27 November 2007

Locus Magazine's Russell Letson reviews Richard Morgan

from Locus Magazine, November 2007

Black Man, Richard Morgan (Gollancz 978-0-575-07513-9, £14.99, 560pp, hc) May 2007. As Thirteen, Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey, 978-0-345-48525-0, $24.95, 525 pp, hc) July 2007.

Richard Morgan's fifth book is a blood-and-guts adventure that keeps pausing to ask questions about its characters' actions and motives and to make suggestions about the roots of human (or inhuman) violence and social connection. When it's not having these conversations, though, Thirteen (titled Black Man in its UK edition) is structured as a cross between a serial-killer hunt and an international espionage thriller, pursuing a killer with a mysterious agenda, jumping across borders, into and out of exotic, dangerous places, uncovering layers of corruption, misdirection, and secret power structures.

About a century from now, the old USA has splintered into northeastern- and west-coast enclaves of reasonably liberal democracy, while the heartland has become the reactionary, repressive, racist Confederated Republic, aka Jesusland. A generation before the story's opening, governments and corporations (a diminishing distinction) experimented with genetic engineering, and among the results were "bonobo" women optimized for sexual appeal, long-sleep-cycle hybernoids, and the scary guys who give the book its title: variant thirteens, re-creations of the primordial, anarchic supermale warrior, designed to serve as soldiers, assassins, and enforcers, their inherent physical and mental abilities further developed by intensive military training. Toward the end of the century, though, technological advances made this kind of breeding program obsolete, and social-political pressures pushed the dangerous and hard-to-manage variant thirteens into containment settlements or off-planet altogether, to colonies on a terraformed Mars. When a spacecraft returning from Mars crashes into the Pacific with its hibernating passengers disassembled and partly eaten, a rogue thirteen stowaway is identified as the culprit, and when a string of murder scenes across the continent show his genetic traces, he is assumed to be on the loose, so the manhunt begins.

The hunters include Sevgi Ertekin, an ex-New York cop; her partner, the more politic and administrative Tom Norton; and Carl Marsalis, a freelancer who specializes in tracking down escaped thirteens. Their investigations take us on a tour of an economically, culturally, and politically variegated world. The large and colorful cast includes street-smart cops, street-stupid thugs, slippery bureaucrats, assassins of varying degrees of competence, crime lords, gang soldiers, "datahawks" (including one very nicely done high-function autistic information specialist), renegade genetic variants — a 22nd-century Law & Order episode run amok.

Through all the mean-streets encounters and the mounting body-count, the thematic through-line keeps returning to a set of nature-nurture questions: the genetic and cultural roots of violence, of rogue-male independence, of hierarchical and cooperative social organization, of the irrationality of the (human) herd. There is much conversation about assumptions and expectations: what can you expect from a thirteen, or a normal human man, or a pregnant woman? These concerns are tied up not only with the characters' actions and motives but with the progress of the plot, and it means that even the events that trigger the storyline do not signify what at first they are thought to.

Of course, the sleep of reason has produced more monsters than the thirteen: the Andean pistaco, originally "a white man with a long knife who... chops up Indians to get at their body fat" but now a gang enforcer; institutional monsters like the proprietors of the original breeding programs; the brutal, racist inmates of the south Florida prison; the agents of China's dire Department Two. But Marsalis is at the center of this array, an ambivalent, ambiguous superman, straining not to be defined only by his genes and conditioning and the expectations of mere humans, caught between his sense of being the Other and his more-than-empathetic connection to some normal folk, notably Sevgi Ertekin (whose previous lover was an unlicensed thirteen). So despite his comfort with (or even enjoyment of) spontaneous or carefully planned violence, he also tries to follow a Zen- or Taoist-like philosophy that his mentor on Mars taught him, which will allow him to define what he is and does no matter what others expect of him or what his "limbic wiring" might prompt.

The family this book belongs to includes all those studies of the serial killer, the warrior, the monster: Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, David Morrell's First Blood, Renny Airth's River of Darkness — tiger-faced Gully Foyle, and, if you go back far enough, the Beowulf-Grendel dyad and the rage of Achilles. This is seriously high-end company, and while Thirteen is not as economically executed as I might have wished (at 500 pages it's just a tad stretched out), it compensates in the construction of its world and the seriousness and relentlessness of its interrogation of its characters' actions and attitudes.

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the November 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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