Review: "Counting Heads" by David Marusek

Counting HeadsIt isn't often that I'm surprised by near-future hard SF. We geeks who spend vast quantities of our time reading about the future as imagined by different authors tend to see the same ideas put forward time and again. Usually, these ideas follow trends: One author popularizes a concept or technological advance, as Neal Stephenson did with nanotechnology in The Diamond Age, and immediately dozens of other SF authors co-opt the innovator's ideas in their own books for a few years. Every protagonist in 20X6 suddenly possesses a nanoid immune system capable of doing anything from neutralizing poisons to regrowing lost limbs.

But the innovators are something special. They're the authors who glom on to the zeitgeist in real science and take it to a surprising but seemingly inevitable conclusion. Sure, maybe some physicists actually made the initial breakthrough, but the innovative author dreams that dry technological accomplishment so thoroughly and convincingly that it sometimes seems to propel further advances in the real field being referenced. By imagining the future, a truly visionary author helps to create it. Witness Arthur C. Clarke's prediction of geostationary communications satellites, which are ubiquitous now but were unheard of when he coined the concept in 1945. Or, as we noted on episode 2 of Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas, witness Robert Heinlein's invention of the waterbed.

This is all preface to my labeling David Marusek an innovator, one of the elite few in hard SF. It'll take a dozen books or two before we can really say if he's headed towards Grand Master status on par with Clarke's, but his first novel, Counting Heads, is a truly promising beginning for a career in the genre. (Marusek has previously written short stories for Asimov's and even Playboy.)

Counting Heads describes a future where the miracles of nanotech have made immortality a possibility, although not a guarantee. It begins with a first-person account from legendary package designer Samson Harger, famous for his orange peel gift wrap. In the future, you'll be able to wrap your Christmas presents in seamless, living orange peel that squirts fragrant juice when you tear it open. It's little touches like this, both technologically plausible to the point of being around-the-corner and yet completely surprising, that set the book head and shoulders above most other near-future SF novels. In part 2, we spread out and begin to see the larger world of the book from multiple perspectives, and this is where Marusek really begins to shine. He does an impeccable job of exploring the social and economic implications of today's infant technologies. Prior to the events of the book, worldwide conflicts employing deadly nanotech weapons occurred, forcing cities to wrap themselves in antinano bubbles and install mandatory "slugways" in all buildings. Small artificial slugs continuously prowl these paths between rooms, inching toward every living being and "tasting" them for nano infection on a frequent basis. The action kicks into gear when Sam Harger's wife, an uber-powerful but principled uber-bureaucrat is assassinated, her daughter's living head abducted from the scene, and forces unseen manage to convince the Chicago government to lower its defensive anti-nano canopy and deactivate its slugs.

Marusek has envisioned his world so clearly and carefully that the technical details feel like afterthoughts. References are made subtly and in passing, the way any of us would refer to a ubiquitous convenience like a cellphone or digital camera, and it takes you many pages to get a full glimpse of how this future society truly differs from our own, while remaining completely human and recognizable. In other words, Marusek describes his world as his characters experience it, instead of throwing all of his clever ideas at you right away just to impress you with his SF-fu. This restraint has the opposite effect, enflaming your interest as a reader and lending an amazingly sharp texture to the environment.

Best of all, Marusek is a terrific storyteller. This is an engaging and thought-provoking read. Highly recommended.

Counting Heads by David Marusek
Published by: Tor (November 2005)
ISBN: 0765312670
Genre: near-future hard SF

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