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Richard Morgan
Del Rey, 416 pages

Richard Morgan
Richard Morgan was an English language teacher at Strathclyde University. Thanks to the advance for film rights to Altered Carbon, he is now a full-time author living in Glasgow.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Woken Furies
SF Site Interview: Richard Morgan
SF Site Review: Market Forces
SF Site Review: Broken Angels
SF Site Review: Altered Carbon
SF Site Review: Altered Carbon

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jakob Schmidt

In the near future, humanity has to deal with the fallout of the gung-ho genetic engineering in the past few decades, which produced several varieties of humankind. One of these, variant Thirteen, is an atavistic offshoot bred for war purposes and prone to violence and paranoia. Carl Marsalis is a variant Thirteen who makes a living by hunting down other Thirteens who have illegally re-migrated to earth from the Martian colonies. When the Thirteen Merrin returns from Mars and starts a bloody and seemingly random killing spree, Carl is recruited by the colonial authorities to hunt him down. Soon, he finds out that what looks like the bloody trail left by a madman is in reality a complex ruse...

While this new Richard Morgan book is not another Takeshi Kovacs novel, it does follow a very similar style and pattern. I must admit that throughout the first chapters, I felt as if the author tried to sell me amoral secret operative Kovacs under a new name. The hard-boiled-clichés are pretty much covered within the first few pages after Carl's appearance: A dirty killing, carried out with a hint of reluctance and probably avoidable collateral damage, followed by Carl fucking the pain away, finding his conscience and being betrayed. Once this more foreseeable stuff is out of the way, however, Morgan has a few surprises prepared.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Carl Marsalis and Sevgi Ertekin, an ex-cop who is going through an emotional low after the death of her boyfriend. Unsurprisingly, things get physical between these two after a short while. Even though I didn't quite buy the romance between Carl and Sevgi, it nevertheless is nice to see that Morgan actually can write from the perspective of a believable and interesting female character. (Then again, maybe I just didn't buy the romance because, as a matter of taste, I just can't stand Morgan's sex scenes.)

The plotting of Thirteen is pretty straightforward -- the novel takes its time for the set-up and occasionally drags in the middle, where the investigation by Carl and Sevgi doesn't seem to go anywhere. However, the last third definitely picks up speed when the whole conspiracy behind Merrin's killing spree is rapidly unravelled. A rather inelegant consequence of this is that towards the end, 40 pages in a row are spent on explanations, but since these are packaged in believable and suspenseful dialogue, it's a pardonable little slip. Generally, Morgan's prose is spot on, his dialogues crisp, his imagery interesting but clear. Occasionally, the novel seems a little formulaic, but the clichés are put to good use, and in most cases, Morgan provides them with an interesting twist.

One thing that clearly elevates Thirteen above Morgan's other novels is the sheer density and scope of his near-future world. In its complex social extrapolations, the novel is probably most reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson. With the near-future background, Morgan avoids a lot of the pitfalls of his previous novels and really comes into his own. While Thirteen is cinematic and action-driven in terms of style and plotting, on another level this is a novel about a very believable future.

That is, if you accept the scientific premises about genetics. The book implies some strong claims in the classical nature/nurture debate, slanting towards the nature-pole. While this is slightly disagreeable to me, Morgan is smart enough to present all anthropological statements as positions of characters from the novel and not as absolute truths. However, the notion of genetic "wiring" that determines social behaviour is certainly a dominant topic of the book, especially in regards to gender roles. I'm really not sure if Thirteen is a highly sexist book, a book about sexism, or both. A part of this specific gender-politics is certainly inherited from the whole hard-boiled tradition Morgan picks up on and therefore has a certain self-referential quality. There's also, more generally, an ongoing subtext about freedom and control, and the former is often presented in a way which made me pretty unsure which side I would root for.

By the way, if you have noticed that the basic premise of the novel is reminiscent of Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, you're certainly right. However, Morgan makes good use of these forerunners in not copying, but expanding upon them. While I'm not quite sure if Thirteen is Morgan's best novel yet, it's certainly his most interesting, especially in term of conceptualisation, extrapolation and subtext. Anyway, if you liked Morgan's Kovacs novels, you certainly won't go wrong with this one.

Copyright © 2007 by Jakob Schmidt

Jakob is part of the editorial team of the German magazine Pandora. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.

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