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Issue #129 - May 2006

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Heads and Tales

By Victoria Hoyle

David Marusek attended the famed Clarion West writer’s program way back in 1992 and his short fiction has provoked quiet acclaim in the years since, most notably for "The Wedding Album" (Asimov’s, June 1999), which won the Sturgeon Award in 2000, and for his achingly good early novella "We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy" (Asimov’s, November 1995). Counting Heads, however, is his full-length debut — the first installment in a projected four-part sequence — and has had something of a mixed, not to mention contentious, critical reception. On the one hand witness its dust jacket, literally plastered in compliments from genre names like Robert Silverberg, John Crowley, Nancy Kress, Pat Cadigan and Gardner Dozois: "Counting Heads has every virtue of the science fiction classic it is certain to become…"; "Marusek is one of the most exciting writers to emerge in science fiction in the last decade…"; "I’ve taught several classes at Clarion West, and absolutely no-one has ever come close to matching David Marusek…" On the contrary hand, you can hardly have missed New York Times reviewer David Itzkoff damning it with faint praise and causing a raging community controversy in the process (but more on that particular clamor below).

My own opinion, like the story itself, is rather unevenly divided. My instinctual enthusiasm for what is surely a wonderful novel, delightfully written and confidently executed in nearly all its facets, is woven through with a little strand of nagging uncertainty.

Essentially, it is a novel in two Acts, one short, one long, one entirely successful and the other not entirely so. Set in the late 21st and early 22nd centuries, it opens with a reworked version of Marusek’s earlier novella, "We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy". In 2092, nearly thirty years since the "Outrage" that confined the surviving population of the United Democracies to city "canopies", Eleanor K. Starke and her husband, Samson Harger, are granted a child-permit. This privilege, which allows them to reconfigure an illegally conceived and confiscated fetus with their own genetic profiles, is an exceptionally rare one, and Eleanor, recently promoted to a governmental position of some importance, suspects it can only come at a high personal price. She isn’t wrong.

Just as their baby is undergoing re-formation, Samson is accidentally (or rather deliberately) implicated as a carrier of one of the viruses’ known as NASTIES and is "seared" in the name of security. The potential security threat posed by his body is absolutely neutralized: each of his cells is reprogrammed to self-destruct if a) it is tampered with in any way, or b) it dies naturally — every single one is destined to wink out of existence in spontaneous combustion as it expires. All stray cellular samples have also been rounded up and destroyed, his apartment stripped, his possessions incinerated, even his semen retrieved from inside Eleanor and, of course, his part in the new child obliterated. It has been reprogrammed with an alternate profile (Eleanor’s part in it, however, remains unchanged). The implications for his future are terrifying:

"No longer do I have resident molecular homeostats to constantly screen, flush and scrub my cells, nor muscle toners or fat inhibitors. No longer can I go periodically to a juve clinic to correct the cellular errors of aging. Now I can and certainly will grow stouter, slower, weaker, balder – and older. Now the date of my death is decades, not millennia, away… the whole human race, it seems, has boarded a giant ocean liner and set course for the shores of immortality. I, however, have been unceremoniously tossed overboard."

And he develops terrible body odor. In a world in which almost every individual has access to technologies that keep them preternaturally young, healthy and sweet-smelling, Samson Harger has become a man of the past, locked into the debilitating decline that we know as the "human condition". In the common parlance of Counting Heads he has become a "stinker".

Only forty-six pages in length and related by Samson himself, this first section of the novel is really very, very good. Beautifully self-contained, immediate, visceral in its emotion, and written with an unerring eye for futurity, it fulfils all the purposes of a first class SF novella. And then, abruptly, everything changes. While Samson leaves Eleanor (and the little re-programmed baby, Ellen) in search of the place "where damaged people go", we leap forward forty years to 2134. In the process we lose Samson’s compelling voice in favor of a third person narrative from multiple viewpoints, segueing from the deeply personal first Act into a broad, grand and epic second Act. The change isn’t so devastating as to destroy the novel’s core values — Marusek always writes well and emotively — but it does represent a painful rift with the immediate tenderness of "We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy". The apparent discontinuity between the two pieces is what nags at me. It somehow feels wrong, akin to reading two great novels that just don’t and can’t mesh correctly.

Eleanor Starke is now one of the world’s leading citizens as well as principal advocate of the Garden Earth Project (GEP), a venture that promotes the corporate buy out of the mother planet and the resettlement of its populations. In return for just one acre towards recreating the Earth’s original habitat, long lost through human abuses, an individual might be granted 1000 acres on a distant and hypothetically terra-formed planet. It is the epitome of global capitalism and, consequently, has the support of a number of the world’s most powerful business people. Chief amongst these are Zoranna Albeitor, the sole owner of Allied People with literally millions of clones at her command, and Bryon Fagan, who maintains a complete monopoly over rejuvenation clinics in the United Democracies. Also on the Garden Earth board is the incongruous Merrill Meewee, a defrocked bishop from a radical Gaiaist movement, Birthplace International, who hopes to return the Earth to harmony with his deities.

