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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: Thirteen
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 Greg L. Johnson

Dark, twisted, and violent. No one familiar with Richard K. Morgan's previous novels will be surprised to see those adjectives applied to his latest work, Thirteen. What they might be surprised to find is that Thirteen is also emotionally captivating in a way that allows the story to rise above the violence, and make the reader sympathize with and care for at least one character that most of the other characters in the novel, and, in fact, almost everyone who lives in the world they inhabit, fear and loathe in a way that is instinctive, ingrained into their very nature.

Carl Marsalis is a thirteen, the result of several decades of genetic experimenting aimed not at producing a new kind of human being, but instead at recovering a personality type deemed to have been lost. The theory is that over the last thirty thousand years or so, a particular type of male has been weeded out of human society. As the first agrarian, settled societies developed, the tendency for some males to react to a confrontation or unexpected situation with sudden, barely controlled, aggressive violence, an advantage in a tribal, wandering hunting society, posed a danger to members of villages and settlements whose lives depended more on cooperation among the many than they did on the ability of a few to act quickly and ruthlessly. If you are fighting a war, though, the latter aptitude is useful and desirable. In the near-future history depicted in Thirteen, several nations had pursued the development of just such a personality, but when the secret of their research was unveiled, world-wide anger and revulsion led to the rounding up of the thirteens, who were exiled to a colony Mars, where their abilities would be useful in the settlement of a new frontier, and they would be safely away from the supposedly more civilized people of Earth.

There are still a few thirteens on Earth, however. Most are fugitives, on the run from the United Nations and Mars Colony authorities. Marsalis was lucky, he won his ticket back to Earth in a lottery. Now he earns his living hunting down illegal thirteens. He has a job and a place in society, but there's no escaping the fact that even the people he works with are, for the most part, uneasy at best in his presence. A mission gone awry has resulted in his incarceration in a Florida jail, and it looks like his life as a free man is over.

Then it is discovered that another thirteen has managed to escape from Mars, and is loose on Earth, leaving a trail of bloody corpses in his wake. Marsalis is pulled out of jail by the Mars colonial authority, partnered with two agents, and assigned the task of hunting down the rogue thirteen. The story, then, is set up to produce just the kind of violent confrontations that Richard K. Morgan is known for, and throughout most of the novel it does exactly that. Yet it slowly becomes apparent that there is more going on here than a standard chase the bad guys and shoot-em-up scenario would lead you to expect.

For one thing, the characters spend at least as much or more time talking as they do fighting or being shot at. One result of the unearthing of the clandestine experiments that produced the thirteens among other variants of humanity is that the whole world is pre-occupied with the idea of genetic determinism, characters over and over again ascribe their motivations and actions to the influence of their genetic heritage. Indeed, for a while, Thirteen bogs down a bit as a series of conversations between Carl and other characters threatens to turn Thirteen into one long philosophical debate. That problem is overcome as the debate and the action gradually come together, and by the time one of the main characters is faced with a slow, lingering death, the emotional grip of Thirteen far outweighs the reader's interest in the action and violence, and for the last third or so of the novel Thirteen rises far above the standards of a conventional action, thriller story, and the reader can't help but be moved by the plight of characters whose actions would otherwise paint them as wholly unsympathetic.

In that way, Thirteen avoids the trap of a novel like Market Forces, in which by the end the violence became more and more cartoon-like, divorced from any real emotional content. Instead, characters who form real emotional attachments to each other, despite what they all see as a genetic pre-disposition to fear and distrust each other, make Thirteen a novel that is as much to be savored and appreciated for its thoughtfulness and complexity as it is to be enjoyed for the action and suspense that make it a thrilling ride.

Copyright © 2007 by Greg L. Johnson

Thirteen has left reviewer Greg L Johnson wondering if there's something in his genetic make-up that makes him want to read a book, and then tell the world what he thinks about it. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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