Reviewed by Pete S. Allen
If you've read this book, why not
There's been a lot of talk in the last several years about the deep,
even, and almost polar divide that exists between segments of the US.
This divide is largely political, but the political aspect of it merely
reflects the ideological core. Combine a very plausible application of
this rift with economic and globalization factors, add the exponential
increase of technology, and let it bake for a hundred years, give or
take, and you get Thirteen.
Richard K. Morgan's newest novel is, for all intents and purposes, a
detective story, and the plot follows the detective story rhythm.
However, many of Morgan's other novels have been called "genre-bending"
(by the NY Times Book Review, if you need a source) and the term would
definitely apply here. Thirteen is not simply a detective story set in
the future, because the elements of the plot that work rely on the
futuristic setting to keep going. Indeed, the setting in this book is as
distinct and well-developed, and as integral, as any of the characters.
And that's saying something.
The world of one hundred years hence is largely globalized, made even
smaller by suborbital transports (Miami to London in 45 minutes,
anyone?) and a more integrated market economy. The US (and possibly
Canada, though this is vague) is divided into three separate countries:
the Rim (or Pacific Rim ? the West Coast), the Union (the northeastern
states) and the old Republic (pretty much everywhere else), commonly
referred to as Jesusland. The secessions were caused by economic stress
and opportunity, and seem to have been largely peaceful.
Apart from advanced household and business technology, which is largely
extrapolated from current technology and so is pretty easy to catch up
with, the main "novum" or "new idea" is that of Martian colonization ?
this is new in the sense that it's an idea outside our current
technological aims, not an original idea necessarily. The other big
technological aspect integral to the book is that of genetically
engineered humans ? definitely not a novum, as designer genes seem just
over the horizon even now.
Briefly, our main protagonist, Carl Marsalis, is a thirteen, a
genetically enhanced human, designed to be a super-soldier type.
Fortunately for him, being Black is no longer much of an issue--most
racist ideologies are things of the past. Unfortunately, as a thirteen,
he's subject to an entirely new form of prejudice. Marsalis is British,
and essentially a bounty hunter, working for the UN organization
responsible for keeping track of all genetically enhanced humans (or
twists in the common slang).
Thirteens are relegated either to internment reservations or to Mars,
and any outside these areas are to be collected by him, and a few others
like him. There are other enhanced humans, but the thirteens are the
only ones interned, the others not being deemed dangerous to (though
still subject to persecution from) society. Marsalis is recruited away
from the UN by COLIN, the Colonization Initiative, to help with an
investigation of a renegade thirteen who has escaped from Mars. He joins
Sevgi Eretkin and Tom Norton, both COLIN agents in charge of the
investigation, and both with a few problems of their own.
As I mentioned earlier, the plot is largely detective-style driven, but
this in no way should be taken to mean that it's simplistic or not
enjoyable. Quite the opposite -- as Marsalis makes his way through our
future world, we're exposed to his thoughts, as they are influenced by
his status as a black man, a British citizen, and as a genetic outsider -- considered by most to not even be human. The problems he faces with the
systems and people he encounters (and it's a world-wide trip) help
paint a vivid picture, and while not quite dystopian, the novel is
definitely bleak in some of its outlook, despite the character Evetkin's
protests to the contrary.
Without giving away more of the story, I will say that Morgan is a very
talented writer, giving the reader several very well-developed and
sympathetic characters, a gripping narrative, and a future well worth
looking at (and potentially learning some lessons from). Noir-y in its
execution, and somewhat reminiscent of Blade Runner (not surprising that
Morgan won the Philip K Dick award), the book doesn't miss any of the
subplots threaded through it, and allows the reader to tie them up with
Marsalis. I thoroughly enjoyed Thirteen, and will be looking for other
books from this relatively new to the scene author. I was on vacation
while I read it, and it certainly kept me glued to my patio chair, which
admittedly might not be as hard in Mexico as it might be otherwise, but
I did skip several trips to the pool to keep reading.