Counting Heads by David Marusek

I just finished reading David Marusek’s Counting Heads. This was another thrift store find so I had no expectations going in – aside from wondering how far off the many glowing reviews printed on the book’s covers would be.

Not too far off, as it turned out, though a little exaggerated. Printed in 2005, this is the most recent book I’ve had a chance to read in quite a while. On that note, if there isn’t already a distinct genre for “post-Internet sci-fi,” I think that needs to be made official. Like I said, I read this following a bunch of books from the 70’s and 80’s and the difference is palpable.

In terms of speculative tech and world-building this novel is great. It presents technological advancements with total elegance. Incredible innovations are explained and integrated into the story so well that they seem totally plausible.

There’s no exposition for function or usage. We learn enough about this stuff by seeing characters use it, so in many cases, the extent of its function is left up to the reader.

So that’s fine. Lets’ get to the plot. There are a lot of moving parts in this story. At times it seemed to me like Marusek had bitten off more than he could chew. He treats every event with near equal importance, which is nice, but it also makes it difficult to parse what I should be paying attention to.

The first part of the book, as the author states, is a short novella called We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy, written before the rest of the body of the novel. It’s unfortunately obvious that part one of the novel was written separately. The novella focuses on the relationship between Sam Harger and Eleanor Starke, two “affs” – as you can probably guess, members of the upper class.

In Sam and Eleanor’s world, medicine has advanced to a point where humans are basically immortal so long as they continue to receive expensive regular treatments that stop or reverse the aging process for a limited time. As we later find out, you can even reverse puberty with these treatments, leading to a whole new subculture of people called “retroboys” or “retrogirls.” Yeah! You can bet that gets all kinds of creepy. Luckily (or disappointingly?) we don’t get to see much of that side of society.

As the novel begins, Sam and Eleanor are both over 100 years old but physically appear to be in their late 20’s to mid 30’s. Sam, the Main Character, is a packaging designer who was a successful and well-known artist in the 20th century. As an art school graduate myself, I got a little excited about this – it seems like art hardly ever gets discussed in science fiction. All the effort of world building gets thrown at weapons, medicine and communications technology, while leisure is always presented as a dirty, hedonistic game for the wealthy.

I get the sense that Marusek has some art education as his forays into art description, however brief, seem era accurate and knowing. There’s also some very interesting descriptions of innovations in art materials later in the novel. It never comes into play in any particularly important sense, but it’s cool.

That aside, as I read the first couple chapters of the novel I was yelling. David, my man, I said to myself, you’ve created such a wonderful world and you’re going to show it to us through the eyes of a pair of old, boring WASPs?

I couldn’t fully get behind the first part of the novel, pretty much for that reason alone. I know, I’m shallow. But like… 2005. Truly, the first few chapters follow Sam and Eleanor along a whirlwind courtship made possible by their medical immortality, stunning good looks, ability to be anywhere in the world at the press of a button, and seemingly endless bank accounts. Yawn.

Fear not, it does get better. Now don’t get mad, but I liked that the novel treated the class divide as, well, normal. It’s not the product of actual malice on the part of the more affluent citizens. The affs are not evil, they’re just people living their endless, leisurely lives, oblivious to the plight of the lower classes. You know, just like today.

The middle class is largely made up of clones in a variety of types, each of which is named after the original human gene donor. This can be confusing at first – the main clone characters are a Russ named Fred and his wife, an Evangeline named Mary. Once I figured it out, I found it was a really interesting and honestly believable convention. Another point for Marusek’s techsplaining skills.

The main plot of the story doesn’t really pick up until the latter half. At the end of the novella Sam and Eleanor are awarded a license to have a child (there’s another one if you’re playing sci-fi trope bingo at home.) Neither has, up until this point, expressed a desire for a child, plus it’s explicitly noted that a child will seriously fuck up both of their careers and general life plans, but they decide to have that baby because as soon as she’s presented with the option Eleanor goes insane with maternal instinct and Sam… imagines Eleanor pregnant and immediately gets a boner.

Sigh.

Anyway, having a child just involves pasting your DNA onto a fetus that’s been stored in suspended animation, adorably referred to as a chassis. Very cute. Love it.

While the child is being grown, Sam gets wrongly accused of being a terrorist and he’s “seared,” a process that basically results in all of his cells becoming tiny explosive charges. Whenever a cell dies or becomes separated from his body, it bursts into flames. Yes, fire-retardant condoms are a thing in this universe.

The seared are identified as a major marginalized group that has become mostly known for protesting their mistreatment by committing suicide in public areas, calculating their deaths to do as much property damage as possible. This is a somewhat effective technique and by the time the story switches back to following Sam, he’s pretty much the last seared individual left alive as the process was deemed inhumane and stopped some years after his incident.

There are certain loose ends in this novel that don’t seem to get tied up. In fact, one might argue that the entire book is one long loose end that was precariously tacked on to a perfectly okay postmodern sci-fi novella. I’m having trouble writing about this because a bunch of the plot moments that I’d like to get into require an explanation of another plot moment that I can’t rightly outline without getting into a further plot moment and it’s all just, well, you had to be there.

Sam and Eleanor’s lives intertwine with numerous others, all of which are explored in detail. Eleanor’s high-up coworkers become involved in unexpected ways. The story has quite admirable nuance.

This is both a pro and a con, I suppose. While it seems like three separate stories are being told, they are so seamlessly integrated that you can’t really have one without the other. Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Maybe the point of Marusek’s writing is not to have a neat ending, but rather to look at the infinite tiny connections between people, living and dead, clone and human, aff and seared.

Which is a big improvement from “two old rich white people get married and have a kid.”

The one thing I’m going to nitpick is that there doesn’t seem to be any indication of progress in social roles. The accepted gender identities, sexual orientations and relationship structures in Marusek’s future apparently never progressed past the 60’s. Everyone seems pretty cis and hetero. I may regret this, but I have to say, even Friday did a better job on this front. There is the barest hint that triad marriages might be a regular thing in the epilogue, but other than that we get nothing.

I’m not saying this is a prerequisite for good sci-fi but I feel like it’s a legitimately interesting avenue of exploration that goes alongside the tech in creating a fully realized future, and it’s a shame when it gets ignored.

So, there’s that. I wouldn’t let it stop you, though. If you can get into this book, it’s really quite interesting, and I’d still say totally worth it for the imaginative speculation.

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