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Getting to Know You by David Marusek | Book Review

June 24

Getting to Know You is only David Marusek’s second book, but he is already a veteran of the science fiction wars. Marusek’s 2005 novel Counting Heads was the subject of the debut speculative fiction column “Across the Universe” in that bastion of mainstream fiction, The New York Times Book Review; the column both proclaimed Counting Heads to be among the reviewer’s “favorite books [of 2005] in any category” and yet wondered, “why does contemporary science fiction have to be so geeky” that it becomes inaccessible to readers of mainstream literature? The question helped renew a battle, waged within the science fiction community since the New Wave movement of the 1960s, over how the “science” and “fiction” components of SF intersect. Some (such as Charles Stross) argued that SF should be more geeky, should focus its efforts on the tech-savvy readers of websites like Slashdot and Boing Boing; others (including John Scalzi) argued that what SF requires are more accessible entry points for readers less familiar with science. Sadly, the first point of the NYT column — regarding the quality of Marusek’s fiction — was largely forgotten in the discussion. Given all this, I’m happy to say that Getting to Know You, a new collection of the author’s short stories, in large part bridges the gaps that its predecessor highlighted: it’s equally accessible to SF genrephiles and mainstream readers. The collection’s defining characteristic is carefully constructed balance.

The “carefully constructed” qualifier is an important one; the balance Marusek achieves in Getting to Know You is based on variety and focus, not a dull sameness. Of the ten stories in the collection (initially published between 1993 and 2003, largely in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine), five strongly evoke distinct, singular emotions; these stories are quite separate and range from the present day to some unspecified far future. The remaining five stories occur in the same near-future universe as Counting Heads and are deeply multifaceted, ambiguous works. These stories present a future history of North America from 2033 to approximately 2600. Nanotech and biotech, along with cloning, artificial intelligence, wearable ubiquitous computing, human augmentation and environmental terrorism — all are explored, along with their implications for politics, economics, lifestyles and more. It never gets overwhelming, though, because Marusek doles out progress slowly: each story focuses on just a few advances and implications. Moreover each story is grounded by one or two intensely human characters.

Indeed, the “Counting Heads stories” in Getting to Know You illustrate how Marusek’s characterization naturally balances competing literary worldviews. Characterization in genre science fiction is largely predicated on ideas of intention, change and growth; mainstream literary fiction in contrast is often centered around the foolish consistency of people and the borders that constrain their growth. Getting to Know You offers up a third model of what is so often called “the human condition” (and rather vacuously left at that). Marusek uses technology to show that while the outward appearance of people may be consistent and monolithic, inside there is a swirling of ideas and beliefs tightly linked to current circumstances. That swirl is rarely glimpsed because once we are convinced of our beliefs, we rarely reconsider them. If we could examine a person’s mind in frozen instants of time, however, we — and they — might be surprised at the variance of their thoughts from one moment to the next, and what the logical extensions of those thoughts might be.

So for example Vice President Saul Jaspersen, in “Cabbages and Kale or How We Downsized North America,” begins to realize how little he knows himself when confronted by a “proxy” of himself — a holographic copy of both physical features and inner mental state. When asked his opinion of a Procreation Ban that will limit the right to have children to select licensed citizens,

The president eyed the proxy. “Not so fast, Saul. Proxy, please explain why you’d vote for the ban.”

“Gladly. As a Gaiaist, I believe that if we don’t limit our specioeffluvium, and I mean quick, the Mother will push us aside and do it for us. And her methods, believe you me, are none too gentle.”

The president groaned, and Saul went pale. “But I’m not a Gaiaist!”

“How can you be so sure?” said the proxy. “Mother cherishes all her biomass, even you.”

This theme recurs in the other “Counting Heads universe” stories within Getting to Know You. In the title story, a journalist covering a new type of “belt valet” — today’s hand-held PDA perfected, combined with an “imprinting” mechanism to mold the belt’s AI to the personality of its wearer — finds that imprinting may represent the perfection of high technology itself. And that for we imperfect people, perfection will be different than what we think we want it to be. That sentiment is echoed in the Sturgeon Award-winning novella “The Wedding Album,” where newlywed Anne and Benjamin are cast in a “sim” — a holographic recording akin to “Cabbages and Kale”‘s proxies — at the happiest moment of their lives. The story then juxtaposes that perfect moment with the rest of their lives, and, in a science fictional twist, against a backdrop some 450 years of human history and development.

The perfectibility of technology is another recurring motif in the “Counting Heads” stories: in “The Wedding Album” the memento is perfected; in “Getting to Know You,” the PDA. All five stories also involve the perfection of reproductive technology, and the implications of this on gender relations. At a surface level, the more that technology — in particular but not limited to reproductive technology — has equalized the genders in these stories, the more women gain not just equal footing but often an upper-hand on the male characters. But what the later stories in the chronology interject is the niggle that what women may have been doing by relying on laws and legislation is not gaining reproductive control for themselves, but rather transferring authority over their choices from men to the state. Reproductive technology, and technology in general, thus become potential levers of control over women by the state. This can be seen in “A Boy in Cathyland,” where a woman struggles to maintain her technology-enabled private utopia. It also appears with more subtlety in “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy,” which deals with the more general perfectibility of society. Another set of newlyweds, Sam and Eleanor, find themselves on top of an already utopian world when Eleanor is nominated for a high-level government job and the couple is granted a rare permit to “retro-conceive” a child. Of course there’s a price for these gifts, and when it comes due the story becomes at once among the most horrific and optimistic in the collection.

