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March 2017

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you rise and you wake up, face stuck to a vinyl settee

Book report #85: Richard K. Morgan, Thirteen aka Black Man

I have mixed emotions about this one. Thematically, I think it's very strong, and does an excellent job of undermining its own argument, turning it back on itself, and illuminating all sorts of dark corners of gender and race relations and the nature/nurture argument. Of course, I'm in sympathy with this--it's what Carnival is all about, after all--and I am deeply proud of Mr. Morgan for never allowing the narrative to buy into the characters' absolutist view of genetics.

Good job, man.

Alas, I do think that argument--that biology does not necessarily indicate destiny--gets undermined by the inescapable fact that, for plot reasons, the supersoldiers are, actually, apparently super.

Also, this book is a massive step forward from Altered Carbon in terms of characterization and prose style. Chapter one (not the prologue) is, I have to say, so damned near perfect that I was about ready to hang up my spurs as a writer, on the theory that with Richard K. Morgan in it, the world didn't need me. Many, many sentences caught my eye, but one in particular really grabbed me:

"Extensive previous experience, some of it sticky with his own blood, had taught him not to bother."

Oh, man. Nice.

Fortunately for my career and continued mental health, the massive structural problems and overuse of cheap thriller tensioning tricks in the first section of the book made me feel much better about myself. So I won't actually be gnawing my wrists open to rid the world of my leechlike presence once I finish this review. (By cheap thriller tricks, I mean the serial-killer-victim POV (character who shows up only to die), the Horrifying Revelation! (which we will tell you about after the commercial break, or in twenty or thirty or fifty pages, whenever), and so on.) Also, the fact that the entire plot is hung on the protagonist making a completely stupid decision at the bottom of chapter two kind of had me rolling my eyes.

Carl Marsalis was never really all that believable to me as a genetically engineered superman. Some of this, I think, was the author's intent--Marsalis isn't what he's painted and stereotyped, not even remotely--and he was very believable to me as a highly-trained special forces operative. I've known my share of guys who have done that work, and they in general have an air of still watchfulness around them that Morgan captures beautifully in this guy. (This is one of the things I mean when I say his characterization has improved enormously.) The problem arises, however, because the plot requires Marsalis to be the thing that his characterization undermines. In the last fifty pages of the book, the monster is there, and beautifully rendered, and beautifully rendered in how the choices he has made to use that monster rather than being it come forward.

But then either he's decided to be that monster because the societal pressure is so great, or he's failed in his attempt to fight the stereotype and biology actually *is* destiny, and I can't quite figure out which.

Also, I'm trying very hard to decide if the narrative actually believes we're breeding sociopaths and loners out of the race, and that we really need the mythic alpha male to come save us from the wicked feminizing bureaucrats, or if I'm meant to read that as satire.

(I had a similar problem with Michelangelo and Vincent--especially Angelo. It's incredibly difficult to write a sympathetic sociopath without going full-blown charismatic monster. Charismatic monster? Easy. Ethical sociopath? Hard. Anyway, yeah, I keep drawing parallels between this book and Carnival, so as I pick Black Man to shreds, please understand that some of that is self-critique and but hardcore.)

Anyway, once the book gets past the really messy first chunk (including a painfully rendered chapter 8 infodump. (Oh, Chapter 8 infodump, I know you well)) it kicks into high gear and becomes a really engaging, thoughtful, challenging read. With ambitions. And a fearless reach after all sorts of squidgy topics. (Can the next book in the world be about Royavo and Ren? I would totally read that book. Speaking of two of the charactes that beautifully undermine the genetic predestination arguments that the protagonist has accepted, although I was rather sad that all the female characters got shovelled tidily offstage at the end so the boys could have their macho showdown.)

...until the last fifty pages. Because, alas, as a thriller writer myself, I recognize this phenomenon at work. First there's the damned Maltese Falcon issue, where you have gone and complicated all the mystery-type stuff for five hundred pages (not that Hammett's book is that long) and now you have to spend 75 pages explaining everything. And then killing off everybody who needs killing, which inevitably takes a long time. And then there's the problem where you've gone and overcomplicated everything, and your double-crosses have double-crosses on top of them, and of course the bad guy has to be somebody unexpected and close to the protagonists, and sometimes, you just cannot handwave fast enough to make all the reversals you have been shoveling for the past five hundred pages look good.

Alas.

I am impressed with Morgan's chops in pulling off the resolution of the Sevgi plotline (well, both resolutions, really, she said, trying not to spoiler), and the echo of Marsalis' actions in both. And you know, three hundred and seventy pages of this book are made of pure smoked awesome, so I'm not going to quibble too much about the ending. Even if he did completely lift that lady and the tiger thing from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.

Good show, man.

Book Report #86: Michelle Knudsen, Library Lion, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.

Mmm. Lions. Libraries. Subversive kid's picture books.

Very nice.



A couple of short reviews:

hawkwing_lb likes Dust a lot.

Eagle's Path likes A Companion to Wolves just as much.


So, in actual content, blackholly asked a really good question in this comment thread:

What do you start knowing (mostly) when you start a novel?

