Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Masculinity and violence and Richard K. Morgan

I recently finished reading Richard K. Morgan's novel Black Man. Morgan is a very interesting writer; he fuses extrapolative SF and cyberpunk with the hard-boiled sensibility of a Dashiel Hammett or Mickey Spillane. I was first turned on to his work when I acted as the external examiner for an MA thesis about the interfaces between human and machine. I read two of his novels, Altered Carbon and Woken Furies in quick succession; and when I saw Black Man for sale at a secondhand book sale a few weeks ago at MUN, I snapped it up.


Besides being able to tell a good yarn, Morgan immediately interested me from an academic angle as well. His books are thought-provoking but also frequently infuriating. He is thematically preoccupied with the relationship between certain incarnations of masculinity and violence; his protagonists in the three novels I have read are genetically, chemically or technologically enhanced ├╝bermensch, so tailored for the purpose of carrying out military actions impossible for unmodified humans. When we encounter Morgan's warrior-men (Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon and Woken Furies, Carl Marsalis in Black Man), their military service is in the past and they exist as (effectively) soldiers of fortune shunned and feared by the authorities on whose behalf they had committed atrocities.

Hence, one of the broader dialogues in Morgan's work is between civilization and its other, between the platitudes of enlightened society and the blood and violence that made it possible. Kovacs and Marsalis are out of place because they are the uncomfortable reminder of this otherwise disavowed reality. While the Kovacs novels leave this more or less implicit (glaringly obvious but ultimately unremarked), Black Man makes it a central point of discussion, to the point at times of being pedantic.

Black Man is a somewhat more ambitious novel in terms of its philosophical and sociological themes, and also rather more immediate to the present moment. Where Altered Carbon and Woken Furies take place in a more distant future (some five or six centuries down the line, if memory serves), Black Man is more rigorously extrapolative, taking place a little more than a hundred years from today, and envisioning a future rooted in our current geopolitical realities. China is the principal world power, balanced by a more active and engaged United Nations. The United States has been partitioned into three: the Rim States, a coalition of west-coast states that most closely resembles William Gibson's freewheeling technological free markets; the Confederated Republic, a Nativist, Christian and reactionary entity comprising the Midwest and the South, and disparagingly nicknamed "Jesusland"; and the Union, the east-coast states more inclined to throw their fortunes in with the U.N. The other major global power broker is a massive corporation responsible for the colonization of Mars, named The Colony Initiative, or simply COLIN.

Central to the narrative are a race of genetically enhanced males that go by the label Variant Thirteen. The "thirteens," one of the characters informs us in one of the novel's lengthy and didactic expositions, were developed to fight wars that Western democracies could no longer fight—the reason being that aggression, the need for dominance and the willingness to do violence had effectively been bred out of the "feminised" West. Meanwhile, they were fighting and losing in a series of ongoing wars because "we're up against enemies who eat, sleep and breathe hatred for everything we represent, who don't care if they die screaming so long as they take a few of us with them." Morgan's twenty-first century is one in which the current war on terrorism seems to have spread into an endemic, constant state of hostility, one in which the west's liberal and democratic sensibilities prove to be its Achilles' heel. After several failed initiatives, the variant thirteen is created: "Pre-civilised humans," they are described as, "Everything we used to be, everything we've been walking away from since we planted our first crops and made our first laws and built our first cities." The thirteens, in addition to various chemical enhancements, were regressed to a pre-agrarian sensibility, to what is essentially a primeval masculinity.

At this point in reading (around page 100 in a 600-page novel), it occurred to me that Black Man would be an interesting novel to put in conversation with Fight Club—another novel that idealizes a pre-modern, hunter-gatherer (with the emphasis on hunter) masculinity. A key passage has Tyler Durden imagining life after his Project Mayhem has destroyed civilization:

"Imagine," Tyler said, "stalking elk past department store windows and stinking racks of beautiful rotting dresses and tuxedos on hangers; you'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life, and you'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. Jack and the beanstalk, you'll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you'll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles."

Fight Club was very much of a piece with the so-called "crisis of masculinity" in the 1990s, which featured such elements as Robert Bly's Iron John, the Promise Keepers Christian movement, and the "Menz Movement" with its nature retreats in which men regressed themselves to drum-banging, loincloth-wearing simulacra of Primitive Man. What set Fight Club apart was its preoccupation with violence as somehow intrinsic to "authentic" masculinity. (In this respect, at least, Chuck Palahniuk did not sanitize the nostalgia for pre-civilized man as simply being about getting back to nature.)

Black Man is a great deal more nuanced and complex than Fight Club (though that's a pretty low bar): while exhibiting the same relationship between the alpha male and violence, it is a lot more ambivalent about it. In a variety of ways, Black Man is pretty glaringly a post-9/11 novel; the above description of the west's "enemies" that the thirteens were created to combat echoes a prevalent anxiety arising following the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon. As Susan Faludi observes in her remarkable book The Terror Dream, "post-9/11 commentaries were riddled with apprehensions that America was lacking in masculine fortitude, that the masses of weak-chinned BlackBerry clutchers had left the nation wide open to attack and wouldn't have the cojones for the confrontations ahead." Faludi carefully chronicles the series of articles and op-ed pieces following the attacks slamming the "feminised" American male, lamenting the passing of the John Wayne sensibility from the nation, or characterising feminism as a veritable fifth column holding a knife to America's heart (and other body parts). In Morgan's imagined future, the war on terror has expanded and is kicking the west's ass, necessitating the resurrection of Primal Man.

