The Thirteen Gun Salute is volume 13 of the Aubrey/Maturin series and the tale itself, like its protagonists, is showing its maturity. (A good thing, not a bad thing.) This novel is one of several that takes Jack and Stephen back to the South Seas on a complex mission: they are nominally headed for South America but once again they are diverted, this time to the fictional Pulo Prabang in the South Pacific. The Sultan is being wooed as an ally simultaneously by France and by England: aboard the Surprise is a special envoy, empowered to negotiate an alliance.
This is a marvelous opportunity for Stephen, of course, both in his capacity as a naturalist and his role as an intelligence agent. But it is also a wonderful chance for Patrick O’Brian to get his teeth into the question of morality. Stephen, as you might guess, is his vehicle. For several volumes he has been chafing at his metier. Or, to put it more precisely, the duplicity of his intelligence career grates on him increasingly. Early in the book he is confronted with a moral dilemma as the Surprise comes close to capturing a ship with an Irish renegade aboard. Though the man is clearly in French pay, Stephen recoils from the prospect of contact with him: his “old loathing for informers rose up with overwhelming force, his utter revulsion from anything and everything to do with them and the result of their betrayals… he could not bear the slightest hint of a connexion between himself and such people…” Yet later in the book, he devises a quite fiendish end for two turncoat Englishmen. O’Brian has previously painted the pair quite black, but Maturin’s revenge is almost inhuman.
Stephen contains multitudes: Jack, on the other hand, can only be himself. O’Brian contrasts him with the envoy Edward Fox, an intelligent man who nevertheless manages to make enemies aboard ship. Again, in Stephen’s head,
Once again his mind turned to the question of integrity, a virtue that he prized very highly in others, although there were times when he had painful doubts about his own; but on this occasion he was thinking about it less as a virtue than as a state, the condition of being whole; and it seemed to him that Jack was a fair example. He was as devoid of self-consciousness as a man could well be; and in all the years Stephen had known him, he had never seen him act a part.
Fox, on the other hand, occupied a more or less perpetual stage, playing the role of an important figure, an imposing man, and the possessor of uncommon parts… what he desired was superiority and the respect due to superiority, and for a man of his intelligence he did set about it with a surprising lack of skill.”
Fox is not the only character like this in the series: the unsteady Lord Clonfert of The Mauritus Command is another. O’Brian’s fascination with the question of identity is especially interesting considering that he himself shifted identities and names in early middle age.
O’Brian also gives Stephen a tremendous gift: his visit to the Kumai crater which is inhabited by some Buddhist monks and an enormous wealth of completely tame animals who pay no attention to him at all, save the orangutangs who consider him a potential playmate: “The whole effect was very like being in a waking dream, of losing human identity, or even of being invisible.” I’ve always wanted to be invisible, haven’t you?