The story of Sam and Eleanor will be familiar to readers of Counting Heads, as it became the beginning of that novel. If there was a common criticism of Counting Heads by genre reviewers, it was that the novel felt fragmented: a mosaic whose pieces were too separate, connected mainly by an overabundance of technological paste. Getting to Know You, however, succeeds in part because the connections that felt fragmented in the novel here serve to add depth and resonance to separate short stories. It’s also apparent that in the novel Marusek tried to integrate aspects such as politics and economics across the entire narrative that here appear as the focus of only one or two stories. In Counting Heads for example we are told that “[Eleanor’s] celebrity futures are trading at 9.7 cents,” followed by a paragraph-long infodump on the celebrity economy; the version in Getting to Know You reads simply “the People Channel has recently tagged her as a probable celebrity.” This tighter focus, combined with less reliance on neologisms (there are few of Counting Heads‘s mentars, fabplats, etc. to be found), makes the stories in Getting to Know You more accessible to a mainstream reader. And finally, the short form may simply be better than the novel at highlighting the ambiguity that pervades the “Counting Heads” universe.

If the five “Counting Heads stories” in Getting to Know You are ambiguous and multifaceted, the remaining five stories balance out the collection’s content in more elemental, emotionally evocative ways. “Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz, Yurek Rutz,” for example, contributes a vital portion of good-natured humor. It’s a metafictional tale centered around a wife’s desire to immortalize her husband — in part through some do-it-yourself cryogenics involving the Alaskan permafrost, in part through the literary efforts of a writer named David Marusek. A different sort of humor is on display in the short-short “My Morning Glory,” which Marusek introduces as his only story with “an unalloyed happy ending.” The story then proceeds to show just how much an unalloyed farce such a thing would be (it reads like a Stuart Smalley “Daily Affirmation” for the iEverything future). In contrast, the similarly short “The Earth is On the Mend” offers up the most genuine hope to be found in the collection: it’s a far-future story about the gradual thawing of the Earth — and its inhabitants — following an ice age or nuclear winter.

“VTV” is a near-future story where the media rush to stake out an assassination victim before she is assassinated, in the hope of broadcasting the killing. To reveal what emotion it evokes would spoil the ending, but it felt the most flawed of these stories: the foreshadowing is a bit heavy-handed and it suffers from the near-future curse of already feeling out of date. Partly this stems from its concern with live TV at a time when Tivo has become a verb and YouTube among the top 10 most trafficked websites. Partly, though, it’s because while Marusek describes his goal with “VTV”‘s musings on filmed violence as “to see just how despicable a picture of humanity [he] could paint,” humanity has proven a moving target. That said, it is a hard-hitting story, perhaps the more-so for its heavy handedness. The same can be said for “Listen to Me,” where Marusek forsakes the Earth to debunk the romance of space travel. Madness is featured here, the madness of cabin fever projected over a seemingly endless journey.

Endlessness, the drive for immortality and the pitfalls of achieving it: what Marusek is grappling with more directly than in most science fiction are life and death, the primal drivers of story. As with much modern literature, life in these stories is represented by humor — not laugh-out-loud hilarity, but satire, absurdity, farce. In mainstream literary fiction this humor is often directed at the way people act against life’s inexorable movement toward death; here, science fiction allows Marusek to show how people act with immortality in reach, when set against technology’s inexorable movement toward the future. Both comfortingly and distressingly, people remain very much people, with the same needs and concerns. The book thus feels true. Science fiction fans will experience the quintessential sense of wonder, awe at the sheer scale of it all. Mainstream readers will be happy to find that the “wow” effect is less caused by the technology itself, and more that the science fictional elements allow character-based moments of wonder and discovery. Despite their inner complexity, people find it very difficult to change; what Marusek suggests is that technological developments may only exacerbate this fact, making any degree of self-realization even more rare and precious. “You are an accurate mapping of a human nervous system that was dysfunctional in certain structures,” sim-Anne is told in “The Wedding Album.” “The digital architecture current at the time you were created compounded this defect.” For readers in or out of the SF genre inclined to see technology as a savior — or who shy away from imagining the future — Getting to Know You is a warning shot across the conceptual bow.

Not a friendly place — the future — but if [Saul] was honest, was it so different from the future that he, himself, had toiled to create?

Is this a perfect collection? No, not quite. For one, while they help to create a better balance of story and emotion here, the non-Counting Heads stories are still more slight and uneven than the material that helped shape Marusek’s novel. Readers familiar with Counting Heads may thus feel that there’s a dearth of content that feels new and significant in this collection. The other primary weakness stems from the fact that the excellence of these stories is so centrally contained in their balance. There are fewer surprises than you might expect in a ten story collection, and a corresponding lack of immediacy. These stories work best after you’ve had time to think about them, not while you are reading them.

That said, here at FantasyBookSpot we recently discussed how we know that we’ve read a great book, and while others championed the desire to immediately re-read a book, I said that wanting time to think about a book after reading it was the surest sign of greatness for me. Note, then, that I finished Getting to Know You three weeks ago, and have spent the intervening time letting the pieces settle and the connections form. To be sure this is not a light book; accessibility aside, it reads best when met halfway. Just, in a sense, as the future is best met halfway. I would recommend this collection to anyone with an interest in the future — not the future of a millennium from now, but the future of tomorrow, the next time you speak to someone, the next time you think about where you’ll be in a year, a decade. Enjoy these stories now, while they still are about the future. Get to know them, because in the future they will be getting to know you.

— Matt Denault

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