On the day that parties seeking to subvert the program contrive Eleanor’s murder and leave her daughter critically injured, it is timid Meewee who sets out to save GEP from a total sell-out to Chinese interests.

As it turns out the only way to do this is to save Ellen Starke, the sole beneficiary of Eleanor’s will, who has sadly been reduced to a severed but neurologically viable head. Whoever gains control of said head and either rejuvenates or "kills" it also secures control of the entirety of the Starke business empire.

Inevitably, this being a genre novel, a motley crew of protagonists are drawn into the Great Head-Rescue Caper, the most important and well-realized of whom are Fred Londanstane, a kindly and confused "russ" (an Applied People line of security clone) and his wife Mary (an "evangeline"). Also Eleanor’s and Ellen’s mentars, "Cabinet" and "Wee-Hunk", the sentient AI’s who control the workings of their heavily computerized worlds and protect the interests of their human sponsors. And not to forget what remains of Samson P. Harger, now ancient but still stinky; the "retro-kids" Kitty and Bogdan; a few tactical teams of mechanized insects and a rogue mentar called Hubert.

It should be clear from such a synopsis that Counting Heads could very easily have descended into farce: chasing severed heads across technological landscapes hardly sounds the stuff of poetry and epic. And yet, somehow, Marusek’s second Act never quite degenerates below the level of believability (although, admittedly, the frenetic chase-scene in the final 50 pages almost spoils the whole deal). It seems to me that this is partly because his grasp of character is so strong, and partly because he values the lucid emotional trajectory of the individual above the bare bones of plot. Equally, intersections between the human and the speculative are something he does with quite moving, even tragic, aplomb.

Incidentally, this seems the perfect moment to mention David Itzkoff’s criticisms of the novel, first amongst them being that it is so "scientific" as to be virtually impenetrable to those without degrees in computer science or "linear algebra". Apparently: "when the novel concluded with a head-on collision of various clones, mentars, slugs, jerries, pikes and evangelines, I had no idea what the heck happened." Which leads me to wonder, as many have done before me in recent weeks, how much SF Mr. Itzkoff has ever actually read. Let me assure you though that despite not having a degree in computer science, or indeed in any science, and despite the fact that mathematics has me running for the hills, I understood Counting Heads perfectly well. It is all a matter of "suspension of confusion". Oftentimes you don’t understand things, but sooner or later, if you’re paying attention, you get thrown a rope. Marusek is quite the star at subtle rope-throwing, so much so apparently that it fell completely under Itzkoff’s radar. Must be a pretty poorly-tuned radar.

Which leads me to Itzkoff’s other great complaint: "What is missing from ‘Counting Heads’…is what you humans call emotion — a reason to care about his characters…" I suppose he’s made the mistake here of equating hard science with coldness and alienation, missing the fact that Marusek is really an extremely humane and emotional writer. As it happens, Marusek’s writerly interests aren’t centered on the scientific debates of SF at all. There’s no doubt that Counting Heads is a novel deeply embedded in the genre, with buckets full of speculative science. The entirety of Marusek’s world is predicated on the effective functioning of AI, including the sentient "mentars", and on the ubiquity of nanotechnologies for everything from daily body and domestic maintenance to weaponry. His characters, even the poorest, couldn’t function without implanted or appended computer systems. His is a world most carefully imagined and always technologically practicable. And yet he dodges all the traditional controversies early on. The AI vs. humanity debate is summarily dispatched by a mentar:

"We are not your successors, rivals or replacements…your fears have not materialized…"

And although two of his main viewpoint characters, Fred and Mary, are members of cloned gene-lines, Marusek doesn’t engage over much with the general ethics of cloning or genetic manipulation. What he is most interested in is the individual character as he or she acts within the fictional environment. What happens, for example, when a clone begins to doubt his hereditary characteristics? Or to a man when the traditional family structures of his youth are no longer possible? To a woman when the market demand for which she was created declines? The science itself is exciting but largely academic; it is character we should really be getting energized about.

My own opinion, then, is rather more "middle of the road" than either Itzkoff’s or that of the jacket accolades. Counting Heads is undoubtedly an exhilarating and innovative SF novel, designed to exercise a reader’s emotional and ideological centers and to provoke discussion on the meeting points of any number of personal and moral subjects: privacy vs. security, humanism vs. legalism, individualism vs. communalism. It literally screams promise and potential. Unfortunately, it is also a little uneven, struggling to hang its weighty (and delightful) themes on what is basically an uninspiring "find-and-retrieve" plot base. Nevertheless, Marusek has a short story collection in development with Subterranean Press as I type (hopefully available as early as January 2007) which I’m very much looking forward to. And I can only hope that the great imaginative virtuosity of Counting Heads has a plot worthy of it in the next installment.

Counting Heads - David Marusek - Tor - hardcover

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