In Christopher Brookmyre’s superlative One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, he invents the concept of BDQ: Bullet Deadliness Quotient. Essentially it is the rule that you can’t go changing the rules halfway. If you want dangerous realism in your action movies, it’s got to stay that way, and not turn into “your John Woo movies: zillions of rounds goin’ off an’ the only thing they ever hit is glass”.
BDQ is a fine concept and just as applicable to science fiction. And Richard Morgan’s Black Man (called the cringe-inducing Th1rte3n in the US) fails to abide by its own rules.
Black Man is set 200 years hence. Genetic ‘variants’ have been bred for the classic undesirable tasks — compliant females for prostitution, aggressive males for soldiering. The central character is one of the latter, a ‘variant thirteen’, despised by practically everyone, not allowed to breed, locked up or sent to Mars for the safety of everyone else.
This would have been fine for the sake of the story if he’d just used the “genetically engineering super-soldier” approach. They are ten a penny and not really a problem. We’ve been doing that kind of thing with crops and animals for tens of thousands of years. But instead the author decided to resurrect hunter-gatherer man from tens of thousands of years ago.
The central conceit is that since they were hunters, they were naturally stronger and faster than the farmers that succeeded them. I’m not convinced of the argument, since that would suggest there would be massive genetic differences between us flabby office workers and the few remaining nomadic hunter-gatherer societies that still exist in Africa and South America. This is not an argument or evidence I have ever heard presented.
But taking that as a done deal, we also have to assume that these old genes actually coded for smarter people too, something I find even harder to believe. Human society demands technology and intelligence — I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that would be bred out as dangerous.
But finally, and most importantly, is how the author ignores all biological repercussions of the story setup. He claims to have got the idea from reading one of science writer Matt Ridley’s books. It’s a shame he wasn’t paying attention while he did so. Not only are we to believe that the variant thirteens are stronger, faster and more intelligent but they also have more effective immune systems. Despite being pre-agriculture they can also drink alcoholic beverages without serious side-effects. Consider that even the ability to process milk is a very recent development for Europeans it all seems desperately implausible.
Notably, for someone who cites Matt Ridley (author of Nature via Nurture), he ignores the effect of nurture and environment on people’s personalities. At only one point does one of the characters mention that these so-called uebermensch were given combat training and so on from an extremely young age. The effect this would have on a person’s nature is completely disregarded by everyone else.
The rest of the book was similarly disappointing. The story had about a dozen endings before it finally stopped, abruptly. The most interesting character was a female variant thirteen: this was so unusual that the other characters didn’t know such a thing existed. It was like the scene in X Men 2 when Wolverine meets Lady Deathstryke. And then just like she is killed in the movie, this woman promptly vanishes after claiming to be pregnant. The most interesting part of the book and gets ignored from then on… The writing was a bit on the florid side for me, too. I was cringing too regularly, which is never a good sign.