Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Thirteen ways of looking at a superhuman mutant

Well, I'm back in NYC, and already back at school. We don't have any kids until after Labor Day, but administrators like to eat vacation time, so what can you do?

I'm reading Richard K. Morgan's Thirteen (known in Britain as Black Man, but not here for some reason). What's interesting about the book is that it has exactly the same plot as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K. Dick (that's Blade Runner to non-readers). As in DADES, an enhanced humanoid has escpaped from outer space to Earth, and a bounty hunter is hired to kill him. There's only one, rather than eight in the Dick book, but Alan Merrin, the escaped "thirteen," is meaner than Roy Baty, Max Polokov and Pris Stratton all mixed up. For example, stuck out in space without enough to eat, he wakes up the cryogenically frozen passengers, surgically removes a limb for dinner, then sticks them back in the freezer for the next meal. "Wake up, time to [wish you could] die!" There is even a Roy Isidore-like sucker, a Jesusland (i.e. Confederated red-state) illegal immigrant to Pacific Rim named Scott. Scott isn't quite a "chickenhead," but he's equally susceptible to manipulation through his devotion, to Jesus instead of Mercer.

The difference, besides the tone, is that in the Dick novel it was only hinted that Deckard might be an replicant, whereas in 13 the bounty hunter Carl Marsalis definitely is a "twist," or thirteen, the same kind of mutant as the prey. Marsalis is not a psychotic serial killer like Merrin, but he does not have the same morals or point of view as unmodified humans, and he suffers prejudice accordingly. In fact, he's one of the only thirteens legally allowed to live on Earth.

Both books explore what it means to be human. Androids explores it from the point of view of someone who (probably) is human, whereas 13 explores it from the point of view of someone who, de jure, isn't. Empathy is central to both books. Replicants, of course, can be detected by their lack of it in the Voigt-Kampf test. In the Morgan book, thirteens are a throwback to an earlier Hobbesian tough guy, untroubled by the moral restraints that keep regular humans from kicking ass and chewing bubble gum. The Dick book makes the bad guys a little more sympathetic, but they don't have a "good" replicant to earn our sympathies (unless you count Racheal Deckard). 13 also explores racial prejudice far more deeply, because as if being a feared and despised mutant isn't hard enough, Marsalis also has the skin and body type of an African-American.

Central to both books is the human need to have an "other" that it is justified to kill and destroy. In both cases, this other is, in many circumstances, truly dangerous. Then again in both books the other is our own creation. More importantly, no one is going to try to figure out if there is a safe way of cohabiting when it's just as easy to kill them.

Ronald Reagan, in one of his spacier pronouncements, said we could have world peace if we could just get attacked by aliens. He literally could not imagine people cooperating without having someone else to kill. Sadly, neither can most people. Which gives me an idea...

Get the troops out of Iraq! We need them to fight the thirteens and replicants!

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