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Bad science makes bad science fiction: Richard Morgan’s Thirteen fails to impress

Bad science makes bad science fiction
Richard Morgan’s Thirteen fails to impress

Thirteen
Richard K Morgan
Random House, New York, 2007


Carl Marsalis is a genetically engineered assassin, variant 13. He has been sent to earth from Mars to track a renegade 13 who is loose somewhere on Earth. Marsalis is a gun for hire, forcing resettlement on or killing renegade 13’s on Earth. The action of UK cyberpunk writer Richard Morgan’s novel Thirteen jerks back and forth from the Pacific to the high Andes to Turkey and New York.

One detects in Thirteen shades of Phillip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep, better known as the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner. Like Dick’s anti-hero Rick Deckard, Carl Marsalis is a genetically engineered assassin sent to kill others of his kind. Like Blade Runner, Thirteen is full of philosophical speculation interspersed with spectacular violence. But there the comparison ends.

In early works of cyberpunk, such as Neuromancer by William Gibson, or John Shirley’s Song Called Youth trilogy, or the work of Rudy Rucker, there is an exuberance and sense of rebellion against injustice and order for the sake of order. Whether it is a last rock and roll concert on the Eiffel Tower in Eclipse, or the streets of Chiba City in Neuromancer, there was a fierce anarchic joy in those 1980’s cyberpunk classics.

In Thirteen, I’m not feeling the joy. Morgan explains, rather ponderously, that the 13’s are free of social constraints:

“Calculated murder is an anti-social act, and it takes special circumstances at either a personal or a social level to enable to capacity. But that’s you people… it’s not any variant thirteen… We’re the violent exiles, the lone-wolf nomads that you bred out of the race back when growing crops and living in one place got so popular. We don’t have, we don’t need a social context.”

Morgan’s theory is that modern man is an effeminized, wimpy and cowardly, degenerate race because all the true alpha males were exterminated and bred out. Thus, confusingly, his thirteens, though sociopathic loners, deficient in empathy, are somehow also charismatic leaders and irresistible to women. Women, we are made to understand by Morgan, really want to subordinate themselves to the strongest male.

Morgan is drawing on the work of Richard Wrangham as popularized by Matt Ridley in his book Nature Via Nurture. Wrangham was a student of primatologist Jane Goodall. Wrangham focused on interpersonal (inter-ape?) violence in his 1996 book, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Wrangham’s book, and Morgan’s fictionalization of Wrangham’s ideas as construed by Ridley have several problems. Chimpanzees are not ancestral humans any more than humans are ancestral chimps. They are, if you would, cousins. Among the chimps that Goodall studied at Gombe there were many examples of apparent altruism, trust, and loyalty; these virtues get short shrift among the adherents of primal human nature as essentially nasty and brutish.

Cyberpunk is often a delight to read because of its reimagining of a familiar world, the world of today. Lights are brighter, mirror-shades shinier and even commonplace objects are re-imagined and re-contextualized in works such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.

In Thirteen, the places we visit are not well-imagined or well-described. For instance, Morgan’s scenes in the alteplano, or high plains of Peru and surrounding countries, are almost generic. We don’t smell the smells of the dusty street. We don’t see the remaining Incan roads, terraces and canals, ancient walls joined without a trace of mortar. We don’t hear the llama’s and old cars in the narrow streets. We don’t see the women in their colorful vests, long braids, long skirts, and funky hats. We don’t learn what people eat (aside from whisky). We don’t see the festivals like Oruro’s la Diablada (Dance of the Devils) even though such a scene might have dovetailed well with Morgan’s preoccupation with humans who are or become monsters. We know we are in New York or Turkey later on in the story only because we are told that we are there.

In short, Morgan’s prose is not merely plodding, predictable, and average. It is downright boring. His best ideas seem to have been lifted from the works of better writers such as John Brunner’s 1975 The Shockwave Rider and Dick’s 1968 Electric Sheep. For instance, Thirteen’s United States is fragmented into three states, a Pacific Rim, old Northeast and “Jesusland”. This internet meme is attributed to G Webb of yakyak.org by Morgan; but it is quite similar to ideas about the fragmentation and tribalization of the future US in Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider.

