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David Marusek
Counting Heads
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-765-31267-0
Publication Date: 11-01-2005
336 Pages; $24.95
Date Reviewed: 01-19-06

Index: Science Fiction

The future is a foreign country. We won’t know the language and we won’t understand even the basics of how things work. Upon arrival, we'll be burned from within, seared, set up and made ready to explode at any given moment. We'll be separated from our family, our loved ones then shunted off to a high-tech slum where we can spend the rest of our days slowly rotting. We've already embarked upon our journey, and shall be arriving presently.

There may be a little bit of turbulence.

As David Marusek envisions it, the trip from our present to the future he portrays in 'Counting Heads' is already well under way. The seeds for Marusek's future are being planted even as I type, in the labs that are creating RFID tags to keep track of your clothing and in the political violence that scars our world on a daily basis, in the suburbs where safety is no longer assured and in the walled city-states where safety comes at a price few can afford. As the gaps between the classes widen and are both economically and technologically amplified, we're well on our way to codifying the castes with the help of genetic engineering. If this sounds a bit like we're heading into a 'Brave New World' then it's because we are. But we're dragging the worst baggage of the cowardly old world with us.

David Marusek's first novel is something of a patchwork creation. It begins on March 30, 2092, with simplicity itself in an award-winning novella, 'We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy'. Samson Harger, a designer, meets Eleanor K. Starke, a noted corporate prosecutor. Boy meets girl, simple as that. Well, perhaps not so simple in Marusek's future. Their meeting is facilitated by Henry, an AI that keeps Samson apprised of his appointments, the stats of those around him and much more. Their courtship is complicated by a future that has extended their lives and their youth but forbids the creation of children without a permit. As the novel begins they get their permit, and thus are...well, as it happens, rapidly in a pot of trouble. Eleanor is destined for great things, but not everyone wants to see her achieve them. Before the novella ends, Samson's been seared and their marriage has fizzled. But their child has lived, at least until the arranged accident that has the protagonists in the remaining portion of the novel, as it were, counting heads.

Marusek's novel is not an easy read. Forget the serene cover illustration. Once we get past the opening, we're plunged into a future for which the word chaotic seems dangerously understated. The introduction is witheringly inadequate preparation for the utter strangeness that follows. With 'Counting Heads', Marusek has managed to create one of the most authentic and strange-seeming futures you're likely to read. Cloned classes live in relative comfort, free-range humans struggle on the edges in corporate clans, while AIs, mentars, robots and wild nanotech pop in and out of the story. Here is a priest hoping to escape the earth. Here is an eternal child who is running out of money to preserve his youth. This is the kind of spiky, brainy science fiction that frightens those unfamiliar with the genre.

Marusek's creation is nonetheless an utterly thrilling novel to read, assuming that you’re both prepared and inclined to read such a creation. Marusek simply immerses readers in an amazingly conceived creation that is so detailed, so intense and so bizarre it has the ring of truth at every turn. It is in any evaluation a brilliant creation, and the spiky consistency of Marusek's prose makes the book a constant pleasure to read. This is not the kind of science fiction where a character stops and explains what’s going to happen. Be assured that there are info-dumps embedded here and there, but by and large Marusek simply lets readers walk through a world so changed most will find a challenge to hold on to their own sanity. If you can imagine giving someone from say, the year 1800 William Gibson's 'Pattern Recognition', you'll have an idea of what reading this book is like. As you read it, you'll intuitively understand that you're seeing a cohesive, coherent portrait of a world that quite logically follows on from ours. But every particular has been transformed. Only the human drama remains.

That's where Marusek gives readers a real leg up. Yes, somewhere towards the end of this novel, we get a bit of obligatory-seeming thriller plot and a too-long page-turning chase scene. But until then, the bits and pieces of the story are all entirely human. The motivations are timeless, if placed within a context and world that is nearly incomprehensible. The personalities are all instantly recognizable, though complicated by the world within which they live. Marusek has almost no equal in his ability to create a huge cast of prickly, sticky human characters who interact with utterly casual reality. And this is true not just of the human characters, but the AIs, mentars and even the little-bitty robot bugs that just have a job to do. Marusek invests them all with so much personality, so much of the stuff of complicated, messy life, that it's all on the edge of what many readers will be able to contain.

And there's the question, the query, the nub of the novel. 'Counting Heads' is so perfectly itself, so wonderfully imagined and created that it might just scare off the prospective reader, and perhaps a couple of readers should be scared off. But those who hang on, and most should, will reap the rewards of getting a glimpse into an entirely authentic future. Chances are this is not the future that will come to pass. But it is a future so perfectly integrated, a future so amazingly well-conceived, that those who desire the pleasure of peering into a new world, a whole world, a world not of now, but of soon, too soon -- those readers had best run, not walk to pick up this book. Immerse yourself and prepare to be seared by Marusek's vision.

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