Counting Heads

Counting Heads
David Marusek

I’ve had a hard time finding an angle to write about with Counting Heads. Normally I give up on books that don’t immediately present an entertaining topic for an article, but Marusek’s world is both unique and obscure enough that I want to talk about it. Still, it’s not the easiest thing to make a post from, despite taking on all sorts of crunchy issues in a surreal, cyberpunk-y world. Ah well, let’s dig in and see what what we can make of it all.

More than anything else, what stands out in Counting Heads is the world building. Marusek has clearly spent time inhabiting this creation, giving it an extensive history and complex society. If forced to pigeonhole things, I would file the book in cyberpunk, but it is no Gibson-Sterling clone. I was frequently reminded of Rudy Rucker while I read, though Counting Heads is not nearly as weird as The Ware Tetralogy. It has a similar vibe, combining an uneasy, if not quite dystopian, future with well-reasoned but very strange people. It also has smells, which may have sealed the deal for me. (The cheesy robots and seared unfortunates might get along well.) Marusek blends nanotech, pervasive augmented reality, cloning, Heinleinian family setups, and near-future economics. One review I read speculated that the society is on the verge of a Singularity – it may be, with AI and digitized dead people on the horizon. It’s a grab bag of contemporary issues, presented under the domes set up to protect cities from nanoplagues, by people trapped in a society that is no longer economically viable and searching for answers. The last bit should feel right at home for us.

The economy may be the most impressive world building feat. Marusek’s scientists have found paths both to near immortality and to human cloning. Either of these alone would be a fundamental economic game changer, but together would blow up pretty much everything. Only in a complete post-scarcity world could society withstand that double challenge. The people in Counting Heads seem to have solved some natural resource questions (not all, but more than we have), but the basics remain competitive. Without a very high floor for food, housing, health care, and education, cloning and lifespans in the 200s would devastate the middle class; this is exactly what is happening in Counting Heads. Not only are traditional humans suffering, but whole clans of clones are confronting obsolescence and its resulting poverty. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but Marusek is painfully close to describing global economics today. It grants the characters a harrowing sympathy.

And a wild assortment of characters they are. We see the super rich, the “seared” outcasts, a co-op trying to make a go of it, clones, a troubled religious leader, and the random denizens of the near future. The viewpoint character for the co-op is a man who has elected to remain twelve forever, both physically and emotionally. He has a good job, but is stunningly superficial; though whether this is by necessity or choice is never clear. The clones are represented by a “Russ,” a clone type used for most security work. This particular Russ may be having a psychological crisis that is forking him off into a new type, or may not. His attempts to make sense of his own psyche amidst his genetically taciturn brethren form one of my favorite subplots. The seared unfortunate is the narrator of the short story that opens the book, who then retreats into a background role that offers a melodic counterpoint to the rest. All are distinct and engaging, likewise the more prominent secondary characters, though my sympathies lie primarily with the groups of clones. I have no idea why, but I found their stories to be the most entertaining.

All of this forms the backdrop for a rather conventional plot, involving someone’s head standing in for the requisite MacGuffin. It’s almost an afterthought, with plenty of other things going on that are probably not related to the head, but ultimately more important. In fact, the location and condition of the head drives one particular plot point that I was never sure needed to be driven in that way. We are told by a couple of unreliable types that a certain outcome would be bad. Certain other unreliable types go along with that and do some unreliable things as a result. Was this the best answer? I guess so, though it’s hard to say. I’m actually more interested in whatever is going on with the domes, how the Russes and other clones are dealing with things, whether or not the seared guy will turn himself into a wheelchair-bound fireball at a hilarious time or not, and if that crazy co-op group will beat down their equally crazy neighbors. The head is nice and all, and is probably a charming person once reattached to something, but it wasn’t the center of my life. I suppose there would have to be a different title without it, so there is that.

I don’t know where to place this in the broader, near-future firmament. It’s kind of cyberpunk. It’s definitely soft SF, with its focus on society over technology. It’s a moderately deep character study of some very sideways people. There is potential here for the next books in the series to dig into some serious issues, and the world to open up into something distinctive, but there is also a chance that things merely plod along with a bunch of navel gazing weirdos. Regardless, I think Counting Heads deserves more notice and more conversation, though it didn’t quite grab me by the lips and yank. “Detached fascination” might be the operative words here, but I will be reading more.

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