The description quoted above of "enemies who eat, sleep and breathe hatred for everything we represent" reminded me rather vividly of Michael Scheuer's characterization of in his book Imperial Hubris. Scheuer was a high-ranking CIA operative who had headed up the bin Laden unit in the late 1990s, and published Imperial Hubris anonymously in 2004 as a scathing attack on the Bush Administration's prosecution of the War on Terror. Those in the administration, like Rumsfeld, who imagined the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan would be a cakewalk, suffered from a complete misunderstanding of their foes. In what was to become an understandably controversial analogy, Scheuer likened Al-Qaeda to Robert E. Lee's confederate army: "Like Lee's boys, the mujahideen are often dirty, unkempt, bearded, armed with a variety of weapons, rarely paid, and haphazardly supplied. And like Lee's boys, they are aflame with courage, audaciousness, commitment to their cause, optimism, and religious zeal."

I'm not suggesting that Morgan cribbed from Scheuer, but the tone of grudging (or not so grudging) admiration for the enemy in Imperial Hubris is comparable to Morgan's own depiction of ├╝ber-masculinity in Black Man and the Kovacs novels. Though he does introduce notes of ambivalence into his narratives, and offers a character in Black Man who makes the interesting observation that "we index how civilised a nation is by the level of female participation it enjoys"—and indeed does effectively posit such "feminised" cultures as desirable societal evolution—there is an extent to which the text is as enamoured of its alpha males as the various female characters who succumb to their masculine appeal, violence and all. And it is in these moments of seduction—which are really moments of succumbing, more than anything else—that Morgan's narrative voice and prose are at their weakest. Morgan is one of those otherwise accomplished authors who write really bad sex scenes. Otherwise, he writes in a hard-edged prose reminiscent of Chandler and Hammett, with some lovely lyrical moments; when the inevitable sex scenes occur, they read like Penthouse letters written by someone with an English degree.

These are the scenes which leave the sourest taste, for besides being cringe-inducing, they serve to confirm how taken the text is with the very species of masculinity it seeks to critique.

That being said, there is enough ambivalence and ambiguity, and indeed sheer intelligence, present in Morgan's writing to mitigate most of his bad habits and tendencies. I do recommend his novels for this reason, but be prepared at times to want to slam it down on the table (it is for this reason that I am unlikely to ever buy a Kindle—it's harder to act out when a novel pisses you off when doing so means breaking a $400 device).

At any rate, sorry for the overly lengthy post, and if you made it to the end, thanks for reading. This is me thinking out loud (blogging out loud?) on a topic that might find its way into article form. So comments or criticism are more than welcome.

1 comment:

Richard Morgan said...

So, look, I'm going to take that last line as a sincere invitation.......

I'm immensely flattered by the length of your meditation on my work, and even more so by the implication it might become an academic article. Can I just point out a couple of things though:

1) The sex.

Look, I'm not really sure how to frame this without it sounding like some kind of chest-beating, but the fact is that by and large (eliding the odd dose of biotech or VR, obviously), the sex I write is the sex I've had. There's an inevitable stylistic veneer on it, sure, a touching of high points for dramatic effect, but that's the same for the violence and the wise-cracking repartee as well. In my humble opinion, this is something that comes with the territory; you can't really deploy a layer of hyperkinetic hardboiled in the violence and dialogue of a novel, and then switch abruptly to tawdry McEwanesque kitchen sink for the sex - what would be the rationale for such a switch?

Sex in my novels tends to serve the characters as a refuge from the world and an affirmation of reachable humanity. None of it's particularly exotic, but (with one or two notable exceptions) it is pleasurable, successful and undertaken between equals - all of which exactly reflects my own real world experience of sex, as do pretty much all of the specific mechanics and postures involved. Since, by contrast, I have an incredibly limited experience of combat, armed or unarmed, you might even argue that the sex is the most "real" thing in my work.

2) Being enamoured of alpha males.

The problem here is genetics, which is of course why it's front and centre in Black Man - we are all enamoured of alpha males. If you're genetically male yourself, chances are you want at heart to be one; if you're genetically female, chances are you want to have one. And of course the truth of the latter, in true phenotypical fashion, simply reinforces the former. This is a (very uncomfortable) human truth which echoes down the boulevards of contemporary fiction - think about the executives in Rollerball who dream of being Jonathan E and "smashing faces", the delirious uniform/power fetish failings of Frenesi Gates in Pynchon's Vineland, and latterly the human panther commodification of Daniel Craig as Bond, James Bond (coming full circle of course back to a similar dynamic with Sean Connery in the sixties).

Un-violent liberal arts guys like you and me like to erect a fantasy construct in which women don't *really* go for all that unsubtle physical force (reaching its apogee in the hilarious "size doesn't matter" confabulation), just as women hate to accept the truth that blonde hair and silicone breasts balanced atop black high heels and a short skirt won't yank the sexual attention (and short-circuit the higher mind functions) of any male in the blast radius, no matter how married, no matter how smart and educated.

So to say the text of Black Man "succumbs" to an "admiration" for Carl Marsalis is to miss the point - I have very deliberately presented the reader with a powerful alpha male template, and I am daring that reader to a choice - either desperately pretend the template is not devastatingly (a term I use advisedly) attractive; or come clean and own up to the murky genetic heritage we all share.