Counting Heads – David Marusek

Marusek’s debut novel is set in a futuristic Earth of nanotechnology and cloning. Society is divided up roughly into four groups. Affs are the very rich, practically immortal beings who seem to spend their time spinning webs of power. Free Rangers are the middle class, living often in Charters, a sort of communes. The lower class is made up of clones, everything from Russes to Evangelines to Jennys, bred for their dominant traits. Jennys are nurturing and often work in healthcare, Russes are loyal and work as security and bodyguards, and so forth. These are real human beings, not robots, with feelings and aspirations, albeit somewhat restricted by their genetic heritage. Finally, Mentars are cybernetic beings. The story, such as it is, revolves around the death of a very powerful Aff, and the fallout from that. The journey takes us from the lofty Aff life to the day to day work of clones.

Marusek’s world is a masterpiece of imagination. Detailed and cleverly internally consistent, it sucks the reader in. Most of the characters are three dimensional and interesting, their flaws and motivations laid out in fascinating expositions.

Unfortunately, the novel has three big flaws, beginning with the rather weak first section. It serves as a very long introduction and is jarringly different in style and content from the rest of the book. The two main characters are unlikeable, and while that’s fine, they are also a bit dull after a while, like inhabitants of a bad reality show. The second flaw is the paper thin plot. The whole book feels a bit like a documentary. And while it is a very good documentary, the lack of a concrete thrust to the story made me almost give up after eighty pages or so. The third flaw is the author’s often excessive attempts at cleverness. A character may be introduced and go about its business without any explanation about how he or she fits in the grand scheme of things for another thirty or a hundred pages. While this is fine in itself, it is somewhat annoying to see it used as a plot device. Yes, Mr. Marusek, I did understand that all these characters are related, and you did explain it in the end, but complexity is not a means unto itself.

In conclusion, this is a very promising debut, but the style and world are presented too blatantly. The author seems to be saying “look at this cool thing I made” all the time. Contrast this with the rawness Gibson’s Neuromancer, where the world is just “there”, and fascinating concepts are barely touched upon unless the characters themselves explore them more deeply. I really wanted to like this book, but the flaws annoyed almost to the point of disgust. Having said that, I would still recommend it if you like futuristic world building.

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