Counting Heads Paperback – Oct 16 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This extraordinary debut novel puts Marusek in the first rank of SF writers. Life on Earth in 2134 ought to be perfect: nanotechnology can manufacture anything humans need; medical science can control the human body's shape or age; and AIs, robots and contented clones do most of the work. If only there were a way to get rid of the surplus people. When Eleanor Starke, one of the major power brokers, is assassinated, her daughter's cryogenically frozen head becomes the object of a quest by representatives of several factions, including Eleanor's aged and outcast husband, a dense zealot for interstellar colonization, a decades-old little boy and husband and wife clones who are straining at the limitations of their natures. Marusek's writing is ferociously smart, simultaneously horrific and funny, as he forces readers to stretch their imaginations and sympathies. Much of the fun in the story is in the telling rather than its destination—which is just as well, since it doesn't so much come to a conclusion as crash headlong into the last page. But the trip has been exciting and wonderful.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
In the "boutique economy," immortality is more likely than not, and most people don't have much to look forward to. Eleanor Starke, one of the few with real power, has just married packaging designer Samson Harger, and when she is selected for a governorship on the Tri-Disciplinary Council, it seems she's rocketing to the top. She and Samson even get a permit to have a child. But someone is setting her up. A scan shows anomalies in Samson's genetic footprint, after which he is "seared" and, hence, legally dead, considered a risk to society, and no longer eligible for parenthood. Forty years on, Eleanor and daughter Ellen are in a plane crash. Eleanor dies instantly, while Ellen's cryogenically preserved head goes missing, with a strange assortment of people looking for it. With subplots exploring the identity problems of clones, the solutions to a particularly nasty overpopulation problem, and the remnants of some invidious "biologicals" that have required the doming-over of major cities, Marusek presents a gripping conspiracy in an uncomfortably three-dimensional future. Regina Schroeder
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Marusek's amazing story "The Wedding Album" floored me when I read it in 1999, was a finalist on the Nebula ballot, won the Sturgeon and Asimov's Reader's Choice Awards, placed in the Locus, Seiun and HOMer awards, and left all who read it gob-smacked. It was the story of the AI avatars cast as a sort of wedding photo of a couple on their big day; the story traces the avatars' lives through thousands of years of technical evolution, through the Singularity, and out the other side. The story reels from heartbreaking to mind-bending like a poet on a magnificent drunk bouncing from lamp-post to lamp-post.
I have a gigantic backlog of reading that I've promised to do, but when the galleys for Marusek's first novel, Counting Heads, came to my mailbox, it went into my shoulder-bag and has stayed there ever since, while I read it in sips and draughts, stealing every possible moment to read more of it, wanting to see what happens next and not wanting it to end.
Counting Heads is the story of a humanity thrashing on the horns of the dilemma of too much of everything. In the Counting Heads world, the idea of being a single individual is obsolete. Some people are clones. Some are virtual. Some are avatars cast for some utility function and then discarded. Some are AI minders who babysit the others. Even families and households are fluid and multiplicitous: in a world as crowded as Marusek's, social institutions are necessarily larger and weirder than our contemporary nuclear families.
Yet all is not well, for too much can be as confounding as not enough. Counting Heads is the story of a vast intrigue, through which an emergent conspiracy rockets a remarkable woman to near-empress status, and then visits upon her indignity after indignity. Her husband, Sam, is the main protagonist of this story (which sports a gigantic cast of fascinating and likable characters), and it is through his eyes that we see every corner of this amazing world, from its highest heights to its lowest gutters.
It's hard to summarize this book because again and again, the plot hinges on wonderful, original inventions, and just describing the storyline would spoil too many of David's delightful surprises. I haven't felt as buffeted by a book since Gibson's Neuromancer -- haven't felt more like I was reading something truly radical, new and exciting.
When David was writing short stories, he was an exciting writer. Now that he's onto novels, he's practically a force of nature.
Counting Heads suffers from shallow editing -- there are some truly bizarre sentences -- but no matter -- a good editor might have insisted on some character development & might have prevented the final section of the story from becoming a not very convincing chase scene from a B-movie. The vaunted editorial team at Tor might have hammered this into an interesting book -- the ideas are there -- but failed to do so in this case.
The first part of the novel is "We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy", a novella published in 1995 that introduces this world. I was pleased as punch to see it, as at this point I'd only read "Getting to Know You". As part of the novel, it is arguably its best part; it's tautly-written, and it pulls you in and doesn't let go. Part 1 is set in 2092-4, and the succeeding two parts are set in 2134, making the novel proper a kind of contained prequel and sequel.
Marusek maps out this world--the "Boutique Economy"--in exhaustive detail, amazingly so given its modest length. It is a world both horrifying and hopeful; neither it nor its characters let you rest on your laurels. With its clones and de facto caste system, echoes of "Brave New World" are very much in evidence. Like Huxley's novel, much of the novel is darkly comic and satirical, but the author never loses sight of the human heart, and it is this thread of humanity that makes it all a joy to read.
The plot is basically a murder / espionage mystery, but the writing style itself is also something of a puzzle. Marusek uses many acronyms and portmanteau words that are not immediately explained, but whose meaning becomes evident as one progresses through the work. By the end of the novel, I felt like I had put an intricate model together. This is great stuff.
