I sometimes ask myself where cyberpunk went. Science fiction as a whole long since absorbed both the subversive attacks and the near-future tech tropes into its Borg-like mass, but once in a long while, true cyberpunk still leaps out of the shadows. (Japan seems to maintain a steady export business: Mardock Scramble, Ghost in the Shell, etc.) Until he got sidetracked into grimdark fantasy, Richard Morgan made aggressive claims to the contemporary cyberpunk throne, with Thirteen his strongest appeal. Morgan has said in interviews that he will be returning to SF soon, to which I say, “Huzzah.” He burns with the rage of a much younger idealist, writing in worlds that descend directly from 1980s-era Gibson or Sterling. It warms my Max Headroom influenced heart.
One question should be briefly addressed before digging into the really nerdy stuff. Thirteen‘s title in the UK is Black Man; the decision to change the name in the US has come under some fire. Given that Morgan’s protagonist is black, and that Thirteen/Black Man digs deeply into issues of discrimination, there is a certain whiff of cowardly marketing to the new title. However, in addition to being black, the hero, Carl, is a GMO from a frightening group known as “Thirteens.” His skin color is sometimes an issue, but the primary reason he is persecuted is his genetic modification. If the publisher is trying to highlight the real discrimination in the book, Thirteen is the more accurate title. I do think that the decision had much more to do with trying to avoid controversy in the racially charged US, but I also think that the US title is probably a better reflection of the story. Reasonable minds may differ.
Back to the fun stuff. Morgan builds his story on two assumptions. First, the US has divided into what might be seen as its natural political geography: the West Coast, the Northeast and Upper Midwest, and everything else. That everything else is referred to as Jesusland and not painted in the most flattering light, while the NE and West Coast are basically what we would expect those places to turn into, at least in a vaguely dystopic and cyberpunky future. Second, Morgan has a particular sociological theory at the base of things, one that postulates human societies gradually moving from a male structure (violence, hunting, hierarchy based on raw strength, competition) to a female structure (cultivation, cooperation, compromise). The males who can’t function in this new world are weeding themselves out by doing stupid things like extreme sports, carrying loaded guns to Home Depot and shooting themselves in the butt, flocking to military and para-military groups, and generally finding ways to bow to evolutionary pressure as the traditional feudal patriarch drifts into genetic obsolescence. (One of those things was in the real news, not the book, but fits well.)
The above is pretty heavy philosophizing. Fortunately for the reader, most of what actually happens in Thirteen is super tough people beating the crap out of each other, usually with vivid descriptions of traumatized internal organs or detached, airborne limbs. Morgan is quite the most gleefully violent of the cyberpunks. Thirteens were originally created to be remorseless super soldiers, something that sounds great to governments until they suddenly have an excess of death machines just sitting around with no appreciable job skills beyond mayhem. After some retrenchment by the powers that be, Carl gets a job hunting down his fellow GMOs to either ship them off to Mars, incarcerate them in a remote camp, or dispose of them. Shades of Blade Runner. Actually, now that we bring up that iconic film, there is another bit that invites comparison. For whatever unknown reason, thirteens are probably the chattiest bunch of superkillers ever put to page. Anyone who enjoyed the last scenes of Blade Runner and their long soliloquies will love Thirteen. Not content with merely shooting and beating each other, thirteens love sitting around talking about who is superior, usually as someone lies dying on the floor.
Anyway, Carl’s job lands him in the middle of a serial killer plot, wherein he hunts down a Thirteen who is in turn hunting others. In standard cyberpunk noir fashion, we meet cops (from both coasts), hookers, gangsters, hackers, and assorted corrupt government types as Carl travels the world and unravels the convoluted mystery. These are all the plot beats deprived cyberpunks like me have been missing, but updated with the politics and economics of the new millennium. Morgan gives more depth to the story with the philosophical bantering and social commentary, so readers can engage at any level: flying heads, near-future grit, or populist anger.
A certain demographic may prove unable to enjoy just the flying heads. Morgan is not coy with his politics and is especially condescending to Jesusland and its denizens. Many Two Dudes readers probably share the Dudes’ opinions of the American South, its political and religious situation, and its racial history; these people will merely smile and nod as Carl carves a swath of destruction through Florida. Others will no doubt get up in arms about Socialism, social justice, or some other bugbear and fling their copies across their double-wide trailers. The gentle reader should consider himself/herself warned, but also advised that skipping out on Thirteen means missing a big pile of fun. A pile of fun, even, with mirrorshades on.
Morgan is not subtle, but he is entertaining and kinetic. With one intentional exception, Thirteen hurtles along at breakneck speed, leaving carnage and metaphysics in its wake. The book is like Carl: tough, takes no prisoners, and delights in confrontation. This is cyberpunk shorn of Gibson’s sardonic veneer, Sterling’s sinister weirdness, or Rucker’s Muppets-on-LSD lunacy, leaving the flaming core of rage at The Man and the revolution it engenders. The violence and the politics mean it might not be for everyone (hi, mom), but Thirteen is hypnotic and compelling.