their actions in battle.
  • Cryonics Failure:
    • Discussed in great detail during the initial investigation of the crash landing of Horkan's Pride.
    • Also happened to Marsalis on his trip back from Mars some years prior, and mentioned as having happened to an astronaut on a manned mission to Jupiter who subsequently went insane.
    • It is later revealed that Marsalis himself went through this on his return journey to Earth.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Elena Aguirre's appearances to Marsalis. See also Posthumous Character.
  • Disc-One Final Boss: Merrin is built up as the primary antagonist, but gets killed rather unceremoniously midway through the story. The real threat turns out to be someone else.
  • Distaff Counterpart: Carmen Ren for Carl. They're both thirteens, regardless of gender.
  • Divided States of America: Through some Noodle Incident involving China, the USA is now split into the rather progressive (both technologically and socially) Pacific States, an unnamed East Coast coalition that retains much of the modern-day American lifestyle and policy and The Republic (often referred to as Jesusland), consisting of the Confederate states and leading a patriarchal life of religious zealotry.
    • Within the Pacific States is the Angeline Freeport, a quasi-independent city-state. Bulkagov's Cat is also semi-aligned with the Pacific Rim States, who allow it to dock in their ports.
  • Evil Brit: Marsalis, arguably.
  • Fantastic Racism: Baseline humans all look down on human variants, or twists. Twist is used as a slur with all the appropriate negative reactions from those it is used against. It cuts both ways, as thirteens call baseline humans cudlips and "cattle".
  • Fate Worse than Death: When Tom Norton finds out his own brother is behind everything, he stops Carl from killing him, but then confesses that he slept with his wife, and implies he'll continue doing so while his brother is serving his long prison sentence. It works too well as his brother is Driven to Suicide.
  • Future Music: several references to a genre of music called bloodbeat.
  • Gambit Pileup: Norton's brother tries to stop events by activating a contingency plan to assassinate Ortiz. When nothing appears to happen, he advises Tom Norton to let Carl out of prison as a Boxed Crook. Carl meets Ortiz just as the assassins catch up with him, and saves Ortiz's life.
  • Genetic Engineering Is the New Nuke: The Variant Thirteens were created as super soldiers. What they got were a bunch of highly trained, utterly driven killing machines who fall a long way outside normal moral and social contraints a human mind has. They made exceptionally capable insurgents, counter insurgents, commandoes and terrorists and caused substantial amounts of destruction and political destabilisation across the whole world before the Jacobsen Accords were signed and the world's governments had them all rounded up and imprisoned or sent to Mars.
  • The Ghost: Isaac Sutherland. Oft-mentioned in Carl's internal monologues, but never seen.
  • Gone Mad From The Isolation: What happens to those who wake up from cryo-sleep on the trip back to Earth.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Nothing prevents human variants from breeding with baseline humans. Glossed over until each of the Wham Lines happen. It's pointed out that nobody really knows what, if any, modified traits the offspring will inherit since most human variants have only been created in the last few decades.
  • Heroic BSoD: Marsalis undergoes one when Ertekin dies.
  • Human Aliens: Invoked when several characters flat-out mention the closest one can get to meeting an alien is a thirteen. It helps that many thirteens see themselves as an entirely separate race from humans.
  • Human Popsicle: Used for people traveling to and from Mars, to simplify their passage and the logistics of the ships themselves, as the spaceship engines are implied to be no better than they are now.
  • Human Subspecies: Type 1, genetically modified. There's a lot of them, but most often mentioned are thirteens (hypermasculine males, created to be shock troops in times of war, but also make good criminals, physical laborers and serial killers) and bonobos (hyperfeminine females, created to be midwives, surrogate mothers, nurses, but often used as prostitutes instead). There are others, like hybernoids (can be either gender, they sleep through winter, but are hyperactive the rest of the year, requiring next to no sleep or rest) and gleeches (called "post autistic", used as researchers and hackers but find it very difficult to interact with other people), and China constantly keeps creating new types through experimentation (like female thirteens, for example).
  • Hunter of His Own Kind: Carl, most notably. It's also implied that the EU has other thirteens hunting down renegade thirteens. These others may have even come back from Mars by winning the lottery, like Carl, though they probably didn't cheat.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Discussed in relation to Cryonics Failure leaving someone stranded awake on a ship bound from Mars to Earth or vice versa. Averted for Marsalis, played straight for Merrin.
