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April/May, 2006 : Review:

Counting Heads by David Marusek

Counting Heads
By David Marusek
Tor, 2005
336 pp.
ISBN 0765312670

First, a couple of warnings about Counting Heads:

Warning #1: Do NOT read the jacket blurb. True, who expects to find an accurate indication of the contents of a book on its cover? But this particular example does Marusek no favors whatsoever. If you read the jacket, you'll spend a large chunk of the book waiting for the real action to start and struggling to empathize with characters who you know are due for the chop. Then you'll wait until nearly halfway through before it looks like the rest of the blurb is about to happen. Then, about two-thirds through, you'll realize the blurb is actually rather misleading and the "ragtag ensemble of unlikely heroes" ain't no ensemble at all, let alone any kind of Dirty Dozen.

Warning #2: Don't buy this book expecting to find a complete story therein. Not one plot thread is tied up by the end. Marusek doesn't appear to have any particularly literary pretensions with Counting Heads (either that or he's writing way over my head) so there's at least one sequel on the way. Apologies, if that seems like a spoiler, but I, personally, hate coming to the end of what looks like a standalone book and finding that it isn't.

So what about the book itself? Readers will be familiar with the 1st Law of Book Covers, whereby the quality of the contents is inverse to the hyperbole of the jacket reviews. According to its packaging, Counting Heads is "certainly one of the most important first novels of the year and perhaps the decade." Robert Silverberg calls it a "science fiction landmark." Not promising. Mind you, Counting Heads also adheres to the 2nd Law of Book Covers, whereby only a fraction of the gushing quotes refer to the actual book in question.

Laws of Book Covers notwithstanding, it's not like this book is without merit. Marusek successfully updates the grand SFnal tropes begun in 1984 and Brave New World, of the total surveillance society and human cloning, respectively. In Counting Heads, the Earth is contaminated with wild nanoweapons and (in rich societies, anyway) cities shelter beneath protective canopies that filter any contaminated materials from outside. People are routinely "tasted" for contamination by biotech slugs, fire-wired to the Orwellian Homeland Command, and God help you if the slugs don't like the taste of you. On public streets, pedestrians are continually accosted by pay-per-view holograms and mechanical news bees looking to broadcast their lives to the world.

The opening hook of Counting Heads, "There was a baby in a drawer in Jersey with our names on it," reprises Huxley's tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. While the baby in question isn't a clone, it is a remarkably conceived (pardon the pun) designer child. When Marusek comes to his clones, his take differs from many others, and it must be said that his are the most well-adjusted Bokanovski-fied humans I've ever read. Marusek's clones—"iterants"—have a strong racial pride in their clonedom and are as empowered by their conformity as "free-range" humans are by their individuality. What racism appears between iterants and free-rangers is mostly an undercurrent, driven by economic competition, with few individuals crudely and openly expressing their opinions. This, for me, was an authentic treatment that accurately reflects real-world relations between different groups in any multiethnic society, even if the potential for explosions of communal violence isn't explored.

One nitpick I have with Marusek's clones is: why? This is a world where the rich are packing billions of excess poor people into colony ships to shoot them off into the great black yonder. Today, militaries and pharmaceuticals are constantly refining drugs that make people behave in certain ways. Projecting forward, wouldn't it be more economical to recruit suitable candidates from the free-range population and addict them to loyalty-and-obedience drugs, rather than build a mass labor force from the ground up? The more plausible place for clones and otherwise vat-grown humans is in locations where you don't already have a labor base, i.e., on colony worlds, as per Dick's replicants or Cherryh's azi. (Or if, for example, you need an instant army with which to betray and exterminate the Jedi.)

The strongest part of Counting Heads is the first, which is Marusek's 1995 novella We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy. This is an intimate and fiercely cynical account of life in his future dystopia. Marusek shows the reader early how superficial the society is in which the characters live their lives: his POV character is an internationally revered packaging designer. None too subtle a metaphor, true, but it's delivered with wit and, when the utopian veneer is ripped aside, this is a story of hammer blows. As a self-contained work, this is one of the better pieces of short SF you're likely to read.

What's unfortunate is that the rest of the book would probably be better off without it. Between parts 1 and 2 there's an awkward transition from 1st to 3rd person perspective to enable the introduction of other POVs. From here, Counting Heads loses much of its bite. The rest of the book does have its moments, but it doesn't sustain the rage of Part 1.

In the first part, Marusek delivers lines like "my own life seemed like a Russian novel—too many characters, not enough car chases", and "[s]he turned to me and praised the inventiveness of my work in packaging design. She spoke sincerely and at length and mentioned specifically my innovations in battlefield wrap for the Homeland Command as well as my evacuation blankets for victims of trauma and burns." And then there's the AI who wants to trifurcate its personality to be more human, and the McPeople clone-growing company.

The one-liners keep coming in the later parts, and the future language generally holds up—other than the substitution of the word "feck" for the well-known contemporary vernacular term. (Others who recall the surreal Anglo-Irish comedy series Father Ted may also struggle with this.)

The Big Ideas continue to come thick and fast through the remainder of the book, but their introduction feels haphazard. Concepts such as the pay-per-view holograms and artwork that really suffers get considerable page space but, while they add color, they don't appear to progress the plot. Others, like artificial children that never grow up and autonomous virtual "proxies" that enable people to be in multiple places at once, seem like they should either illuminate Marusek's future or be important to the action, but aren't sufficiently followed through to manage either.

