The OF Blog: Review of Richard Morgan's Thirteen

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Review of Richard Morgan's Thirteen

Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a willful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses.

This quote from an earlier interview of Morgan by SaxonBullock in regards to his first novel, Altered Carbon, is a quite fitting means of introducing the theme of his latest noir/SF novel, Thirteen (Black Man in the UK). Fans of Morgan's earlier work will detect hints and signs of this being related in spirit, if not also in "universe," with his Takeshi Kovacs novels or with Market Forces. But instead of Thirteen being a mere rehash of the themes explored there, it takes on a life of its own, underscoring and pushing further down the rabbit hole towards some rather unsettling truths about ourselves and our societies.

Set in the early 22nd century, Thirteen is an extrapolation of today's trends and fears. Carl Marsalis is a Thirteen, a genetically-engineered human being who has the Area 13 of the brain retro-engineered to be a throwback to the hunter-gatherers of 20,000 years ago. Designed to be instinctive killer soldiers in a world where the fighting is more hand-to-hand than army-to-army (think the current Iraq/Afghanistan situations and multiply them tenfold), Operation Lawmen in the US and the Osprey project in Great Britain had to be shut down prematurely due to the Thirteens being resistant to control and guidance. Spurred on by fear of these ultra-Alpha Males, Thirteens are branded as lurking monsters and public opinion "forces" the governments to confine Thirteens to reservations on Earth or to ship them out to Mars.

The world of this time is still plagued with many of the troubles of our times. It is rather fitting that this novel reflects upon our worries and fears, as often the best SF holds a mirror to our faces to show us images of our societies that we might not be brave enough to confront. Ugly things such as racism, the view that genetically-modified humans are "others" and not really humans, all of this plays an important role in the development of Thirteen. For Carl Marsalis is about to find himself confronted with all sorts of mistaken assumptions about Thirteens, as he gets sucked into hunting down an escaped Thirteen who seems to be engaged in a frightening "random pattern" of murders in the remnants of the United States, now divided into three parts.

Thirteen is in equal measures a noir-style murder mystery akin to Altered Carbon, a philosophical look at what makes humans often be so irrational and fear-ridden, and a cry-to-arms attack on a host of related beliefs and trends of today that have made his fictional 22nd century world seem so frightening and yet familiar to us. It is not a novel of naive hope, but instead a story where a lot of good people suffer due to the machinations of people who know how to herd the cattle well.

Morgan does an excellent job in portraying Marsalis and NYPD detective Sevgi Ertekin, whose been assigned to assist Marsalis in his manhunt. Their interactions for the most part felt logical and there was quite a bit of underlying tension between belief and actuality that is seen in their scenes together. Other characters, from Sevgi's boss, Tom Norton, to others in the chain of command, are presented well, albeit not as well-detailed as Carl or Sevgi. The fears of a Thirteen are played out in many different ways as the murder mystery plot unfolds, with some surprising twists and a false ending about two-thirds of the way into the story.

The story held my interest and indeed forced me to read it in incremental sections so that I would have more time to process all the possibilities presented within. The quote I cite above summarizes succinctly the overall effect of Thirteen. There are no winners, just various victims and losers in this world.

Summary: Thirteen is a fast-faced noir mystery/near-future SF dealing with genetic manipulation, human fears and grouping patterns, and the question of what does it mean to be "human." Told in third-person PoV, Thirteen is 543 pages long with the feel of a novel half its size. Highly recommended for fans of Morgan's previous works and likely will be considered the best of his five novels. Possibly a candidate for many Best of 2007 Awards.

Release Date: July 3 (US), available now (UK, as Black Man).

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