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Played with. Ertekin makes a Deathbed Confession that she'd planned to murder a police colleague Amy Westhoff, who'd betrayed her genetically-engineered husband to the authorities, but she lacked the ruthlessness to carry it through. "You have to be cold, so cold..."
  • Irony:
    • Thirteens, the genetic throwbacks to the hunter-gatherers who were forced out of humanity's gene-pool by the weak (weak from a thirteen's viewpoint) farmers, are all shipped off to Mars to do what? Terraforming, which is the sci-fi equivalent of going into the desert and trying to plant a tree.
    • Merrin kills the man trying to blackmail Ortiz early on, so all the other deaths are unnecessary.
  • It's Personal: Onbekend's Evil Plan would have worked, but he gets pissed when Marsalis intimidates his girlfriend and goes after him (at the time Marsalis doesn't even know that Onbekend exists). This results in Ertekin getting killed, so now Marsalis and Norton want revenge. They keep digging and uncover the whole conspiracy.
  • Jerkass: Thirteens are Jerkass: the Species. Navant, Marsalis, Keegan (the thirteen who extorts Ethan Conrad), and implied with Ethan Conrad. Merrin and his twin Onbekend are outright evil. Everyone thirteen but Isaac Sutherland is an ass, who is never in an actual scene. A heart of gold may accompany the jerkass part, but it's rare among them.
    • Hibernoids get testy when they get near the sleep cycle.
  • Kill and Replace: No-one can figure out how Merrin got away from the crash before the response team arrived. Until a weighed-down body is found under the sea, and they're belatedly informed that a member of the response team has been missing for some time.
  • Last of His Kind: the remaining thirteens are a group-sized version of this. They are small in number on Earth, mostly isolated to hiding, being imprisoned by the UN, or being hired by the UN as thirteen-hunters. They have to deal with the reality that they can never reproduce without their unborn child being taken away by the local government, like in Ethan Conrad and Sevgi's case.
  • Lighter and Softer: Than the Takeshi Kovacs and A Land Fit for Heroes novels. It’s still a treasure trove of human brutality, but the protagonists have better goals and (somewhat) cleaner methods, and the world as a whole is a much nicer place to live in.
  • Looks Like Jesus: Merrin. Milked for all it's worth as one of his followers-slash-protectors genuinely believes him to be the Second Coming of Christ.
  • Lottery of Doom: Inverted. You can go to Mars whenever you want to, provided you're cleared for space travel on health reasons. Thirteens are happily shipped off to Mars if they don't want to be interned in a camp somewhere. But to get back from Mars? That's where the lottery comes in if you're not a contracted worker (they're shipped back once their contract expires and they opt not to renew it). Marsalis got off Mars by winning the lottery. Turns out he cheated.
  • Magnetic Hero: It is mentioned several times (and demonstrated with both Merrin and Marsalis) that a thirteen that can get their rage under control can be exceptionally charismatic due to their hormonally-altered masculinity.
  • Market-Based Title: Thirteen is the title for the USA.
  • Mars and Venus Gender Contrast: Examined from many angles;
    • Genetically, the hyper-masculine thirteens and the hyper-feminine bonobos have shaken society to its core like an asteroid impact. Variant thirteen supersoldiers pretty much annihilated religious radicalism in the Middle East before they were banned, and bonobo prostitution has done the same to recreational drug use.
    • Socially, Flyover Country has seceded from the coastal states, creating the Confederated Republic(or as its detractors call it, "Jesusland") and the Rim. The Rim is a fairly liberal cosmopolitan society, whereas the Republic is conservative and well behind the times technologically.
  • The Mentor: Isaac Sutherland to Carl, having taught him tanindo and a bit of their nature as thirteens.
  • Mercy Kill: Marsalis gives these to people wounded by the Haag guns if he can. It takes a while for the other characters to wrap their heads around the reasons, but in the end Ertekin has to rely on that particular habit.
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body:
    • One of the characters is the daughter of a bonobo, and has to worry that any time she backs down it's because she might be genetically engineered to be submissive.
