Richard K. Morgan
Del Rey, 2007
Note: I’m not really happy with this review. I waited longer than I should to get some thoughts down. Thirteen is really a fascinating, exciting read that sci-fi fans, science geeks, or anyone interested in discussion about people and society should read.
Thirteen or Black Man, as it was known in the UK, is the latest sci-fi novel from Richard K. Morgan. It breaks from his Kovacs novels and is set in its own world. Marsalis is a thirteen a genetically engineered “human” designed to be the ultimate aggressor with a nanotech mesh that enhances his physical abilities. Unfortunatley thirteens are now illegal and most exiled to Mars, those that aren’t are trouble and it’s Marsalis’ job (thanks to winning a lottery for a trip from Mars to Earth) to track them down and bring them in. After a job gone wrong Marsalis finds himself pressed into helping track down a rogue thirteen who hijacked a shuttle back home.
As with all novels Morgan excels in writing slick, high impact action scenes. The ultra-violent ultra-aggressive Marsalis is almost a monster of a creature and isn’t afraid to push limits when it comes to getting the job done. What is most interesting when reading Marsalis is how invigorating his almost over-the-top actions can be. Marsalis, representing the primal things either bred out or pent-up is a compelling character that oozes a dark allure saying and doing things that the niceties of human society, and genetics, prevents one from doing and saying. Or maybe I’m just a bit sick in the head. Could be that too.
Regardless, Morgan draws a rather distinct line between thirteens and humanity at large using the lab-created men (and women) as a means to examine the nature of humanity itself. Morgan, as I’m coming to look at his work, tends to take a fairly dire opinion of us as a species when it comes to certain things and Thirteen is no exception. Between the actions of Marsalis and the humans around him Morgan does an excellent job of casting his work in shades of gray that make telling right from wrong and good from bad extraordinarily difficult prospects.
The clearly intentional shades of gray serve as a means to bring some of the social discussion the novel touches upon to the forefront. Morgan uses Thirteen to touch on a numerous social areas mainly religion, racism, and the nature of what it means to be human. Marsalis, genetically designed to be both decisive and aggressive is Morgan vision of humanity’s response to tolerance. Morgan explores the idea that our greater drive towards tolerance, acceptance, and embracing of our fellow man weeded out the animal instincts and cunning that had left us at the top of the food chain. It is this idea that bred Marsalis and the other thirteens; humanity’s answer to tolerance was to create something inhuman.
Thirteen is a much more intimate story than Morgan’s other works and despite the cosntant globe-trotting maintains a very focused perspective. In terms of narrative I think it makes for a much deeper story and allows it to resonate with the reader. Personally, I prefer to more epic action of the Kovacs novels but Thirteen makes for a impressively meaty read. I felt that the middle section of the novel suffered a bit because of some Marsalis’ more cerebral meanderings and overall that the message of novel muddied the actual plot, not so much as derail it completely but enough that it wasn’t as compelling as it ought to been. Still this was a fantastic read and a prime example of how science fiction can be used to provoke discussion.