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REVIEW: Counting Heads by David Marusek

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Technological advances have resulted in the creation of a so-called Boutique Economy where mass-production is obsolete and items can be extruded to your specifications.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.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

4 Comments on REVIEW: Counting Heads by David Marusek

  1. Finally finished reading it and I couldn’t agree more. One thing though…

    Because of the description on the jacket, I expected something of an adventure story because of “…a rag tag ensemble of unlikely heroes joins forces to rescue Ellen’s head.” The book seemed more like a day in the life (or week, excluding part one) of a bunch of people. They didn’t assemble or even try to rescue Ellen until the last few chapters, with the exception of one man and a “mentar”. Not that it’s a bad thing, because I still enjoyed the book. I was just turning each page with expectation for something to start happening because of how I interpreted the description on the jacket.

    Oh well. Now for something different…”Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town”.

  2. Overall, I enjoyed the Doctorow book a little more than this one. Then again, they’re apples and oranges. There are some literary devices in SCTT,SLT that you should be mentally prepared for.

  3. This was one of those rare books that I purposely rationed so I could enjoy it longer and mull over what I had read the evening before (it didn’t help at the end – by the last 80 pages I was so sucked in that I just lay in bed and finished it).

    Lots of good tidbits are dispersed throughout, like the ubiquitous ads attacking your senses on the street (even worse than they are now). And it was fun reading about clones who are your namesake. I don’t ordinarily reread books a second time but this may be one of the exceptions, especially since Marusek has no other novels out yet, just short stories and a novella.

  4. Dennis Hastings // March 2, 2006 at 12:44 pm //


    I have read many reviews of this book. The intent of most of these reviews seems to be the selling of this new work of fiction. Of course it is an incredible first work, but I find that the incessant use of acronyms and overly complicated ‘world building’ overshadow any plot that was intially conceived and forces the reader to embark on an arduous task of interpretation.

    One of my favorite authors, Paul DiFillipo, gives it a very positive review. I love his work, but I’m wondering what he’s thinking by not even critcizing a minute portion of this book.

    It is possible that the author is being held to the constraints of 157,000 words that first -time novelists are forced to adhere to, and that this works suffers from over editing. More words, in this case, would serve to clarify, especially when the reader is forced to embrace and remember new names and terminologies at almost every paragraph. What starts out as a good read degenerates to a sinkhole of flash-in-the-pan sensationalism in the guise of science fiction. OK. He can write. But the thread is chopped up so often that I had to put the book down. It’s only one opinion, but I think that this book is hard to read and make sense of. Again, too many acronyms without interpretive reinforcement, too many wanderings away from ‘story’ for the sake of ‘Gee Whiz’ writing technique. He’s got two or three books in here. Simplify to succeed would be my final comment.

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