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Thirteen by Richard K. MorganUK edition: Black Man3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThirteen — released as Black Man in the UK, a title that more closely reflects the book’s thematic subtext — is Richard Morgan’s most ambitious work to date. I enjoyed it, though not quite as much as I enjoyed the later Takeshi Kovacs stories. And Thirteen made more of an impression on me with the speculative underpinnings of its premise, and the themes derived from them, than it did with its actual story: one of those dense and frenetic techno-thrillers with a plot so convoluted that keeping up with all of the schemes and double-crossings and relationships and secrets and lies becomes a nearly Sisyphean chore, at least until the obligatory climactic confrontation where the bad guy finally explains it all. But adventurous readers will likely decide Thirteen is their lucky number. 

Set a hundred years in the future, Thirteen has a premise that intrigues on some levels, but taxes the suspension of disbelief on others. It isn’t entirely realistic, I’d submit, to suggest that humanity will have become so soft and overcivilized that we’ll have had to genetically engineer (to engineer genetically?) a breed of warriors to fight our wars for us, as we normal humans — derided as “cudlips” by the modified “variant thirteens,” a bovine appellation implying utter uselessness beyond placidly being devoured by the system — will have simply lost the nerve. It’s especially dubious to imagine such a state of affairs in a world where America has been rent asunder by secession. Most of the former United States has here devolved into a theocratic republic nicknamed Jesusland. As far as I can make out, rabid xenophobic theocracies have historically been only too happy to make war. But Jesusland is such a dysfunctional society it’s a wonder it hasn’t already collapsed. To be fair, Morgan may well be on point here.

See, it’s always crossed my mind that any society with the dedication and wherewithal to gen-engineer a race of supersoldiers to wage war probably also has the dedication and wherewithal to, you know, wage war all on its own just fine. Couple that with some dubious gender politics, and you have a book whose premise is kind of tough to chew, if not swallow. Then again, the gender arguments presented here — that humanity’s softness is a result of its “feminization” and loss of healthy masculine influence — are portrayed as one character’s opinion. And as we’re always cautioned to remember that characters’ opinions are not necessarily those of the writer, I’m willing to take it in context. 

What Morgan does smartly is use the concept of the “variant thirteen” fighters to make broader points about humanity’s innate racist and xenophobic tendencies. Our protagonist is Carl Marsalis. He is both a thirteen and black. Except for Jesusland (and even I, as a vocal heathen, will say up front that Morgan’s shooting fish in a barrel with that one), racial integration in this future seems so thorough that Marsalis’ skin color is a largely trivial issue. But Morgan knows it will resonate to us. After ethnic differences have ceased to matter, humanity has actually had to create a new race to hate, but whom we expect to do all our dirty work anyway. It’s a caustic bit of social commentary. The idea presented is that as a species, we are plagued by insecurities and fears that we have to project onto someone, or else lose our minds. We may fear Frankenstein’s monster, but we want him around all the same, if only to convince ourselves of our refined superiority.

This is explored in the subtle triangle between Marsalis, the investigator Sevgi Ertekin, and her partner Tom Norton. Marsalis, as a thirteen, engineered with all of the hardline, hunter-gatherer, “alpha-male” survival traits that evolution has supposedly weaned from the species after 20,000 years of civilization, bests Norton in every way. And the latter knows and resents it, particularly in the inevitable sexual chemistry Marsalis quickly ignites with Sevgi.

The book’s themes of xenophobia, and to what extent it is simply transference of our own self-loathing and fear, are so compelling I wish Morgan had given us a tighter story to hang them on. Morgan’s plot is quite impressive in its complexity. But at 525 hardcover pages, it’s too bloated and has too many opportunities — all of which it embraces — to let the pacing slack between the good bits, which typically involve guys getting shot up. The midsection of the story goes into more character digressions than are necessary — with all the requisite, angsty you-don’t-know-what-it’s-like-to-be-me speeches — to make their point.

The tale begins, unsurprisingly, with a riff on Blade Runner. Merrin, a rogue thirteen, has returned to Earth from exile on Mars. Marsalis, a thirteen assassin rotting in a Jesusland jail, is sprung by the Colonial Initiative to track him down. Merrin is much nastier than Roy Batty, though, and Morgan’s tale even grittier. Thawed out of cold sleep too early on the flight home, either by mistake or design, Merrin ate his frozen fellow astronauts to survive. Now on Earth, he’s killing wantonly. And the deeper Marsalis and Sevgi dig, the more that there seems to a labyrinthine conspiracy (is there any other kind?) behind Merrin’s purpose on Earth, that could lead All the Way to the Top.

That doesn’t exactly scream its originality from the rooftops. But it’s in the details that Morgan finesses his tale. A deft hand at a shoot-em-up scene, he’s equally sensitive when the story requires some emotional heft. One character has a protracted death scene that Morgan handles nothing short of masterfully. And though both Marsalis and Sevgi start the tale as rather cold fish — Marsalis understandably so, as he’s been engineered against normal human bonding instincts — they grow in sympathy as the story unravels. Which it takes a little too long to do.

Marsalis’ character conflict is where Morgan is strongest. Much of Thirteen is inspired by the old nature-vs-nurture debate, about whether we’re genetically predisposed to certain behaviors, and to what degree our culture and environment affects or can even change those genetic predispositions. Is it possible simply to program people to be, think, act, kill a certain way? Can we, in fact, create the Frankensteins we love to hate? Or does humanity ultimately find a way to adapt, even in those of us whom the cultural mainstream has made pariahs? As both Mary Shelley, and now Richard Morgan, reveal, humanity is way more than skin deep.