Thirteen is Richard K. Morgan’s latest novel and, in it, he steps away from his Takeshi Kovacs stories and instead focuses on a near future Earth, where humanity has managed to colonize Mars and genetically created ‘humans’ have been created as a form of shock troops for the West’s police forces and armies. Thirteen shows that Morgan can write a rousing tale of action and violence without the gee-whiz setting of his Kovacs series.
That’s not to say there isn’t cool stuff in Thirteen, there certainly is. The protagonist, Carl Marsalis, is the product of a genetic engineering project to re-introduce to the human race a human sub-species which died out when humanity changed to an agrarian society from being hunter gatherers. Carl and is fellow beings can be described as being prone to action, who view violence as being not just the first resort, but the only one. In Morgan’s future, the men, particularly in the West, have become more ‘feminized’, preferring to try to compromise or capitulate in the face of disagreements. This causes problems when the opposing party uses force to get their way. Hence, the genetic program to create Carl and his fellows (called thirteens, being the thirteenth strain) to try and even the playing field. Basically, Carl can be seen as a genetically engineered version of Cassandra Kresnov from Crossover (don’t mind John’s rating, he just a hater), or the Major from Ghost In The Shell. Morgan then places Marsalis in the position of hunting renegade thirteens, either killing them or capturing them for interment in special reservations. In Thirteen, Carl is hunting a particularly vicious thirteen who killed the entire crew of a ship returning from Mars and is now on the run on Earth. Even though people understand the need for thirteens, they are still treated with disdain or outright prejudice, which is only heightened because Carl is black.
What follows is a big book (over 500 pages), filled with lots of action, but also interspersed with longer, slower sections. It’s these sections where Morgan does a great job of fleshing out his characters, and giving them realistic motivations for their actions. It’s also here where on of the major themes of the books plays out: nature vs. nurture. As a ‘created’ individual, Carl is at the mercy of his genetic heritage. Although he tries to tone down is impulses, he is basically in fight mode almost all the time, and he doesn’t mind going violently over the top to finish a job. Marsalis can be considered as an anti-hero, but since we know his actions are informed by his genes, we also know he has little choice in how he reacts. This makes Carl a very sympathetic character as we see him struggle to live something like a normal life. Very well done.
About the only major gripe I have with the story deals with the political landscape. Morgan has created a fractured United States where one of the splinter nations is called (and is based on the internet meme) Jesusland. This nation consists of religious, Christian fundamentalist who are portrayed as being intolerant and prejudiced against any and everything not white or Christian. The original meme was created, probably in a perjorative sense, to show that all of the ‘Red’ states in the 2004 Presidential election are all contiguous and, thus, share the same values. I understand why Morgan chose to use this construct, its an integral part of his political landscape to have a whipping boy to bounce the themes of intolerance and prejudice off of, I just disagree that Jesusland is the way to do it (in the book, Morgan references the fact he got the idea for Jesusland from the internet meme). Now, living in (or very near) what would be the largest city in Jesusland, I can state that ‘Jesusland’ is not what people think it is. Far from being a monolithic entity, Houston and indeed the rest of the supposed Jesusland area is a mixture of all types. The Wikipedia article even shows that large swaths are actually more purple then anything else. The unfortunate effect for me was, every time the attitudes of Jesuslanders was mention, I became annoyed at the extreme generalization and it pulled me out of the story. And this happens quite a bit.
Despite that, however, Morgan has created a compelling character in Marsalis, and has placed him in a complex and interesting society. Thirteen can stand toe to toe with any of Morgan’s Kovacs novels, and that’s a very good thing.