Thirteen (Th1rte3n)

Thirteen (Th1rte3n) - Richard K. Morgan Genre: scifi / cyberpunk
Brainycat's 5 'B's:
boobs: 4 // blood 4 // bombs 2 // bondage 1 // blasphemy 4
Currently listening to: Alien Vampires: Harshlizer CD2

Richard K. Morgan has again established himself as one of my very mostest all time favorite authors. As a reader, I've often gone through endless numbers of book descriptions online, or browsed the shelves at bookstores, and felt like nobody is writing a book just for me. Sure, there's more 'good' or even 'great' books out there that I'd enjoy than I'll ever have time to read. But even when I'm reading a great book that I can really get into, I still have a nagging reservation, a slight cognitive disconnect between myself and the characters in the book: "What kind of idiot are they? Why didn't they do it the other way? This guy is a hopeless fool. They're are much easier ways to accomplish that goal."

Carl Marsalis, genetically modified (I'd say enhanced) and trained in soldiering since birth, did not inspire that sort of dissonance with me. I get this guy. I understand his mental processes. He has to explain himself over and over to the "normal" humans around him why he does the things he does, and each time I feel his frustration. The premise of the character is that he's a "variant 13", the result of manipulating the genome to express neural structures and personality traits advantageous to a hunter/gather society, but subsequently bred out in the intervening 20000 years of agricultural domestication and raised in an off-the-record creche remniscent of the movie Soldier.

Those who know me well will not be the least bit surprised to find me so attracted to Carl. I'm a big believer in the concept that we, as modern humans, have sold ourselves short. We've paid for our cushy lifestyles with domestication and the yoke of civilization, at the cost of the raw animal passion that sits at the bottom of our brainpans. Where once we fought for tribal dominance with cunning, strength and self-control, we now blithely hand the reigns of our tribe over to a succession of talking heads who make reassuring noises on cue - and in turn to the people who've inherited the keys to the graineries. Two professionals, one a highlevel bureaucrat who works with genemodified populations, the other a detective who runs across them in his work, talk about the nature of the Variant 13:
Though this is a software issue we’re talking about now, rather than a hardware problem. At least to the extent that you can make that distinction when it comes to brain chemistry. Anyway, look—by all the accounts I’ve read, the Project Lawman originators reckoned that variant thirteens would actually have been pretty damn successful in a hunter-gatherer context. Being big, tough, and violent is an unmitigated plus in those societies. You get more meat, you get more respect, you get more women. You breed more as a result. It’s only once humans settle down in agricultural communities that these guys start to be a serious problem. Why? Because they won’t fucking do as they’re told. They won’t work in the fields and bring in the harvest for some kleptocratic old bastard with a beard. That’s when they start to get bred out, because the rest of us, the wimps and conformists, band together under that self-same kleptocratic bastard’s paternal holy authority, and we go out with our torches and our farming implements, and we exterminate those poor fuckers.”

Where the other books I've read by Morgan play in the space between then and now, in the gap between what you remember, what other people remember and those intersections today, this book plays in the social space between people and their perceptions of each other in the here and now. This is not another "frozen caveman wakes up and hilarity ensues" story. This book takes the old joke "Stress is the feeling created when the mind overrides the body's desire the choke the shit out of some asshole who deserves it" and treats it with respect, thoughtfullness and integrity. Carl is not a neolithic, thoughtless killing machine. Like all of Richard's characters, he has depth and breadth that keep this character driven story moving along at a fast clip.

Nature versus nurture is the glaring subtext of this story. To this end, prejudice and bigotry play a big part in the dark future of "Thirteen". On one hand, there's the overt bigotry of "jesusland", secessionist southern states and their teaparty agenda writ large. In this context, Carl experiences bigotry because of the color of his skin. He experiences bigotry because of the years he spent on the Mars colony. He experiences legislated bigotry at the hands of various nation-states and corporate entities throughout Europe and both north and south america because of his geneprint.
Carl lifted fingertips to his face, brushed at his cheekbones. “You see this? When you’re a variant, people don’t look at this. They go right through the skin, and all they see is what’s written into your double helix.”
The Rim cop shrugged. “Perhaps you’d prefer them to stop at the skin. What I hear about the old days, we’re both the wrong color for that to be a better option. Would you really prefer it the way things were? A dose of good old-fashioned skin hate?”
At the best of times, he occupies a legal grey area; he's able to avoid incarceration or being sent back to Mars because he works as a bounty hunter, licensed to track and capture or kill other 13s who escape from their holding areas. The other characters in the story, each of which are extraordinarily well developed, also deal with their own prejudices towards Carl as well their own lives as the object of other people's prejudices.

As I've come to expect from Richard K. Morgan, non-white, non-male and non-straight characters are very well represented in this story. It is positively refreshing to see capital-s Speculative Fiction finally write stories that actually featrure the people who are likely to populate the world of the future. As these characters deal with their relationship to Carl, each other and themselves they each explore the difference between how they believe they should relate to Carl, the world and themselves, and ultimately have to discover for themselves where the line between limbic imperative and imprinted behavior lies. Carl has postcoital conversation with a colleague who inherited a geneset called "bonobo", designed to make women more overtly sexual:
“You know what it feels like, Marsalis? Constantly testing your actions against some theory of how you think you might be supposed to behave. Wondering, every day at work, every time you make a compromise, every time you back up one of your male colleagues on reflex, wondering whether that’s you or the gene code talking.” A sour smile in Carl’s direction. “Every time you fuck, the guy you chose to fuck with, even the way you fuck him, all the things you do, the things you want to do, the things you want done to you. You know what it feels like to question all of that, all the time?”
He nodded. “Of course I do. You just pretty much described where I live.”
Watching each character deal with these identity issues was the real crux of the book for me; it resonated deeply in my own experiences with alchoholism.

This is Science Fiction at it's absolute finest. It uses the latest information added to the corpus of knowledge we've accumulated, extrapolates the interesting bits, hurls it full force into geopolitics and wraps it all up in a thrilling story that had me staying up late and foregoing other obligations to read. I was utterly engrossed in this book. This book shows that Richard is continuing to develop himself as both a writer and a social critic (read "artist") even after the phenomenal achievement of the Takeshi Kovacs series. Earlier this year I said about Altered Carbon "...if you read only one scifi book this year, make sure it's Altered Carbon," but I'm going to have to rescind that statement. Thirteen is one of those Important Achievements that needs to be read by anyone who has an interest in the human condition, the ability of people to grow and change, and ultimately decide their own fates with whatever cards chance - and bioengineering - have handed them.