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Richard Morgan’s _Black_Man_

January 14, 2008

I haven’t made the best start here, so far. When getting a new blog going, it’s probably helpful to post! I’m not low on ideas (or peeves, for that matter), but just haven’t been spending much time in front of the keyboard lately.

This “new” job–since October now–is physically demanding, and still leaves me tired a lot. Part of that is sensory/social overload. A lot of afternoons, I’ve been needing to take a nap; evenings, I’m trying to get us fed and make sure we have clean clothes (and toilet paper, and whatnot). I’ve been finding myself extremely glad we don’t have kids on top of the rest of it, without the support structure I’m accustomed to. Not much else is getting done around here, and I am half past wanting to strangle the hubster. My executive function isn’t any great shakes, but I still manage to notice that things are cluttered and galloping toward the unhygienic, and try to remedy the situation. Aggravating as it frequently is when people take this attitude toward me, I still can’t help but think that if I can do that much, about anyone without some serious sort of impairment should be able to, as well. The main difference, I’m afraid, is that I am expected to work around whatever difficulties I’m having to keep up with these things, and he is not. As is frequently the case, finding a workable solution is the really difficult bit. I’m not willing to continue working at least two jobs, without even time to read e-mail.

That was an unintended mini-rant, but illustrates why there haven’t been more posts. *shakes head*

Finally getting around to the intended subject, I finished reading Richard Morgan’s Black Man not long ago, and it has provided some food for thought. His Altered Carbon-universe novels have warmed the cockles of my anticonsumerist little heart–while being excellent thrillers, to boot–but this one is set in a rather different near-future universe. I won’t go into much detail about the plot; that’s easily enough found elsewhere, and I like less in the way of spoilers than a lot of other people seem to.

The title character is one of a series of genetically modified humans, Variant Thirteen, created (and raised) as super-warriors. There are other modified strains, as well. These sorts of projects have fallen out of favor by the time the events of this book occur, and the Thirteens have gone from being used and hailed in war–this universe has no shortage of squabbling–to being demonized and interned. (At least they didn’t end up in brothels like some others.) Carl Marsalis, the protagonist, has gotten by through hunting down other, escaped, Thirteens, for the UN–which makes him about as popular on multiple fronts as one would expect.

Morgan starts out with a refreshing level of subtlety dealing with the bogus Nature/Nurture dichotomy. Not surprisingly, genetic explanations predominate in the society Morgan describes. While enjoying his taking the piss out of some of the Ev Psych malarkey, I was actually concerned that a disturbing number of readers just would not get the subtle sarcasm. Apparently Morgan considered the same, because the Nature/Nurture bit is explicitly addressed later in the book–and one character who’s particularly fond of Ev Psych explanations is shown to be an even bigger self-justifying shitpoke than suspected.

I found the treatment of neurodiversity interesting. Some of the crap to which Marsalis is subjected sounds very familiar, as does much of the rhetoric. Morgan also plays well on ugly mob reactions, mass hysteria, and the way public perception is toyed with on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the the increasing medicalization/pathologization of any difference. I chuckled repeatedly at all the similarities between the Thirteens and most of my mother’s family. In both cases, simply not doing hierarchy (and stubbornly seeing through BS) seems particularly threatening to some people–and no wonder.

Given the deliciously ironic treatment of these issues, I was hoping Morgan would do similar with some of the other concepts addressed. If so, it was subtle enough that I missed it, which was rather disappointing. The one that came closest to an ironic interpretation was the hoary old (Eurocentric, racist) Western idea of the inevitable Progress of Society, with its discrete stages. The Thirteens are supposed to be throwbacks to (the European idea of a monolithic) hunter-gatherer society. (As my mother commented, “How was that type of person wiped out 20,000 years ago, when I am one and run into others every day?”) Heck, some of our folks were hunter-gatherers until much more recently, anyway, and still tend to do some hunting and gathering in our ever-diminishing spare time. There’s no need even to go very deeply into all the problems with that complex of ideas. This view was, at least, implicitly criticized, but readers predisposed to that way of thinking will probably miss it.

Ditto with “feminized society” by comparison to earlier “stages”, on pretty much all points mentioned above. Westerners sure have come up with some weird ideas about other types of societies. This is particularly rich to some who purposely didn’t let bully boys take over and run things in the first place.

Another Westernism I had a problem with was the pejorative use of “tribalism”, at least partly depending on the previous complex of ideas. I have trouble with this one a lot, though; it seems particularly popular in the U.K., and elsewhere in Europe, these days. Morgan seemed to be working it seriously into his treatment of the mob mentality, and intolerance of anything different. (Again, if he was being sarcastic about this, I missed it, and I sure was looking.) To my mind, Westerners flinging “tribalism” as an insult is an excellent example of projection. The tribal people I have known have been very accepting of difference; your average tribe needs all kinds of people with all sorts of talents in order to keep itself going. Neurodiversity–along with so many other types of variation–is rarely considered a bad thing, but yet more variation to make life interesting, add abilities to the pool, and complement others’ abilities. Contrast this approach with the sort of situation you get going when people are operating under delusions of oppositional dualism, as in the West. Absolutely everything must fit into one of two categories, one of which is inherently better than the other. Hey, a characteristic must be “good” or “bad” to begin with. This way of thinking is far more likely to lead to people being demonized, or just relegated to the trash, based on all sorts of characteristics; throw in a hierarchical system, and that only amplifies and propagates the problem. All the attempts in the world to project this nasty behavior onto those horrible, primitive little people over there will not change the real source. That did sound rude, but I’ve seen too much of this sort of thing firsthand.