The biggest of Marusek's Big Ideas, his colony ships, get a lot of attention and are clearly a key to the greater story of which this is the start but, frustratingly, their connection to the action of this book remains unilluminated. Another Big Idea, his amazing medical technology, has the unfortunate effect of robbing the action sequences of much of their drama. When a character can be cut to pieces, or even 90 percent vaporized, and still be rehabilitated, these events have as much tension as a PC game with an "infinite lives" cheat.

Some technologies are introduced so suddenly and are so significant—in particular, the ability to blanket the whole world with communicative dust that can tell the location of every living thing—that they seem more like convenient magic (or lazy plotting) than plausibilities. Other key technologies are mentioned only as an apparent afterthought. When the ubiquitous biotech slugs are retired, it isn't immediately brought to the reader's attention that they're being replaced with an even more invasive technology. Moreover, several characters are members of the security apparatus, so the belated infodumping seems to come with an unwritten "Oops, almost forgot..."

Counting Heads could stand more firmly sans Part 1, with only a little tweaking of characters' back stories. Alternatively, interspersing the 1st person recollections of Part 1 through the rest of the text might've created a nice ongoing tension between the action-adventure of the main book and the dystopian tragedy of the novella. As it is, later chapters rely on the empathy established in the earlier section, rather than really working to maintain that feeling of connection.

Of the POV characters who emerge later, the reader only really gets inside the heads of two of them: one, a clone in personal crisis, is genuinely intriguing; the other, a "stalled" personality who has spent his whole life as a pre-pubescent boy, is interesting because of his intentional shallowness. Of the rest, one is an unfortunate stereotype of an ignorant and ineffectual priest, and the various female POVs used seem little more than conveniences.

Having mentioned the priest, one of the curious absences of Counting Heads is religion. The book is set in America, one of the most devout countries in the world, where Christianity is healthier and more politically powerful than anywhere else in the world. True, Counting Heads is set 130 years in the future, but the advent of clones, designer babies for the rich and nanotech warfare are all factors that would keep religion important for a big chunk of the population. And by religion, I mean Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc., not some amorphous "Gaiaist" cult, which Marusek mentions but which accounts for no active presence, other than the aforementioned (defrocked) stereotype.

Another absence is the world outside North America. The boundaries of Marusek's United Democracies are hazy—they might include Europe—but it seems to be, essentially, a literal Fortress America. China gets an occasional portentous mention, but the rest of the world seems a very distant Other, lumped together as the "famine countries." This may be intentional, given the Fortress America setup (although several characters are evidently members of a globalized elite), but the effect is curiously myopic. There's also a lack of physicality in the locations where the action does take place, particularly in Chicago. True, this is 130 years in the future, but remnants of architecture and neighborhood geographies can easily survive longer than that. There's very little about Marusek's Chicago that says "Chicago" rather than "Any Arbitrary Future City."

If Marusek had been able to sustain the fury of his novella over the full course of this book, it would certainly be the "debut of the year" that Tor billed it as, and one of the most important SF novels of the decade. As it is, for all the varied activity in its pages, there's very little forward motion in Counting Heads. When I got to the end, I felt the same kind of frustration as after reading the first Malazan book: I just read a thousand pages of setup for the real story? Counting Heads is only about a third that long, but you take my point.

None of this is to say Marusek's ideas aren't cutting-edge or that he can't write: We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy is evidence enough that he can. Gardner Dozois says the "paths [Marusek] blazes today will be followed by a dozen others tomorrow." Of Charles Stross he said, "where [he] goes today, the rest of science fiction will follow tomorrow". If you want to read the innovative and generally entertaining opening to a multivolume SF romp, get Counting Heads. If you're after the Neuromancer of the Noughties, try Stross's Accelerando.

Copyright © 2006, Ian McHugh. All Rights Reserved.

About Ian McHugh

Ian McHugh lives in Canberra, Australia, but would rather be closer to the beach. He is a graduate of the 2006 Clarion West writers' workshop. His short fiction has appeared in the All Star Stores anthology Twenty Epics, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (ASIM) and Antipodean SF. He has stories forthcoming in ASIM, Challenging Destiny and the Fantasist Enterprises anthology Blood & Devotion.


Apr 24, 16:59 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of David Marusek's book or Ian McHugh's review.

The review itself is here.
Apr 24, 18:24 by Bluejack

I just finished this book myself, and although many of your criticisms did not occur to me as I read, they do help me understand why I was disatisfied with the book.

Counting Heads was packed with big ideas, had marvellous writing, and left me feeling... ho hum.

A few additional points:

* I didn't find the ending to be quite as much of a non-ending as you did -- I did think the central problem reached satisfactory resolution. But I agree that there were a lot of threads left open.

* Particularly the character of the pre-pubescent boy. Ultimately, he never had any important part to play in the story, and I was left wondering what the whole point of him was.

* Additionally, our non-standard Russ clone. He was the most interesting character in the second phase of the book, and he had no real resolution at all. Moreover, the pedophilia angle seemed to come totally out of nowhere and to have no real value other than one extremely minor plot twist.

* Speaking of plot twists, the final tangle of twists in the clinic pretty nearly lost me. In the final fifty pages of the book I was just wishing he would finish already.

* Special agreement on the ineffectual priest. I supposed he was supposed to be the character who, in his ignorance, gives the author an opportunity to explain some stuff to us, but his character never came together for me, and he certainly wasn't fun to read about. I hadn't quite picked up on the absences in the story (religion, third world) that you did, but you're dead on.

I like your thought about skipping the intro novella entirely, but I'm not sure I agree... not given that the story really is a continuation of at least one of the original characters. However, I might alternate-reality it this way: I think Counting Heads might have been better if it hadn't been a continuation of the novella at all, but rather been composed as an entirely new entity.

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