Richard K. Morgan explores the oldest theme in science fiction in his new novel, Thirteen (Del Rey, 544 pages, $24.95). Science fiction writers have been tinkering with the idea of the scientifically enhanced superhuman ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Now Morgan gives readers a Frankenstein's monster for the 22nd century: Carl Marsalis is a "variant thirteen," a genetically engineered super-warrior whose DNA is encoded with all the violent tendencies, brute strength and emotional detachment humans supposedly evolved away from 20,000 years ago as they learned to work together in civilized, agricultural societies. After a century of runaway genetic experimentation, though, the nations of Earth have banished thirteens and other genetically modified humans to colonies on Mars or locked them away in prisons. The United States, meanwhile, has broken up into a gaggle of separate nations, including the Rim States along the Pacific Coast, the Union in the Northeast, and a Christian fundamentalist confederacy in between, derisively nicknamed "Jesusland." Marsalis has recently returned to Earth to work as a bounty hunter for the United Nations, tracking down GM supercriminals too hot for normal humans to handle. Then agents for the Colony Initiative, the agency responsible for colonizing Mars, spring Marsalis from a Jesusland prison to help them catch another thirteen who has hijacked a space shuttle from Mars, eaten the passengers and crew, splashed down in the Pacific, and gone on a serial killing spree.

As with any good mystery novel, nothing and nobody are exactly what they seem, and the real story begins only after Marsalis catches and kills the guy everybody thinks is responsible for the murders. Morgan is one of a cadre of exciting new SF writers who have emerged from the U.K. in the past couple decades to breathe life into a moribund genre that had largely collapsed under the weight of military techno-thrillers and Star Trek novels. These guys—writers like Peter F. Hamilton, China Miéville, Alistair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod—write just about the only new SF worth reading anymore. Morgan, best known for his trilogy of SF novels featuring private eye Takeshi Kovacs, specializes in urban SF noir thrillers that combine dazzling technologies and complex near-future societies with good, old-fashioned lust, murder and greed. Morgan is especially adept at explaining his imagined technologies and societies as he goes along without larding his books with long-winded prologues or clunky expository passages. The reader's only quibble with Thirteen might be that it drags a bit in the middle as characters take a break from the action—both sexually explicit and graphically violent—to wax philosophical about what it means to be human, in clenched-teeth debates peppered with way too much use of the f-word. Science fiction is most fascinating not for what it predicts about the future, but for what it teaches us about the present. In Morgan's novel, the real monsters aren't bred in genetics labs (or mosques), nor can they be contained by colonies on Mars (or the cells of Guantanamo Bay). The worst villains in Thirteen, like Mary Shelley's work, aren't superhuman—they're the most human of all. .

Richard K. Morgan reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, July 24. Free.