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The first thing that must be said about Richard K. Morgan's Thirteen is that it is a tremendously fun book to read. Other Morgan titles have been compared to print versions of action movies, and this novel is no different: it is a story about hard men doing hard things, and while reading it one cannot help but become caught up in admiration for such men and indulge in sentimentality when contemplating what it costs them to be so hard. The fast pace of action in the novel—a characteristic of Morgan's work, as has been noted by other reviewers, including Martin Lewis in his review of the UK edition of this book—compels the reader to keep turning the pages, moving quickly through an at-times-convoluted tale of allegiances and double-crosses, political backroom deals, red herrings, and of course frequent and excessively violent confrontations between our protagonist and his opponents. So, Thirteen is a very fun book to read, an adrenaline rush comparable to going to see Live Free or Die Hard, and a book which on its surface offers many of the same pleasures.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the book is more than that as well. This is a novel that wants to make us think about violence, about the hard masculinity we admire so much, and about the prejudice which is so often a justification for violence and a way of performing masculinity. As with the Takeshi Kovacs series (Altered Carbon [2002], Broken Angels [2003] and Woken Furies [2005]), Thirteen combines serious critique—of the consequences of violence for those compelled to enact it for the state, of political systems founded on the exploitation of the majority by a few—with the sort of pulse-pounding, combat-before-contemplation narrative that informs so much of our contemporary culture, from 24 to The Kingdom. Such narratives encourage us to see violence as the only solution in the moment and to worry only about our protagonist surviving into the next scene, without allowing much time to pause and consider the merits of the objective. As other reviews of this book have noted, Morgan tries to have his cake and eat it too, raising serious questions about violence and power, while at the same time allying the reader with a hyper-masculine protagonist who moves from confrontation to confrontation without much pause for thought.

What is unfortunate about the book being more than just a thriller is the fact that Morgan's themes tend to get lost in his style, and thus it is easy for the reader to miss the more sombre tone than underlies the fun. Although the thriller plot is what drives the story, the real meat of the text is in the world in which it takes place. Carl Marsalis is a thirteen, a genetically-engineered soldier, whose genetic makeup predates human agricultural civilisation and is based on a model of hominid believed to have been dominant in hunter-gatherer societies but bred-out as too violent once permanent settlement became the norm. Described by an official government report as characterised by a "sociopathic tendency allied with dangerous levels of raw intelligence" (p. 210), thirteens are super-soldiers, built by the government for victory in various Middle East conflicts (crucially, "the government" here includes both US and UK versions of the soldier-building programme). Deemed too dangerous for life in the general population, thirteens are given the options of a semblance of freedom on a primitive Mars colony or imprisonment in designated camps on Earth. Marsalis continues to work for the government—now the vaguely European Union successor the Western Nations Colony Initiative—as a bounty hunter tasked with tracking and capturing rogue thirteens. The narrative concerns Marsalis's tracking of a thirteen believed to be a serial killer, but the real story is the way those Marsalis meets interact with him based on their assumptions about his nature.

As well as being a thirteen, Marsalis is also black and is frequently referred to as "black man," an epithet that shifts its meaning, being at various times a mere literal description, a metaphorical association given the violence he brings, and a holdover of a racist culture often presumed to be transcended elsewhere in the novel, depending upon who is speaking and to whom. North America has split into the liberal and moderate North Atlantic Union (encompassing Canada and the Democrat-dominated coastal States), and the religious and regressive Confederated Republic of the former American heartland. While imprisoned by the Confederated Republic, Marsalis is initially almost-amused by being called nigger, finding it "disconcerting and almost quaint, like having your face slapped with a duelling glove" (p. 110), but the real and irrational hatred behind the label soon proves wearying.

As the novel repeatedly makes clear, Marsalis is accustomed to being the target of prejudice:

There was a whole shifting topography of dislike out there for what Carl Marsalis was, and it touched on pretty much every level of human mental wiring. At the high cognitive end you had sophisticated dinner-party politics that condemned his professional existence as amoral. At a more emotive level, there was the generalised social revulsion that comes with the label turncoat. And lower still, riding the arid terminology of the Jacobsen report but swooping into the hormonal murk of instinct, you could find a rarely admitted but nonetheless giddy terror that he was, despite everything, still one of them. (p. 13)

Morgan's aim is to investigate exactly what shapes human culture, the higher cognitive rationales or the hormonal murk of instinct. The UK title of the book, Black Man, confronts the parallels between racial oppression and the status of thirteens more directly, and it is disappointing that the US publisher muddies this water. Most of the characters assume that thirteens are the helpless products of their "wiring," unable to understand religion, to appreciate sociality, or to be trusted with their freedom given their innate tendency toward violence. Most characters in the novel, including Marsalis himself at times, seem to accept the wisdom that thirteens and humans are fundamentally different and thus inevitably opposed.