Talk about your basic hard questions.

Um. Sometimes I know a lot. Sometimes I only know a little. Sometimes I start with charater + situation + problem, the classic trinity of fiction. Carnival started with one sentence. So did Hammered.** In each case, it was the sentence that wound up being the first sentence of the finished novel.* And as I wrote those sentences, I had an idea of the characters who were speaking them, and I knew something about the world and thematic argument of the books, and I knew what part of the genre conversation I was interested in addressing.

The first thing I knew about Blood & Iron was the confrontation between Whiskey and Seeker, and then it was just a matter of getting there. The first thing I knew about Whiskey & Water was the scene between Whiskey and Thomas. Worldwired was Leslie Tjakamarra staring out the viewport and musing on eating starships. Undertow was Andre putting the gun in his mouth, actually, and that's where the first draft of the novel started. And then I had to go back and write the stuff before it, because I got about a hundred pages in and realized I had started the story too late. (Other writers start too early. I start too late.)

And all like that.

Funny story about Undertow. That bit with Andre and the revolver, I wrote three different versions of it to demonstrate the difference between omniscient and limited omniscient POV for a mailing list I am a part of. And then I realized that this guy needed a novel.

A Companion to Wolves started as a parody of "Weyr Search," more or less. Ink & Steel started off with a conversation with a colleague of kit_kindred's, a ravening Oxfordian, at an otherwise very, very boring faculty Christmas party. Dust actually started with a scene that never made it into the final book, of Jacob Dust slowly and with great decorum devouring his own right hand. All the Windwracked Stars started with Muire finding a corpse is an alley, which is now the start of chapter two, while chapter one is a different time and place alltogether--well, you'll see soon enough.

And then I say that and of course none of it is quite true. Because many of these books draw from so many sources of inspiration, characters who have been with me in some cases for decades. Characters from trunk novels or NPCs from role playing games I've run come back and insert themselves into new roles. I swipe and parody and homage and remix.

But mostly, it's character in situation with problem. With thematic argument. And thing I'm cranky about. And then I keep breaking things from there.

I usually only outline when I get stuck. Then I go back and outline what I've already written. Or, you know, when I think of stuff that happens in the future, I write it down. But I don't always wind up using that stuff. (There was a great couple of scenes for Refining Fire that never got written. Alas.



*respectively, Michelangelo Osiris Leary Kusanagi-Jones had been drinking since fourteen hundred. and I never sleep if I can help it.

**But Elspeth and the Feyman AI came from a different short story entirely, one that also (not coincidentally) had Fred Valens in it.

Comments

I'm glad you like the lion!
*loff*
I loved the opening sentence in the first story in New Amsterdam. Is that one that you started with, or did you have to polish it?
You almost always have to polish things.

I think the first thing I got for Lucifugous was the image of Sebastien standing in the shadows, watching Jack flirt.
It's a great comfort to hear that you outline in retrospect and not always use the things that seem to be in the future of the story... because I thought I was a freak accident when all my writing friends do elaborate synopsis in advance and outline like mad, plan and follow through... I'm glad if I have the next scene in my head before I finish this one (keeping the goal in mind of course.)
I always think of better things once I start writing. Why would I want to be stuck with my first idea of how the story should go???

One place where I do outline, or at least write plans (usually on notecards) is towards the end of the book, when I make a list of all the stuff I need to resolve to get through to the ending.
I actually didn't finish Altered Carbon. I kept waiting for the plot to stop doing that first-novel first-person-narrator "nobody knows what's happening so we're all reacting rather than acting" thing, and I got bored in the middle of the torture scene.

Also, there was the issue of the formulaic noir plot. (Of course, I had this issue with The Strange Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay, as well. I really would prefer, in reading a novel, not to be able to tell who the Designated Love Interest is the moment they walk onscreen.

OTOH, Mr. Morgan has found a pretty wide audience, and garnered a lot of critical respect, and god knows I'd hate to be judged forever by the limits of *my* first novel. (!)

This one is much, much better. And that one chapter is just ***fantastic.***
It's SF.

Re: Black Man/Th13teen

Late to the party, but what the hell.

Alas, I do think that argument--that biology does not necessarily indicate destiny--gets undermined by the inescapable fact that, for plot reasons, the supersoldiers are, actually, apparently super.

Here's what I said about it at the time: Another point I'd like to make note of is that the Thirteen mystique is exactly that. The whole idea of made-to-order hunter-killers is the idea of forcing the territory to match the map, squeezing live flesh-and-blood into the square holes of myth. Thirteens are badass killing machines because they're trained from childhood to be badass killing machines and told they are badass killing machines ...

There's nothing they can do really that special forces can't. Their prowess is like celebrity, a Jungian placebo effect.


Remember Marsalis intimidating that hacker even though they were on different planets? That's what happens when you buy into Thirteen mystique. Or the very real danger Marsalis was in during his incarceration? That's what happens when your opponents don't know you're a Thirteen. The implication in both cases was that they're special because everyone believes they're special. I mean, sure they're trained and tough and deadly, but they're not physically superhuman in any way that I could see.