Counting Heads by Marusek, David, 2005
I've reviewed stories by David Marusek before. In case you do not recall, Marusek, along with Tony Chiang, is one of my favorite of the new generation of SF authors out there. Of course, each have been writing for years, but with relatively low production from both, I think its still safe to call them "new." About two years ago Marusek published his first full length novel, a piece called Counting Heads. I noticed recently that he has finally sold the paperback rights, and an SFBC edition is in the works. I'm glad for that because I think this author deserves success. I try to stay away from reviewing newer books, save for the odd exceptional work that crosses my path. This is one of those exceptional newer works that I feel bears sharing with everyone who reads these pages. Unfortunately, it is not old enough to be a true classic yet. But let's give this one some time to mature. Four out of five stars.
Counting Heads is the story of what happens to the family of Sam and Eleanor after the novella We Were Out of our Minds with Joy ends. For those of you who do not know, that was Marusek's very highly critically acclaimed novella from 1995 or so. Did I mention that Marusek works slowly? In that earlier story Sam meets and falls in love with Eleanor and is granted a license to have a child. Before the child can be born Sam is accidentally captured by a mech detective and is "seared," which basically means that he is cast out from the dominant society and essentially becomes a Morlock in his own apartment, unable to avail himself of much of the technology available to the general population, including life extending technology. A rewritten version of the novella is in this book, and presents the accident as an attack from Eleanor's enemies who seek to put her in her place after a meteoric rise to political power and a long running sweep of great luck in business. But where We Were Out of Our Minds was about Sam and his fate, Counting Heads has a much wider and deeper scope of interest. In one sense it is the story of how Sam's daughter Ellen and Eleanor are attacked, and the search for Ellen's remains, so as to reanimate and save her. On a much bigger level its a very well developed picture of what our society will be in the next few hundred years.
Ive always thought that Marusek's greatest strength is in world building. The world that this book takes place in is one that he has probably been working on for years, and it really shows. The background for this novel is as richly developed as they come. The only other authors out there who I can compare Marusek to in terms of world building are John C. Wright, especially his Golden Age trilogy of novels, and Greg Bear, in his Queen of Angels, / (a.k.a. "Slant"), Moving Mars, and Heads tetralogy. Marusek however succeeds where Wright fails by keeping the backdrop behind the action, and not making it the central element of the story. What Marusek has created here really needs to be experienced to be believed. There aren't many of the more traditional world building concepts and tools that are ignored here, but the real beauty of it all is that there are so many more that came directly out of Marusek's rich imagination. This is a world that has conquered aging and for the most part death, through a wide variety of biological procedures. The society is nano-based, and the "boutique economy" that has developed in the wake of personal nano-processing devices has rendered most of the businesses that sold consumable items redundant. Moreover, personal service requirements and public safety demands are almost entirely fulfilled by giant corporations who crank out different models of clones that are fully human and individual persons, even if identical in appearance, but are nevertheless sub-citizens. The unfortunate result of all these "advances" is that unless you are able to come up with a novel idea as to how to use the raw material produced by the nano machines, or unless you are a captain of industry, or a semi-slave clone, then you are most likely unemployed and poor. Marusek drew this dichotomy pretty well and peopled the novel with two classes of under-people. And therein lay the one criticism I have of this novel. Marusek has set up a very good tale for examining the effects on society in general of an advanced economy, and the propensities of culture to push large numbers of people into poverty even in times of abundant resources.
Marusek also has an amazing ability to mix advanced concepts together and produce believable throw-back scenarios from them. In this sense his writing reminds me of Scott's imagining of Blade Runner, only with more optimism. For example, when Sam and Eleanor meet for the first time Sam is at a party in "real time," and Eleanor is there as a hologram. As it turns out Eleanor has been seeking a meeting with Sam, who she is attracted to. Because of a busy schedule that takes Eleanor all over the world, she and Sam continue to date by holo. They seem to have intimate moments together, but because of their methods of dating, she and Sam are forced to wait for a sexual encounter. The couple takes their time getting to know (and fall in love with) each other, rather than just jumping into bed. I found that section of the book quite refreshing.
But despite all of Marusek's success above, this book really is more than a thorough examination of a future society in a time of great social change. Or one man's tale of woe. Or how advances in technology push people to poverty and others to great wealth. Or even just a futuristic corporate/governmental espionage/murder mystery. What this book is about is loneliness, and how those feelings can be used by those of us who have been left behind by a quickly advancing society can transform ourselves and escape what it is we think holds us back, to become something greater than we were. It is a story of personal transformation in a society that is just on the cusp of either failing miserably through unwise social decisions, or going post-human and escaping the bonds of our own genetics. The three main characters, Sam, who is trapped by his searing, Bogdan, a human who feels trapped by his poverty, and Fred, a clone who is trapped by his genetic heritage (and society's expectations of what he aspire to), all reach out to others through a variety of means to defeat their feelings of isolation, and seek to assert themselves and find a real niche to fill. For that reason mostly, I think that this may be one of the best first novels written in the last ten years.
Marusek is hard at work on his second novel right now. I very much wonder if it will continue in the vein of Counting Heads, if it will go off in a totally new direction, or if it will delve into the other important theme in Marusek's work: That of revolution against artificially intelligent beings. I don't think that this one will be coming to us anytime soon. Marusek really does take his own sweet time in the production of stories. But personally, I'm already on pins and needles. As for this book: Is this book a masterpiece? I don't think so right now, but as far as I am concerned, masterpieces are NEVER recognized as such this close to their original publishing date. Maybe more time will change my mind. I will tell you that I think that its pretty close, even now, but if I am going to be fair, this book just feels too dense, and presents far too many ideas all at once. Even though all of those ideas orbit the themes the Marusek puts forth, it takes quite a bit of time to figure that out and until the reader does so the book is kind of confusing. But I have not lost any of my faith in Marusek's abilities. He and Chiang are still ones to watch. Maybe Marusek more because Chiang seems pretty wedded to the idea of being the next master of the short story. In any event Marusek is still going places, great places, I think, so stay tuned.
Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell