I'm a big Philip K. Dick fan - or at least I was in college, when I read most of his books - and I've been meaning to read Altered Carbon for years, but I decided to pick up Thirteen (or Th1rte3n) first. It was initially published in the UK as Black Man, (with that lovely British lack of racial sensitivity) because the main character, Carl Marsalis, is black. He's also a thirteen, which is a genetically altered male trained from birth for combat, and just general violence and aggression. The idea is that civilized society has been overly feminized, since the true alpha males (I pictured them as the cave men from those Geico commercials) have been slowly bred out. Thirteens were part of a genetic engineering experiment to bring these traits back. But thirteens are hated and feared by society, and not allowed to breed. They live on the fringes, either in hiding or trying to "pass," work as covert operatives, or have immigrated to colonial Mars.
The book is set primarily in a future America, which isn't that different from today. Civil war has split the nation in thirds - the Midwest and South are now Jesusland, governed by fundamental Christians. The West Coast succeeded and is known as the Rim States, and the North East seems to closely resemble the secularism and internationalism that New York City shoots for. Carl Marsalis works for UN, hunting down rogue thirteens. He's totally alone - normal humans are terrified of him, and other thirteens consider him a traitor. On the way back from his latest mission he gets stuck in Florida, picked up on a vice charge, and thrown into a Jesusland prison. After four months he's finally offered a way out - if he agrees to hunt down a thirteen who has somehow escaped from Mars and is killing seemingly random people all over the former US.
His partners are Tom Norton and Sevgi Ertekin. Sevgi is a former NYPD cop, who now works for COLIN, the CIA type organization that busted Marsalis out of jail. She's a great character - her parents are Turkish immigrants, she grew up Muslim and does her best to hold on to her faith in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary, and in spite of being a modern woman. She previously dated a thirteen who was "passing," so is no stranger to the type of prejudice and alienation they experience. There's an immediate attraction between her and Marsalis which leads to lots of great arguments and high-minded dialog, and eventually a deep friendship.
As a side note, I think it's worth mentioning that thirteens have a certain sex appeal, some je ne sais quoi that harks back to those primitive days when men were men and women were thrown over their shoulders or dragged off by their hair to be ravished up against the wall of some cave. Maybe it's because I live in a gay neighborhood, or because I see my fair share of underfed metrosexual hipster boys wherever I go, but the whole idea of a world that's swung too far toward the feminine really interested me. Check out this bit of dialog, which comes about halfway through the book, in a conversation between Sevgi and some Turkish guy:
"We index how civilized a nation is by the level of female participation it enjoys. We fear those societies where women are still not empowered, and with good cause. Investigating violent crime, we assume, correctly, that the perpetrator will most likely be male. We use male dominance as a predictor of trouble, and of suffering, because when all is said and done males are the problem."
It's a nice bit of stereotyping, but like the best stereotypes, it also has a ring of truth. Thirteen is full of great side issues like this, which are developed primarily through the characters' dialog, and give you some cool themes to chew on between reading sessions (because at 544 pages in hardcover, you probably won't breeze through this one in a single night). There's the whole way that the United States has split in three parts, the genetic engineering of humans (in addition to thirteens they've created bonobos, which are "primitive" women with amped up sex drives), and the way that Carl sees himself in relation to the rest of humanity, which could be read as a racial allegory.
As much as I liked this book, I did have some gripes. It begins with a very short prologue, and you don't figure out how that prologue relates to anything until at least 100 pages in (maybe more). This is a pet peeve of mine - I'm really not a fan of what I call the short cliff hanger prologue, where the author attempts to build suspense and tension by making the reader wonder, hey, what the hell was that prologue all about? And how does it relate to the main character, or chapters 1, 2, and 3, or, um, anything? When I have to ask these questions, my instinct is not to read the book with intensity and attention to detail, because I'm just burning for answers. My instinct is to be annoyed.
Also, though the story starts with Carl Marsalis, and this great fight/action scene, we only stay with him for two chapters, and then we bounce around between a bunch of other characters all over the former US. Again, not a technique that I'm fond of, especially so early in a book. We don't get back in Carl until page 110. I suppose the author makes it work, because eventually, all these characters are woven back into the story, even the very minor ones. However, I'm not sure if the satisfaction of seeing these (mostly minor) characters come back around, and the sense of recognition I got from that, was really worth the disorientation I felt in the beginning. I wasn't hooked into this story easily, or quickly.
However, once we get back to Carl the plot really takes off, and I was hooked. It's a dystopian noir crime novel, but when Carl wraps up the primary plot earlier than you'd expect, the story takes a deeper and sharper turn that I really liked. Some people complained about this early denouement, and I can see their point, because some of the danger and urgency gets sucked out of the story with 150 pages left to go, but this actually worked for me. I won't go into detail here, because I don't want to spoil the book for anyone. Suffice it to say that there are larger forces at work than the characters (or the reader) had imagined (mwah-hah-hah!).
Though the pacing feels uneven at times, I think Morgan hits a great balance between on-the-edge-of-your-seat action scenes, and long stretches of dialog, which he uses to develop and strenghthen the characters, and do some world-building. There's a know-it-all character, who is prone to lecturing and answering simple questions with long-winded rants that explain how the state of the world got from where it is now to where it is in the book. This character reminded me a bit of Jubal Harshaw from Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land. I liked him, and hey, there are worse ways to world-build, but I also found it gratifying when Carl, at one point, kicks his articulate ass for not getting to the point fast enough.
All things considered, this is a great book that I'm happy to recommend. Even if you have to push yourself through the first 100 pages or so, and a some pretty slow stretches (like when Sevgi's in the hospital), it's well worth the read.
Also, I read an interview with Richard Morgan where he says some smart things about dystopias and heroes and anti-heroes. Here's a blurb that I liked:
"Well, it’s really not that hard to write dystopias – you only have to take a look around at what’s going on in the real world, and then extrapolate with pessimistic intent. Human beings have a habit of fucking things up, no matter what technological advances are made available, and the worst aspects of human nature never seem to be far from emerging in all their malicious glory. None of the manifest scientific, social or cultural progress of the last century was able to prevent a catastrophic invasion of Iraq for small-minded corporate and geopolitical gain, or to bring Palestine any closer to a peaceful settlement than it was nearly sixty years ago in 1948. Greed and fear continue to dominate our political landscape despite everything we've achieved, and the hard won rationalism of the Enlightenment is now under renewed attack from a ferocious array of slobbering religious and superstitious morons. To be honest, you have to be remarkably optimistic to look all that in the face, and then imagine a future that ISN’T dystopian."
And on that happy note, I'll take my leave. Read the full interview here.