REVIEW SUMMARY: A well-imagined future is the breakout star for this character-driven story.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a nanotech future, several factions attempt to gain possession of a cryogenically frozen head.
PROS: Outstanding, wondrous world-building; finely crafted; interesting characters.
CONS: The world-building slightly overshadows the character-driven plot.
BOTTOM LINE: An impressive debut novel.
Counting Heads by David Marusek is an ambitious and well-executed first novel. What makes the book so ambitious is the extensive depth in which it paints a picture of a very fascinating future.
Technological advances have resulted in the creation of a so-called Boutique Economy where mass-production is obsolete and items can be extruded to your specifications. Nanotech is ubiquitous and allows for increased life spans through rejuvenation techniques and the possession of your own personal artificial intelligence. These “mentars” are housed in a nanotech paste but bonded to people through nanotech absorbed by the body.
Like all societies that depict Utopia, this one is painted on a Dystopian canvas – all of these technological wonders come at a price. With the proliferation of robot arbeitors and clone-labor, jobs are not only hard to find but the population is redundant anyway. People form household charters to pool resources and help meet longevity payments but the economy simply cannot support the masses. And so the Garden Project is born, set up by the influential few to move people into space so that the precious land can be restored to its former, pre-industrial state. One of these influential “affs” (affluents) is Eleanor Starke. On the day when a 22nd century Chicagoland is going to dissolve the dome that has protected it from terrorist nanotech in an earlier era, Eleanor Starke is assassinated and the head of her daughter is cryogenically frozen to protect her valuable memories. But her head falls into the hands of family enemies and the core of Counting Heads shows how several different factions attempt to retrieve the severed head.
The plot alone sounds ambitious, but the strength and appeal of Counting Heads is in the depiction of this wondrous, if ill-fated, future. There are many elements of this apparent Utopia that are just plain cool. The first fifty pages had my head reeling with the implications of the nanotech. And here is a wonderful precursor of the author’s craftsmanship: he shows us instead of tells us. Instead of bogging down the reader in the detailed inner-workings of nanotech, he shows its many exciting and wondrous applications. Things like rejuvenation, hologram projections, virtual reality, city-wide domes and matter extruders build a world that is exciting to see. And the clones. Don’t forget the clones.
The book’s many characters were all interesting, especially Samson Harger/Kodiak. Samson is Eleanor’s husband and it was easy to like this character because of the extremely well-written first part of the book that focuses on their relationship and their permission to have a child. (The first part is a slight modification of Murasek’s 1995 novella, “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy”.) Another standout character was Fred Londenstane, a “russ” clone who may be blazing a road of individuality not heretofore taken by clones. Interestingly, clones come in different flavors based on their DNA originator. You got your russes, your evangelines, your pikes, your jennys, etc. Each clone line has its own characteristic traits – another thing I liked about the world. Characters are not limited to flesh and blood, though. Several artificial intelligences play major roles as well.
Despite all the outstanding world building that exists, Counting Heads is really a character-driven story. While this is not a necessarily a bad thing, I did find that it impeded that part of my imagination that tasted a well-imagined future and wanted more. Still, those passages that focused on the characters were adequately compelling even if they were initially intrusive to the sensawunda.
Murasek’s writing shows clear talent. The scene where Eleanor’s aircraft malfunctions and descends towards Earth was a harrowing, you-are-there experience that was chilling – and way cool; foam arrestant seals the passenger in place while a helmet covers your head ready to snip its precious contents off your body should all else fail. [~Shiver~] Oddly, even with exciting passages like these, I found it took a relatively long time to read this book. But I’m not sure if this is because of the writing style (sentence structure and word choices) or because this 336 page book with its smaller-than-average type is deceptively larger than it appears. Probably the latter. At least it’s better than booksplitting, I suppose.
An interesting element of the story was the pervading theme of loneliness. After Samson is molecularly “seared” by a malfunctioning monitoring device of this future’s version of Homeland Security, he becomes more and more segregated from society. It doesn’t help that the searing process has left him with a lifelong stench of super-offensive body odor that can be smelled at quite a distance. All of this (sans odor) is touching and at the same time ironic because personal AI capability means people are never alone. Fred’s relationship with his clone wife Mary is equally lonesome for him.
Taken together (the outstanding world building, the craftsmanship, the characters), Counting Heads is a worthwhile and impressive debut filled with wonder and excitement.