The UK title of Thirteen is Black Man. And Carl Marsalis, despite being a genetically engineered super/sub-human, apparently looks like a modern black man. There is a good bit of seemingly overt racism in the book as when Carl is beaten unconscious, apprehended and thrown into a Jesusland jail. Morgan tries to soften the Nazi-ish tinge of his twin themes of racial destiny and will with a dedication that says that he hates “bigotry, cruelty, and injustice with an unrelenting rage”. One wonders then why he has found it necessary to construct a novel in which such traits are seen as genetically endowed survival mechanisms. That Marsalis is a symbol of the fears of white society that the black man is a subhuman violent brute who is after “their women” is one thing; but the black man, Marsalis in Morgan’s book really is a sociopathic, back-bred pre-human. Who just happens to look like a black man. Would Morgan have called his novel “White Man” and made his anti-hero an exaggeratedly virile, violent, sociopathic white man?

Richard’s Morgan’s Thirteen is poorly written fiction based on dubious science. The interested reader is advised to find instead a nice copy of The Shockwave Rider or Neuromancer or A Song Called Youth or any of Phillip Dick’s novels.

Copyright © 2007, 2008 Henry Edward Hardy

A version of this article previously appeared in Current.

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14 January, 2008 - Posted by | A Song Called Youth, anthropology, Apes and the Origin of Human Violence, Black Man, book review, Carl Marsalis, Demonic Males, Jane Goodall, John Shirley, Nature Versus Nurture, Neal Stephenson, Neuromancer, Phillip K. Dick, primatology, racism, Richard Morgan, Richard Wrangham, Ridley, sociobiology, sociopathy, Thirteen, William Gibson

3 Comments »

  1. I humbly disagree with your harsh criticism of Thirteen. I found it quite enjoyable. Not quite on par with the first two Kovacs novels, but good reading none the less.

    Comment by Blasikov | 27 August, 2008 | Reply

  2. Personally I don’t think you got any of the points of the book. Morgan hints quite often that the science behind what the thirteens (and indeed the other variants) were intended to be was flawed, and a lot of their supposed genetic traits are simply assumed. Assumed and then socialised into them. People fear Carl, and desire Nuying or whatever her name was, because of assumptions about what they are, i.e. the book is about racism. Occasionally I thought he was a bit overbearing with the racism thing, but I think largely it was handled thought provokingly. And when the characters are speaking about the world becoming feminised and wimpy they are very shortly clearly shown to have been short sighted and wrong. We (well, I think) are meant to be sneering at the cop’s brother character (can’t recall his name) at that particular point in the book.

    Sevgi was one of the most enjoyable female characters I’ve read recently. I loved that she didn’t fall into many stereotypes so common in books with a main male character. I found her extremely believable, and that you think she was ever at any point in the book motivated by a desire to be dominated by men, makes me think we didn’t read the same book.

    As for your not liking his descriptions, Morgan is primarily an action merchant. He doesn’t need to clutter up his book with flowery descriptions of places and culture. Apart from that I thought the sparse descriptions gave the impression of a globalised and less diverse world, which we are seeing the beginnings of right now.

    In fact I don’t strictly classify this as a typical sci-fi. It’s more of an action story with some interesting musings on human nature, male/female dynamics and racism thrown in.

    You’re free not to like it of course, but please don’t start implying that Morgan is not a competent writer just because this book didn’t fit in with your expectations of what a sci-fi novel should be.

    Comment by Fiona | 27 May, 2011 | Reply

  3. You assume that the voice of the characters are the voice of the author. Trade out “Morgan” in the following paragraph for “The people of this fictional tale” and you’ll be more accurate.

    “Morgan’s theory is that modern man is an effeminized, wimpy and cowardly, degenerate race because all the true alpha males were exterminated and bred out. Thus, confusingly, his thirteens, though sociopathic loners, deficient in empathy, are somehow also charismatic leaders and irresistible to women. Women, we are made to understand by Morgan, really want to subordinate themselves to the strongest male.”

    Moreover, Carl definitively wasn’t like you described him. In fact, it was generally the other thirteens, like the white Frenchman from Turkey and the Hispanic main bad guy where that comes across. In fact, the two black character from the novel that I remember were both variants, and both showed that, with willpower, you could be whoever you wanted to be, rather than purely your genetics. Both, too, were good people.

    Carl clearly spells this out when he notes that the thirteens are simply wrong, the other humans were the better survivors because they worked together, and that the creators of the thirteens didn’t really understand what makes a good soldier. Did you even read the book?

    My problem with the book is that it felt like an editor should have cut it in half and made it two books. The scene on the factory ship felt like a climax, the part immediately after sort of misdirected, and then it seemed to take on a whole new plot that you only later realize is part of the original plot.

    Comment by David | 29 July, 2011 | Reply


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