    • Isaac Sutherland tried to mentor Carl into rising above his own genetically-engineered behaviour, with varied success.
  • Neck Snap: Marsalis gives one of these to the Big Bad. Made possible due to his muscular augmentation.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Carl suspects there is more to the murders, but realises the case it just going to get wrapped up and pinned on Merrin. Then the real killer comes after him out of petty personal reasons, even though Carl doesn't even know he exists.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Carl purchases an abortion for a prostitute and gets caught in a sting operation.
  • Noodle Incident: The Secession that brought on the Divided States of America. The most information we get about it is that China somehow had a hand in it.
  • "Not So Different" Remark:
    • Merrin and Marsalis get compared a lot by other characters, and not just because they're thirteens that both suffered Cryonics Failure on their trip from Mars. Marsalis also takes offense at attempts to compare him to any other thirteen in general.
    • Marsalis notes that Ortiz would make a good Thirteen, as he has the manipulative charm and ruthless self-aggrandisement of a sociopath.
  • N-Word Privileges: Marsalis and fellow inmate The Guatemalan are both black, but Marsalis does not feel that this makes the Guatemalan's favourite noun appropriate.
  • One-Hit Kill: the sharkpunch seems to have this effect in people.
    • the Haag Gun, though it takes a while.
  • Only One Name: Onbekend. Justified, as it stands for "Unknown", as he's the other Allan Merrin.
  • Orgy of Evidence: Played with. The main court-admissible evidence of someone's presence at the crime scene is "genetic trace", which is unique for every person. Merrin's rampage across the US countryside leaves one orgy after another. The trick is, if it's a genetically engineered supersoldier that just happened to have an identical twin in a freak development of the already-modified egg, they would leave identical traces...
  • The Plan: The reason for Merrin's arrival on Earth as it was but a step in a larger plan.
  • Posthumous Character: Played with. Elena Aguirre is used as one for one-sided Dead Person Conversation purposes, but Marsalis's mind simply latched on to her face when his Cryonics Failure marooned him in space, he never met her after she was thawed on Earth, and she may be alive and well elsewhere for all he knows.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Discussed, as those around her openly wonder whether Ertekin sees Marsalis as one for her deceased thirteen boyfriend, Ethan.
  • Shoot the Dog: An Invoked Trope when Ertekin gets Marsalis to Mercy Kill her because he'll feel less guilty about it than her father or her colleague Tom Norton. It's also implied she told the story of wanting to kill Amy Westhoff so Marsalis will do it for her.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The main UN colony on Mars is called Bradbury, another one is called Wells.
    • The factory raft Marsalis and Rovayo visit is called Bulgakov's Cat.
    • The nanorack names include Sagan and Kaku (as in Michio Kaku).
  • Social Darwinist: Just about every thirteen, but Onbekend in particular;
    "Look, the fucking cudlips, they talk such a great fight about equality, democratic accountability, freedom of expression. But what does it come down to in the end? Ortiz. Norton. Roth. Plausible, power-grubbing men and women with a smile for the electors, the common fucking touch, and the same old agenda they've had since they wiped us out the first time around. And every cudlip fucker just lines right up for that shit."
  • Stealth Prequel: For the Takeshi Kovacs series. Much of the backstory fits (right down to the chronology and details of the colonization of Mars, as well as numerous tech-related CallForwards), and it's stated that cortical stacks are in the pipeline.
    Sevgi: They reckon in another thirty or forty years they'll have v-formatting so powerful you'll be able to live inside it. You know, the n-djinn just copies your whole mind-state into the construct and then runs you as part of the system. You just sedate the body and step through. They say you'll even be able to go on living there after your body actually dies. Forty years away, they're saying, maybe not even that long.
    • Word of God is that the book is set in the aftermath of a series of ill-conceived genetics experiments the author compares to 20th-century environmental abuse as an examination of "heredity as destiny" and if people can defy their instincts; such topics are irrelevant in the Kovacs universe, where one can change one's body like clothing — or refuse to. It can be considered an Alternate Universe, the divergent point being the discovery of Martians - Broken Angels explicitly lists the date, and it has already passed in this book's timeline.
  • Subspace Ansible: Averted. Communications with Mars require around 15 minutes of waiting for your message to get there, the other side watching it, recording a reply, and waiting another 15 minutes for it to return, which means an average turnaround from 40 minutes to a whole hour. This is used as a plot point.
