David Marusek

Getting to Know You, David Marusek

Getting to Know You, David Marusek

Subterranean Press, 2007, 297 pages, US$40.00 hc, ISBN 978-1-59606-088-3

The worst thing anyone can say about David Marusek’s Science Fiction is that there isn’t enough of it.

For a writer whose bibliography dates back to the mid-nineties, Marusek’s output so far has been scarce and precious: Barely a dozen stories since 1993, and at least two of them rank amongst the finest SF stories published during the nineties. Marusek fans finally got their wish for a novel in 2005 with Counting Heads, the first volume in a projected series. With Getting to Know You, Subterranean Press brings together Marusek’s portfolio of stories, and if the result can feel familiar to fans of the author’s much-anthologized best pieces, it’s also a strong argument in favor of writers who put quality above quantity.

Getting To Know You opens with an introduction in which Marusek briefly discusses his relationship to short stories, highlighting the experimental nature of their writing, and how “you wouldn’t exactly call me a prolific short story writer” [P.14] He also adds that five of the stories in this anthology are set in the same universe as Counting Heads.

Marusek’s best-known story so far is probably “The Wedding Album”, which made a splash upon publication in 1999, was widely nominated for a number of award and eventually won the 2000 Theodore Sturgeon Award. The same story opens Getting To Know You, and it’s an inspired choice: In the span of a novelette, Marusek manages to set up an affecting human drama, several vertiginous perspective shifts, at least one scene that’s as hilarious as it’s spectacular, and a future history that still hasn’t been explored by the rest of Marusek’s writing in this universe. It’s one of the finest SF short stories published during the nineties, and it’s a good anchor for this volume. It also a decent introduction to the type of dense, humane, unflinching Science Fiction that typifies Marusek’s work. There are a lot of very exciting ideas here, but also a number of unsettling scenes and tragic destinies. Marusek’s fiction can have the manic energy and inventiveness of golden age SF, but it’s certainly not so nostalgic when it comes to the consequences of the technologies he explores. The mixture of peppy toys and downbeat fates echoes through the entire anthology.

“The Earth is on the Mend”, for instance, is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, almost mainstream in its purposeful lack of ideas. “A Boy in Cathyland” settles the fate of a minor character in “The Wedding Album” in a manner that will not please readers of the original novella. Neither tale stand out against their heavy competition elsewhere in the collection. Neither does “Listen to Me” later on, though “My Morning Glory” is short and terrifying in its implications. (For a measure of Marusek’s merciless humor, consider that he calls it “my only story with an unalloyed happy ending” in his story introduction. It’s all a matter of perspective, of course. Marusek would get along splendidly with Peter Watts.)

“Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz” is a bit heftier, as an epistolary tale that exploits Marusek’s unusual living conditions in Alaska and provides a few smiles. Echoes of the tale provide one of the very few grins in “VTV” a story with “no redeeming value” (writes the author as introduction) that goes for broke in an effort to alienate the reader from human society. There’s a clever setting up of expectations in the way Marusek describes a media gone out of control in service of an audience that can only be roused of its complacency with spectacular blood-letting.

“Cabbages and Kale or: How We Downsized North America” and “Getting to Know You” will be more familiar to Counting Heads readers, as they look at other facets of Marusek’s imagined universe. Both tales are told with an energetic, falsely-funny tone that belies surprisingly disturbing implications.

But for Counting Heads flashbacks, the ultimate is to be found in “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy”, a line-edited version of which makes up the first part of Marusek’s first novel. It’s still a triumphant story, a strong novella and a Science Fiction masterpiece that bursts with invention even at a time where post-Singularity tales are multiplying. Readers with fresh memories of Marusek’s novel will probably skip this story, but not including it in this anthology would have been ridiculous, especially since it allows scholarly readers to see the slight changes between the originally published version and the one that made it in the novel.

Those lucky enough to be able to afford the limited signed edition of Getting to Know You will also get a small chapbook reprinting “She Was Good, She Was Funny”, a 1994 thriller tale (then published in Playboy magazine) featuring a philandering narrator, a jealous husband, and the implacable Alaskan climate. A perfect little desert on top of a sumptuous meal. The story may not be science-fiction, but it’s recognizably by Marusek with its clever conceit and curiously triumphal ending.

If Getting to Know You proves anything, it’s that much like Ted Chiang, Marusek’s slow-but-steady pace has its advantages: His short story output is solid, and show a skilled writer working at a consistent level. But there’s more to this book that a collection of stories loosely bound together: From the recurring themes, approaches and tonal beats in his stories, we get a far more representative portrait of Marusek’s fiction than one could glean from either Counting Heads or his best-known stories in isolation. A love and respect for Alaska; a jokey kinetic tone that hides darker undercurrents; an accessible, even compelling writing style; an enthusiasm for ideas that doesn’t shy away from their appalling consequences: These are what makes Marusek a writer to watch, even if the pace of his publications can be trying at time.

So, when is his next novel due in bookstores?

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.