The major thing that left me with a bad taste, however, was Morgan’s going along with the peculiar British fascination with the–in this book, former–U.S. (Revel described this tendency extremely well here. So many bells went off when I read this.) As if the general tone weren’t bad enough, the South came in for the worst of the stereotyped abuse. I must mention how much it does gripe me, the way too many of the British want to point at (partly imagined) religious buffoonery as something peculiar to this region, when even British historians such as Christopher Hill can see a connection between having sent most of one’s religious dissidents to certain colonies, and some religious strangeness being evident there later. I have actually run into more anti-Southern and anti-Appalachian bias here in Greater London than ever I did in the U.S., even with some shoddy treatment in Chicago and New Jersey. This whole ball of wax is (a) more projection, especially since it’s bad Western behavior they’re objecting to in the U.S. at large; (b) an unfortunate colonialist holdover, still sneering at the places that had lots of transportees and forced labor by “undesirable” British subjects; (c) racist, since they’re also complaining about our not being Western enough in outlook, and have basically put whiteface on the old anti-Native propaganda; (d) liable to make me smack the next person who does a bad attempt at anything from Deliverance anywhere near me.

What really griped me about Morgan’s approach to “Jesusland” was his adherance to dogma about what hideous racists and xenophobes Southerners all are. We all know there is some history there, but many of us know that there’s also more complexity to the situation. (And some of us are very aware that the British brought us the gift of racism in the first place.) I am definitely not excusing racist idiots, nor am I going to excuse yet more projection. As I have mentioned before on LJ, I come from Virginia, and I have never before seen a society as deeply racist and xenophobic as the one surrounding me now. I have been about a million times more aware of being a multiracial American Indian type since I moved here. I may “pass”–well, to the extent that people seem to think WV/KY Iroquoian looks Irish here–but have been absolutely appalled at the overtly rude comments and behavior I have witnessed on the street. People will say things in front of me that I truly hope they wouldn’t say in front of someone with more melanin. People under 80 actually use the term “half-caste”–without apparent malice, which is almost worse. This is just another result of trying to cram the world into a hierarchical, dualistic model. Morgan does get one bit unintentionally right, in that the same sort of thinking encouraged by Western religions also tends to encourage nasty racist ideas–just look at John Mohawk’s Utopian Legacies. To quote Morgan: “Ain’t no diversity of product in the Republic, they just got this one box for us, and sooner or later they gonna squeeze you in that box right along with the rest of us” Yep, sounds a lot like being a woman here; I obviously can’t comment firsthand on being black.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. A few points did leave me with some irritation and mixed feelings, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. Morgan tries, but I don’t think he has completely gotten the hang of filtering out cultural bias.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2008 4:16 pm

    Hi. Finally found your blog. Don’t know what took me so long, except not clicking on a lot of links before.

    I’ve noticed that about Vermont, too. Which is a very, very white state — far more white than where I came from — where people seem to pride themselves on not being racist. Which tends to result in this perverse thing where admitting racism exists here would mean admitting they’re not perfect, so heaven forbid anyone point out racism when it’s happening or actually try to do anything about it — that person is then the enemy, because they’re calling people racist, which is such an awful thing to do (but of course actual racism, not so much (headdesk)).

    I’m originally from California, which has some of the same attitude, but there’s at least some acknowledgment there that there’s a lot of racism, at least towards Hispanic people. (Which I’ve the vast majority of the time been just a witness to, but very rarely, and surprisingly, been the subject of.)

    But here, it seems like it’s more of an offense to most other white people I run into, to point out racism than to engage in it. (Xenophobia is actually more readily admitted to than racism — a lot of people here don’t like non-Vermonters of any sort to be living here.) Even though we’ve got some pretty serious problems with it (especially among the actions of police, but also just among ordinary people’s views of anyone of color at all).

    Not sure how it compares to the UK, but it’s pretty strange to watch. Of course, the “We’re perfect, to point out our imperfection is worse than our actual imperfection” attitude here is pretty amazingly extensive in itself, and goes far beyond racism. But racism is one good example of exactly how screwed up it is.

    (Try to point out classism or ableism, or even that the eugenics movement became trendy here long before it did in a lot of other states because Vermont frequently takes on any cause it deems socially progressive, whether it’s actually a good thing or a terrible thing, and things can get ugly, too.. They get even uglier if you point out the degree of denial a lot of people are in over these things. After all, there’s no more state institutions (well, sort of) so there’s no institutions at all, right? And everyone deserves a free pass on every other thing done wrong in this regard, right? And so pointing out this dynamic is an evil and ungrateful thing to do, right? Etc.)

    Sorry for the rant, just, yeah, this stuff is familiar.

    • urocyon permalink
      December 5, 2008 2:07 am

      Sorry I didn’t notice your comment waiting for moderation until a couple of days ago. I haven’t been posting much anywhere lately, so no wonder this blog has mostly slipped under the radar. Glad to see your comment!

      I tried to get a somewhat intelligent reply going, but have been too temporarily overloaded lately for that to work. I have been back in VA for several months, taking care of my mom who died a little over a week ago, and other overloading things have been going on.

      I didn’t want you to think I was rudely ignoring the comment, so thought I’d let you know otherwise, if nothing else. 🙂

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