Monday, July 28, 2008

Thirteen by Richard Morgan

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.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Chelsea Cain

It's been a long time since my last substantial post. I've been doing a lot of reading, but between all the manuscripts and a new (and too banal to mention) category I've been obsessively researching, I haven't had much time for the type of book that I get excited enough to share here. I know, woe is me, right? Enough whining.

The point is that I've only read a handful of published books worth mentioning in the last few months. One was The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. It was really fun in a cranial sort of way. It's all about elevators. If you think about it (and Colson Whitehead obviously has), we owe a lot to elevators - like the way we live and the shape of our cities. The Intuitionist is set in a city reminiscent of a newly industrialized New York, where people really appreciate elevators, and elevator inspectors are very highly regarded. You need a post-graduate degree to be one, and within the elite study of elevators there are two camps: the Empiricists, who inspect the elevators in the way you'd expect, by going to the engine room and checking out the machinery manually, and the Intuitionists, who just ride in the elevator, and "intuit" whether or not everything is alright. This story focuses on an Intuitionist who also happens to be the only black female elevator inspector. She gives a clean bill of health to an elevator that malfunctions and crashes the very next day. How could this happen? She's a master Intuitionist, but many people want to see her fail, because of her race and her sex, and discredit Intuitionism altogether. The mystery unfolds from there. And the reader does a lot of thinking about elevators.

Though here's something that the author doesn't address: without elevators, would we still have stair masters? As much as I have this new appreciation for elevators, they are probably responsible for some loathsome gym equipment.

There are also people who inspect escalators in the book, but they are looked down upon by everyone, and given no respect.

Other than the Colson Whitehead book, I've read two novels that I hope are the beginning of a continuing series: Chelsea Cain's Heartsick and Sweetheart. These are serial killer thrillers that feature a brilliant and psychotic female serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, who is known as the Beauty Killer (because she's gorgeous, and also because of the way she carves up her victims). She's tortured and murdered nearly 200 people, and when the novel opens she is in jail. Her 200th victim was Detective Archie Sheridan, who led the Beauty Killer task force, and was kidnapped and tortured by Gretchen for ten days before she saved his life by calling the paramedics and turning herself in. When the novel opens, a badly damaged and Vicodin-addicted Archie has been assigned to a lead a new task force to catch a new serial killer. Archie consults with Gretchen every Sunday during visiting hours, partly because she continues to give up the location of her corpses, but mostly because he has a strange and unhealthy attachment to her and just can't stay away.

It's obvious that this set-up owes a lot to Thomas Harris' Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs (Cain even gives Harris a shout-out in one of her scenes, when Gretchen snidely calls the reporter visiting her "Clarice"). Sure, it's derivative, but I wasn't too bothered by that. Cain manages to distinguish her plot just enough, and gives the story some great twists that make it fresh. Also, the dialog between Archie and Gretchen is just great.

There are two point of views in the novel, Archie's, and the aforementioned reporter, Susan Ward's. For reasons that aren't clear until later in the book, Archie decides to have Susan profile him as he goes about hunting this new serial killer, dubbed the After School Killer. Interspersed with the present day action are flashbacks to the ten days when Archie was tortured by Gretchen. She is one sadistic homicidal psychopath, and Cain perfectly balances conveying the torture scenes with detail, but keeping them bearable for squeamish readers. There's a lot going on in Heartsick, and I found myself equally interested in the murder investigation, Archie and Gretchen's past, and the way that Susan's own past turns out to be relevant. Gretchen is revealed as a mastermind worthy of our awe and fear, and this novel kept surprising me, even after the murder is solved. Cain is a writer who really knows how to craft a plot.

I began reading Sweetheart right on the heels of Heartsick. Though Sweetheart doesn't come out until September, I'd picked up a galley in London, and the back cover copy promises that "Chelsea Cain is back... and so is Gretchen. She's on the loose, and looking for her SWEETHEART." Cheesy and tawdry, I know, but I was still alarmed and totally amped. Gretchen escapes from jail?! Awesome. Actually she doesn't escape until page 133, about a third of the way through the book, and the story dragged a bit for me until then. (It could have been the edition I was reading though, which was a really bad UK galley with a lot of typesetting errors, a strange squat shape, and an extremely stiff spine that took me at least a third of the book to break in.)

So, the book opens with a murder investigation underway. A senator is dead and there are unidentified bodies found in the woods. These deaths are certainly tied to a story that Susan Ward was just about to break - the biggest of her career. Before I go on, let me say something about Susan. While Archie has the most-physically-and-emotionally-fucked-up-character slot secured, Susan has her own flaws. She has this chronic tendency to sleep with much older men - authority figures - which she's currently trying to get over by sleeping with her co-worker. Her hair color fluctuates between pink and turquoise. She has a crush on Archie that she can't hide. I love that the three main characters in this book - Archie, Susan, and Gretchen - are all pretty screwed up.

The story really takes off once Gretchen gets free, and I found it impossible to put it down. Archie had stopped his Sunday visits to Gretchen, moved back in with his wife and children, and seemed to be on his way back to a somewhat normal life. All this progress in undone once Gretchen escapes, and his obsession with her consumes him once again. Quite brilliantly, Cain has hidden something about Archie and Gretchen's past that she only reveals about two-thirds of the way through this book. I just loved this reveal, and thought it was so smart of Cain to hold it back until late in the second book, when readers will assume that we've already learned everything there was to know about their "relationship" in the first book. This extra backstory adds yet another dimension to Archie's tortured character. He engineers a dangerous way to capture her, though the reader is never sure what his plan entails. This is a risky choice on Cain's part, and one that usually pisses me off when other authors try and pull it off - I really hate it when the main characters hide stuff from me. But it works here - maybe because the point of view is third person, maybe because Archie is such the secretive type, or maybe because there's so much mystery surrounding Archie and Gretchen that it seemed natural for me to be in the dark a bit. In any case, the plan Archie concocts is a good one, and relies heavily on Susan to use her smarts and reporting skills to save him from himself and Gretchen.

I won't say anymore. If you like dark thrillers, these books are for you.