In Counting Heads, David Marusek takes readers on a tour like no other, through a world of the future full of nanotechnology and immortality (for those who can afford it), cloned service workers engineered for specific personality traits, genetically infused charter societies, highly intelligent personal assistant AIs, simulated children, and holographic movie stars. A well-deserved reprinting from its original 2005 publication, this expansive novel portrays a true mosaic of a society—from its most affluent peaks to its lowest depths. Marusek renders the alien human in this incredible achievement.
Medical nanytes have made old medicine a thing of the past, and living forever is as easy as a trip to the local rejuvenation center. These nanytes have infiltrated every aspect of daily life: from terrorism to the internet (now with full-body attachments!) and everything in between. The rich can afford mentars, personal assistants who arrange their schedules, make their appointments, and even read documents for them, leaving them in an utterly dependent state of immortal ease, with wealth accumulated from several lifetimes.
Down the ladder are clones based on genetic archetypes to be ideal bodyguards, proficient nurses, and empathetic companions. The clones, something of second-class citizens, are owned and employed by the mega-corporation Applied People and form the basis of many service industries. On the same economic tier are chartists, communes with a joint income and residence, futuristic relics of old utopian socialist communities.
A great success of this novel is its complex exhibition of racial and economic tensions between these groups through multiple storylines. You’ll find no simple master-slave dialectic; instead, Marusek asks—with great psychological detail—what it’s like to be one of these people. What are their daily concerns? Their weaknesses resulting from their social stratification? How do feelings of alienation manifest in a clone who feels estranged from his brothers? What is it like to be part of a failing utopia? To be cast out of affluent heaven into dusty mortality? These are both personal dramas and sociological inquiries containing a full-bodied psychological realism.
Marusek accomplishes this by hurling the reader-tourist right into the novel with little in the way of explanation. We learn what’s going on by trial and error, figuring out the landscape of this strange America through sometimes frustrating personal effort, not a guidebook. The rare moments of exposition serve as humorous punctuation, giving the reader the extra boost needed as well as a good laugh—one of the funnier passages comes from a woman marveling at old books, lacking hypertext and digital interfaces, regarding the text on the paper as a “stain.” Get ready for plenty of slang rejoicing in wordplay reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange, as Marusek renders the way these people speak as well as live.
This novel walks the thin line between technophilia and dystopia. One can’t help but marvel at the wonders of this world, where through technological advancement nearly anything is possible. And yet there are shadows lingering at the edges. While it’s never made clear what the old terrorists of the “Outrage” (now gone without a trace) were so up-in-arms about, it’s not hard to infer they opposed the technology-dependent state society became, where the death of a famous public figure is called a “market correction.” That and the trigger-happy, privacy-invading national government (which the public accepts without qualm, chilling, considering surveillance comes in the form of mechanical slugs which nip your heels) hint at the sacrifices required to make this brave new world.
Marusek’s menagerie of technology becomes something of an assault: wildly fantastical and exciting at first, but at times overwhelming, slyly pointing out the fragility of our quaint 21st-century notions. For example, while you can stop the surveillance and advertising “bees” from following you by announcing your right to privacy, it means you’re forced to shout “desist!” every five feet while walking along the promenade. Combine this with advertising agencies creating highly accurate preference profiles for every demographic of consumer and AIs creating television plotlines, and you begin to wonder just how much control is left. But these thorns in the side of utopia are, despite their bite, not stodgy and grim. Marusek’s treatment of technology is balanced, full of wonders and horrors alike. And it is speculative fiction at its finest because it is just that: speculative.
The multiple plotlines converge on a classic adventure-conspiracy story which refuses to let you put it down, for at every plot point there are several stories of themes of the novel, its world, and its people. While fast-paced, the novel allows plenty of time to dwell: over 150 dense pages of the book’s 330 are devoted to a single day, when the anti-terrorist protective bubble that covers Chicagoland comes down and this society is forced to live again in open air. The turns and diversions of plot provide ample space to develop Marusek’s exhaustive ideas and complicated characters, making the reader want to finish not just to see what happens, but because what happens matters.
Counting Heads is an exemplar for what science fiction should strive to be. Its characters are real individuals with dilemmas that transcend their tech-happy world. They grow up (or don’t) in meaningful ways, hurt us when hurt themselves, and compel us to care about their lives. They people a world you may love or hate living in, a world endlessly fascinating and inviting which will keep you nailed to every unexpected turn, for every page holds a new surprise. This vibrant work demands to be explored for all its fullness and imagination, ideas and emotions: it is a true book of life.