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Counting Heads by David Marusek | Book Review

April 4

My latest review is for Counting Heads by David Marusek. This is a catchy read. The story pulls up sort of like a shiny new car to whisk you off to an exotic location. It is March 30, 2092. That is announced immediately like a road sign. The technology is exotic and plentiful from the get go, so that serves as an invitation to put the imagination on cruise control, kick the seat back and enjoy the scenery that Marusek supplies along the way. Along the way he throws descriptive zingers out there that are good for a laugh. On the first page we get the line:

“Her eyes peered out at you like eels in coral.”

The use of such similes and metaphors could quickly become annoying or look like the author was stretching too far to attempt to impart wit or charm into the tale, but in the context that they arrived it seemed to me that they came with a cheerful, good natured wink.

In 2092 and 2132 technology can do almost anything. Longevity to the point of virtual immortality is prevalent. Death for the most part is an inconvenience to be managed. The affluent in society can totally manage their lives compliments of extremely complex artificial intelligence called valets or later, mentars. There is virtually nothing that technology cannot provide those who have the access to it. But as our main characters, led by Samson Harger, learn technology can also take away as it gives. There are also some personal voids that no amount of technology can fill.

Such is the nature of life in this world that our story unfolds over a span of 40 years, not over days and months. A high tech “misunderstanding” changes Samson Harger’s life forever just when it seems like he truly does have everything. In a matter of seconds, literally, he has all of that taken away and is irrevocably turned into an outcast and fringe member of society.

That is but the beginning of a conspiracy against his family that takes 40 years to unfold and draws in all of the other characters, who cut a cross section across all social classes in the world. We see the affluents, the chartists, and the cloned workforce, as well as the ghosts and uncertainties that haunt them all even as it seems like they have everything that life could have to offer. We see that there always seems to be some longing that technology cannot fix. So not everything is idyllic in that utopian Star Trek way.

Our plot furthers itself as we follow the events of our characters, and they are varied. We have perhaps the only old man in the world who is near death but desires one final social statement before he dies, and a clone security expert who wonders if there’s more to life than the likes and dislikes, traits, and characteristics of his genetic line, and fears that even thinking about that may be a sign genetic clone fatigue. There is his wife, another clone who fears that the skillset of her genetic line is rapidly becoming obsolete in the current world. There is a retro-boy, who desires all the advantages of willingly remaining in a pre-puberty state even as he sees the disadvantages and missed opportunities. His housemeets in the Kodiak Charter also go about their daily lives as they watch their charter continue to decay from its previous heights. We have a social planner who is caught in the middle of a suspiciously improbable accident and finds himself further drawn into events by an AI entity.

Loose connections begin to be made in the plot as all these elements converge, and all road signs pointed to an exciting climax where everything finally came together, all those cherries on the slot machine lined up, and we got our big payout. I was reading eagerly, as the story was original and innovative enough that I didn’t find myself beating the novel to its conclusion. It built up and built up as our character drama reached critical mass. A number of chapters along the way were written with a different style or perspective. They must be there to draw attention to something important or significant, like a flashing hotel sign on the side of an interstate. Things seemed juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust on the verge of all coming together into what I was already anticipating as a big ‘Wow!’ moment. Then just like that the story reached a quick ending. Like the author ran out of words and the story had to stop there. The road ended pretty much exactly where the map for our journey said it would, but the map never said our shiny new car ride would stop at a bridge that was still under construction, with no road ahead left to travel. All those pieces along the way never assembled into a complete explanation. What was the point behind everything that happened? What was the big conspiracy hinted at through the story? You find that you don’t know anymore than what you speculated along the way. Or, like me, perhaps you feel like something of a dense reader, wondering if artfully planted clues and deep interpretations were left out there in plain sight so that all the answers should be self apparent, and that in the end after reading this fine book you managed to entirely miss the point and let it fly over your head.

Perhaps David Marusek wanted to foster conjecture and debate. Maybe somewhere in here he has encoded his secret answer to the meaning of life. Perhaps if I had a Bachelor or Master’s Degree in Literature the message he was conveying would not have slipped beneath my conscious threshold. But maybe he’s already planning for a sequel and wanted to leave them wanting more.

I do want more. I want some concrete answers. So for that I have to drop Counting Heads down a couple notches and give it an 8. I was counting heads but in the end I wasn’t able to report any sort of definitive number..

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