  • Supernatural Martial Arts: this is about as close as you can get to describing tanindo, a martial-arts created on Mars that takes advantage of the weaker gravity. It's shown (by Carl) to be incredibly effective on Earth, thanks to his enhanced musculature.
  • Super Registration Act: the Jacobsen Accords, which laid down international laws pertaining to variants. Bonobos, gleeches, and hibernoids were allowed to stay on Earth so long as they were registered. Thirteen, seen as too dangerous, were either imprisoned, killed, or shipped off to Mars where they join the terraforming effort.
    • Like many laws, it can be subverted. Ethan Conrad spent several years in the progressive Rim States (on the West Coast), gaining citizenship in the Angeline Freeport before grandfathering into a clause in the Jacobsen Accords which gave him privacy regarding his genetic stock.
  • Super-Soldier: Thirteens, which are genetic throwbacks to early hunter-gatherers who were forced out of the breeding pool by the rise of agriculture. Several nations had programs that birthed and trained them, particularly the U.S.'s Project Lawman and the U.K.'s Project Osprey, but these were dismantled by the Jacobsen Accords.
  • Take a Third Option: A Thirteen has two options post-Jacobsen Accords: stay imprisoned on Earth for the rest of their life and know when and where you're going to die, or go to Mars and become a part of the workforce (and something of a minor celebrity). Or you can run, in which case you'll have a UN-backed thirteen-hunter (who is probably a thirteen) come after you.
  • Testosterone Poisoning: Comes with the territory for Thirteens, although Marsalis can reign himself in better than most of the others in the story. Carmen Ren is an attempt to avert the harmful aspects of this trope, by creating a female Variant 13.
  • Thicker Than Water: An Invoked Trope by Onbekend who's formed an alliance with a gangster who's his blood relative. When the gangster finds out Onbekend has used his twin brother as a patsy, he's not happy.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: People marooned in space can get it as part of the PTSD package. People returned to Earth from Mars get it whenever they see any body of water larger than a puddle.
  • Title Drop: For both of them. "Thirteen" is the common way of referring to variant thirteens, so it gets used a lot. "Black man" is often used to refer to Marsalis (and he gets called that by several characters), as its implied his skin is of a particularly dark shade.
    • To another book by the same author. Somewhere in Black Man there's a random mention of market forces, which will immediately jump out as an unlikely coincidence to anyone who knows about Richard Morgan's bibliography.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Jacob. Going against Carl Marsalis with a machete? That's about as stupid as it gets.
  • Trick-and-Follow Ploy: A favourite tactic of Carl.
  • Vice City: the Angeline Freeport.
  • Warrior Poet: Isaac Sutherland, a variant thirteen and tanindo master who enjoys philosophizing his nature even more than Carl.
  • Wham Line: "I'm a bonobo". Not that relevant to the metaplot, but a major revelation for the setting nonetheless.
    • "I'm a thirteen" is later used in similar context with similar repercussions to the setting that aren't actually that significant to the protagonist.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Explored in its applicability to human variants through the eyes of humans and vice versa. Some consider the variants to be broken humans, some regard them as subhuman, others (thirteens themselves most of all) consider them a whole separate race.
  • You Have No Idea Who You're Dealing With: Explored in the context of true Human Subspecies; what make the thirteens so awesome and terrifying is that they are not superhuman but otherhuman. It is abnormal for baseline humans to be Unfettered Sociopathic badasses, and the process of developing those traits damages humans in predictable ways. Thirteens have those traits from birth, and have to learn to follow laws, recognize the rights of others, and deal with situations by means other than violence. This makes dealing with them a nightmare because where damaged humans have diminished capacity, on-mission thirteens are firing on all cylinders.
    Marsalis: "You have to understand this: there is nothing wrong with Merrin. He's not damaged. He's not killing these people as an expression of some childhood psychosis, he's not doing it because he's identified them as some dehumanized, segregated extratribal group. He's just carrying out a plan of action, and he is comfortable with it. And he won't get caught doing it-unless you can put me next to him."
    • Doubles as an explanation for why Marsalis carries less psychological baggage than Kovacs or Ringil.