The only minus I can think of is that the novel definitely slows down a bit in the middle, before regaining momentum to a fast-paced, climactic conclusion. To be fair though, that could probably be said of many, if not most novels.
In short, this is a highly-recommended read, and I only wish I could visit this strange world with its fascinating characters again.
But I have to agree with the previous reviewer that Counting Heads falls short of the quality of Marusek's short fiction, and in fact I share most of the criticisms expressed in that review. Fundamentally, the novel isn't a *story*. There's no over-arching narrative to tie it all together. Technically there is -- the search for Ellen -- but this serves more as an arbitrary device than a real storyline. The Bogdan character could be completely cut with no real impact on the story, and should have been in my opinion -- he's boring and one dimensional (Marusek even alludes to this in one scene, in a wink-wink way, but I would have preferred not to have suffered through the scenes involving him). There are many loose threads of potentially interesting plot elements that never get fully develooped and are left hanging, which I won't reveal here -- but I'll just say that when I had 15 pages left I couldn't believe that the novel would be able to conclude in that short span of pages. It didn't. I was amazed by the sudden turn to a "B movie" action sequence near the end, and thought maybe Marusek had taken inspiration from the film Adaptation. When the ending did arrive, I just thought, how did we get here, with these characters, and why should I care.
I ordered this book immediately after reading Cory's review of it. I'm glad I did, don't get me wrong. Part of my criticism of the book stems from the fact that I had very high expectations. I agree with the previous reviewer, too, that the editors should be held accountable for the book's final form. The book, especially the visionary / evocative portions, have an enormous amount of potential, but I think Marusek needs some guidance in crafting a real story that sustains itself over the length of a novel, and that clearly wasn't there.
But don't take my word for it. If you are a science fiction fan, buy this book for yourself and make up your own mind. Marusek will be a leader in the science fiction world for some time to come. I can't wait for his next novel.
Here's the catch: rejuvenation is expensive. In the year 2134, society is still a free market. Jobs are hard to come by, and all your competitors are as young and talented as you. Most work in society is performed by artificial intelligence, or by clones, "Applied People" perfectly suited to their high-demand jobs. The remaining "free range people" are either very rich, or utterly superfluous, creating and scavenging their lives as best they can.
Science fiction fans have been waiting for David Marusek's first novel for some time; Counting Heads was worth the wait.
In it Marusek offers up a complicated and charming dystopia, a society where the eternally young don't ever have to be alone, not even inside their own heads. Instead, they share almost every moment of consciousness with a mentar, an artificial intelligence complete with personality and mental skills far above those of the people they serve, each one custom-designed to intimately match each individual. These powerful computers manage the lives of the affluent, forever-young "affs," and the affs manage the lives of everyone else - not even death ends their influence.
When powerful aff Eleanor K. Starke finally falls prey to her enemies, her death sets off a violent "market correction" of murder and intrigue, with her wounded daughter Ellen at the heart of the struggle. Whether or not Ellen will survive is left to the kindness of strangers: a collection of free rangers, clones, and wily mentars, all suspicious of each other's motives, all with their own problems and desires.
The story takes place in and around Chicagoland, a city that's about to take a big risk: "What the city maintained, what the media trumpeted, was nothing less than the end of the Outrage. In recent decades, terrorist attacks had become ineffectual and rare, or so the experts claimed....Earth's biosphere was now 99.99 percent nanobiohazmat free. Any residual nanobot or nanocyst still dispersed in the atmosphere had gone wild, lost its virulence, and was no more lethal than hay fever. In fact, most nanocysts contained ordinary pollen, not the smallpox, marburg, or VEE they were designed to ferry. The big, region-wide filtering systems known as canopies that once had been the lifesavers of cities throughout the United Democracies were now, according to the authorities, little more than giant, very expensive air fresheners." Chicagoland plans to turn off its protective canopy, and no one really knows what will happen to the people who have lived under it for 70 years.
Marusek is an artful story teller with a talent for creating complex and visceral characters. He can make a reader empathize with a severed head, a cocky computer, or a perpetually pre-pubescent retrochild like Bogdan: "Among the Cathouse employees leaving the building were girls with tails poking out through the rear of their skirts. Bogdan approved of tails on girls. He liked how the girls tied bells to them or braided them with ribbons, or did other interesting things to draw attention to them. What drew his special attention were the tail holes in their clothes that usually exposed a little sliver of bare ass."
Counting Heads is a great example of the best science fiction has to offer. The world of this book is complete and true to its own rules, down to the smallest details - the characters even have their own slang. The science is well-researched, extrapolating the promises we hear for nanotechnology out to the extremes of their logical possibilities. At the same time, elements of our present world are scarily recognizable: characters who can't afford real information watch the "probable news," then pop down to the Nanojiffy to extrude a little lunch.
Fans of Marusek's short stories will recognize some familiar characters in Counting Heads. New readers will want to go looking for his earlier work, which has appeared in several magazines and collections, including Asimov's Science Fiction, Scientific American, Playboy, and The Year's Best Science Fiction: Seventeenth Annual Collection. Marusek was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1999, and he won the Sturgeon Award in 2000. Counting Heads is, as Robert Silverberg writes, "the science-fiction landmark we all expected it to be."