But Marsalis is a far more complex character than the scenarios in which he acts allow for, and Morgan has a far more serious point than this plot description can suggest. The novel also frequently challenges the received wisdom that thirteens are compelled to be what is demanded of them by their genes. Continually confronted with statements such as "There's only one way to really stop a thirteen, right?" Marsalis replies in noncommittal ways, in this instance confirming, "So the psychomonster flics would have us believe" (p. 215). Even when he himself claims how different it is to be a thirteen, cultural and genetic explanations become blurred and confused. He argues "We're not like you. We're the witches. We're the violent exiles, the lone wolf nomads that you bred out of the race back when growing crops and living in one place got so popular. We don't have, we don't need a social context. You have to understand this: there is nothing wrong with Merrin. He's not damaged. ... He's just carrying out a plan of action, and he is comfortable with it" (p. 186). Such a passage confronts us with the fact that thirteens are at least as much a product of social engineering as genetic.

Despite its surface gloss, then, Thirteen is a story about a man trapped not so much by his genetic wiring as by the social structures put in place by a society that believes in sociobiology. From the opening pages of the novel, we find Marsalis lamenting "I don't want to do this any more ... I don't want to be this anymore" (p. 24), but inevitably confronted by a society that won't allow him to be anything else. There is a political edge to Morgan's critique here. The novel insists, "Nobody ever built a human variant because they thought they were giving it a better shot at life, liberty and the pursuit of fucking happiness. They were products, all of them, agenda targeted" (p. 85). The problem with thirteens is thus not their genetic backwardness, but instead the hypocrisy of a society that needs them, if only temporarily, in order to fight its wars because "Suddenly no-one but dirt-poor idiots from Kansas want to be soldiers, because hell, that shit can get you killed and there have got to be better, and better-paid ways to life your life" (p. 86). The novel leaves unexamined but glaring the fact that there would be no such wars if thirteens were the only ones with a tendency to choose violence over compromise.

Many characters insist that it is irrational to equate the various "old" prejudices—such as racism and sexism—with attitudes displayed toward Marsalis as a thirteen. The sympathetic female cop challenges her partner's tendency to falsely conflate Marsalis with another thirteen he had known, insisting "you can't equate them just because they're both variant thirteen, any more than you can equate them because, I don't know, because they're both black"; he replies "Be serious. We're talking about substantial genetic tendency, not skin colour" (p. 161), but the book itself is not as certain that the lines between scientific truth and irrational prejudice can be drawn with such precision. Although the party line is that thirteens are locked up for the safely of the human herd, Marsalis is adamant that "we're locking thirteens up because the rest of the human race is scared of them. And a society of scared humans is a very dangerous thing to have on your hands" (p. 210).

Marsalis's comment points toward the novel's concern with the role of irrationality and fear in contemporary American (too often, Western, more generally) politics, particularly the war on terror. Just as the thirteens represent an "old" model of masculinity which had to be eliminated in order for peaceful agricultural civilisation to make a go of things, the isolated nation state has become a dangerous dinosaur. The fragmented American state in the book is said to have died of fear which was once "a unifying force. Back then, you could make a country strong with xenophobia. That's the old model, the nation state fortress thing. But you can't life in a fortress when your whole way of life depends on globalised interdependence and trade" (p. 241).

The novel hopes that we can overcome poisoned political structures along with poisoned personality wiring. Marsalis's mentor, who taught him that he need not be ruled by his genetics or his training as a warrior, argues that thirteens can be more than "the weapon they hoped to make of us" and more than "every bigoted, hate-driven fear they have of us" through "think[ing] our way clear" (p. 268). Yet despite this emphasis on thinking and resisting clichéd responses, Thirteen itself too often follows the path of cliché and leaves its readers little time for such reflection. It requires a second reading to put together all the moments of resistance Marsalis offers to the reading of him as masculine vengeance personified. What stands out in a first reading is the perfection with which Morgan is able to invoke the cliché in his characterisation of Marsalis. In such moments, the book's tongue-in-cheek exploration of our fascination with macho culture gives over to the sheer intoxication of its coolness.

The conclusion to the novel is pure adrenaline thrill, an unrelenting drive toward vengeance which turns up some answers about the serial murders and a deeper conspiracy, but by this point we are just along for the ride and the revelations play second fiddle to the revenge. Thus I return to my opening point. Thirteen is a tremendously fun book; it is also, however, a remarkably serious book concerned with significant questions of our time (sociobiology, the future of the American state, gender, and racial prejudice). Near the end, one thirteen vows to "show those fuckers what freedom really means" during the "long walk back to hunter gatherer egalitarianism" (p. 524). But sadly, I suspect the pleasure of seeing the alpha male achieve victory at all costs will stay with most readers far beyond any consideration of egalitarianism.

Sherryl Vint is an Assistant Professor at Brock University. She is currently writing Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal (Liverpool UP) and co-editing The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. She is an editor of the journal Science Fiction Film and Television.

Bio to come.
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26 Feb 2024

I can’t say any of this to the man next to me because he is wearing a tie
Language blasts through the malicious intentions and blows them to ash. Language rises triumphant over fangs and claws. Language, in other words, is presented as something more than a medium for communication. Language, regardless of how it is purposed, must be recognized as a weapon.
verb 4 [C] to constantly be at war, spill your blood and drink. to faint and revive yourself. to brag of your scars.
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