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Book Review: David Marusek – Counting Heads

David Marusek – Counting Heads
Tor, November 2005, 336 pp, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-31267-9

The rapture of the nerds may be a wonderful thing: if you can afford it. Nanotech, life-extension, everything you want at the touch of a button or the wave of a hand. But what if you’re a have-not in the world of the have-it-alls? Counting Heads is a look at the nanotech revolution from the underneath, from the viewpoint of those just struggling to survive and make it through another day.

Extending his short story "We were out of our minds with joy", and embellishing the world shown in other shorter works, Counting Heads is the story of Samson Harger, a man who has everything and suddenly loses it. Never quite rebuilding his life, he finds himself a pariah, a part of the underclass, in a world tied down by the trappings of the security state, just struggling to make it through each day. Marusek builds an ensemble cast around him: the boy who’s stayed a child for as long as possible to help with demographic research, the clones who aren’t entirely sure if they’re meant for their pre-allotted roles, the wealthy and their employees, and the artificial intelligences that make the world work. Teeming billions fill the world, most struggling to find meaning in their circumscribed lives.

When Samson’s patrician ex-wife and not-quite daughter are in a space plane accident, it’s time for things to change. His wife is dead, and Ellen nothing more than a stolen head. Plot and counter-plot struggle for control of Ellen’s unconscious head. The accident is part of a scheme to control a commercial empire that has become unprofitably altruistic – designing starships to take away the billions and planning the re-terraforming of Earth. There’s more at stake than mere money.

As a rag tag bundle of misfits struggle to find the missing head, Marusek juggles several linked plots, skilfully tying them into a coherent whole. Flashback and machine-eye views expand on the story, adding texture to what could have been a straight-forward caper.

Marusek’s warts-and-all approach to his future mixes skilful world-building with an understanding of the stresses and fractures that distort the fabric of society. This is no utopian future. Underneath his story of a quest for a missing head lies the classic “if this goes on” theme, stretching the fledgling security-industrial complex growing in the West and showing it full blown – along with the corruption and inefficiencies such massive systems always engender.

Perhaps best thought of a mash-up of Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz with Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, that’s been filtered through the blue-collar SF of William Barton and the social critiques of China Mieville, Counting Heads is a compelling and powerful read. Marusek isn’t afraid of asking hard questions – nor is he afraid to try and find answers.

One of the best SF novels of this (and perhaps any year), Counting Heads gives us a rich mix of social commentary, speculation, and adventure, all garnished with a tiny pinch of hope.

[Originally published in Vector]
Tags: books, reviews
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