Counting Heads, David Marusek

Tor, 2005, 336 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31267-0

2005 has been an embarrassingly good year for high-end science-fiction: Stross’ Accelerando, Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes… Gee! And now, like a cherry on top of an excessively rich sundae, here’s Counting Heads, David Marusek’s long-awaited first novel. While it doesn’t completely live up to its advance expectations, Marusek’s novel is a head-spinner of the first degree, a vision of the future with three times the idea density of other solid SF works. Despite a number of misfires that would doom a lesser novel, it’s also a lot of fun.

Counting Heads spins rather directly from Marusek’s excellent 1995 novella “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy.” Slightly revised and included as the first part of the novel, the original story tells of one Samson Harger and his union with an unbelievably powerful woman named Eleanor K. Starke. Ten years after publication, the novella doesn’t seem so fresh (signs of evolving genre expectations, now that people like Charles Stross are writing entire novels in that exuberant style), but it’s still a delight to read. I compared the revised version with the original and the changes, at one searing exception, seem limited to a stream of line-editing corrections that neither add nor subtract much from the 1995 version.

The real plot of Counting Heads begins nearly thirty years later, as a assassination plot kills off Eleanor and severely wounds her daughter Ellen. In a deliciously intense scene, Ellen’s skull is preserved in its own crash-proof helmet, setting in motion the rest of novel: In a few words, Counting Heads is a treasure hunt in which the prize is Ellen’s cryogenically preserved head.

But the book can’t be reduced to a few words, because Counting Heads quickly takes on the quality of an amusement park ride. In a world where nanotechnology is a fact of life, life isn’t as easy as you’d expect. Unemployment is prevalent, money is hard to come by, and being poor in a society of abundance can be even more maddening than living in a backward society. (Plus, there are good chances that you’re genetically identical to thousands of other clones bred for personality quirks) The threat of rogue nano-bugs (“blooms”) makes today’s fears about terrorism seem laughable, leading straight to the book’s humourless “HomCom” police forces. Eleanor Starke’s assassination turns out to be the opening salvo of a “correction” among the affluent populations of the novel, with consequences that are still very much in play by the end of the novel.

Because, oh yeah, Counting Heads is the first volume in a series, even through you’ll find no hints of this anywhere in the book. While the story reaches a resting point of sorts, most overarching threads are left dangling, with the identity of Starke’s enemy still a point of contention by the last page. (Careful readers will have a rough idea of who’s to blame, but there are no definitive answers here.)

This unfinished quality severely harms the novel’s impact. For all of its clever details, cool ideas and amusing sight-seeing, Counting Heads leaves the impression of an unfinished work. The high-flying virtuosity of Marusek’s speculation carries along its own dangerous possibility: that it may fail in the next instalment, that the ride may not lead anywhere. As it stands Counting Heads‘s last fifty pages betray a lot of movement and not much development: any further evaluation will have to wait until the conclusion, whether it comes in the second volume or much later.

This makes me hesitant to recommend Counting Heads as a standalone unit. I certainly can’t get enough of that type of Science Fiction, but I freely acknowledge that cool ideas can often overshadow more significant problems in my appreciation of any work of fiction. I’m not sure what less dedicated readers may think of the novel: This is a dense piece of work both conceptually and visually (to save money, the designers crammed an extra 20% of text on every single one of the book’s 336 pages). My unconditional love for the result is, well, unconditional: not everyone will be so taken with the result.

What is certain, however, is that I’ll be one of the first in line to buy the sequel. Counting Heads may only leave half an impression, but it’s one heck of an impression.

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