Book Review: ‘Counting Heads’ by David Marusek

The definition of ‘science fiction’ is hotly debated. But the general consensus of the critics seems to be that it is defined by ‘the encounter with otherness’, and that despite (usually) being set in the future it is primarily a dialogue about Earth’s present culture and our relationship with emerging technologies. If you accept these terms, David Marusek‘s novel-length debut ‘Counting Heads‘ is a bulls-eye on all counts.

And not only that; he has managed to make the story a very human drama, filled with moments of touching humour and tragedy as the superbly realised characters move through the future world they inhabit. And what a world it is; simultaneously alien and yet hauntingly familiar, it is populated by ‘iterant’ clones, a desperate and marginalised ‘working class’ for whom work is a special privilege reserved for the fortunate, AI ‘mentars’ of awesome ability, rogue nanotech leftovers from 21st Century terror wars, and much, much more.

The story’s main thread follows Samson Harger, a prize-winning design artist in the mid-21st century, his engineered fall from grace and subsequent life of poverty and isolation, and the trials and tribulations of not just his original family, but that of the ‘Charter’ clade he ends up in. But the book burgeons with cunning subplots, all neatly interwoven into a tale of magnificent proportions. The language is rich, loaded with new words that hook the reader into wanting to know more within the first few pages. The gradual increase in pace is handled expertly, the last quarter of the book moving frantically towards the conclusion and pulling the reader firmly along with the plot, which unfolds so carefully that one is left constantly hungering for the next revelation. It creates two conflicting desires: the urge to hammer through as fast as possible and reach the finale, and the desire to savour every page, probing the text for the subtle nuances and details of the lushly imagined world Marusek has created.

Not only is ‘Counting Heads’ a thrilling read, a literal ‘page-turner’, but it is also a fantastic take on the technologies that lurk on our horizon today, a revelatory examination of our hopes and fears as related to these. Marusek’s shorts created a great sense of anticipation about his first novel. It can be said with certainty that he has out-performed all expectations. This book will become a landmark of science fiction in the decade to come.

{NB: This review originally published in Interzone #202, and republished here by permission of the editor.}

{Reviewer’s note: I was pointed toward this novel by Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing fame, and made a point of buying it from the US just so I could review it. I think it should be plain I was not disappointed; after reading his short story ‘The Wedding Album’, I knew I was onto something special. To find out more about the man, read an interview with David Marusek by fellow Interzone reviewer Iain Emsley.}

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