Much contemporary science fiction seems slightly guilty about taking itself seriously. From the elaborately po-faced genre assassination of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition to the mumming in-jokes of a Doctorow or a Stross, there has crept into some of the genre's speculative work a self-defeating undercurrent of post-modern irony. Whether in despair at the impending singularity, or simple acceptance that SF has so often got the future wrong that it has become pointless to pretend you think you're right, a fair chunk of recent science fiction has seemed more interested in game-playing than ambition—emphasising genre navel-gazing rather than any serious discussion.
Counting Heads, David Marusek's startling debut novel, is a book acutely aware that science fiction achieves its true power and potency only when it also exhibits self-belief.
It is not that this is a book divorced from the genre. Far from it—in its depiction of a future ruled by cynical and self-justifying corporations, Counting Heads reminds us of Bester's The Stars My Destination; humans (these are emphatically not posthumans, whatever they may be) are resurrected or "rebooted," as in Doctorow's Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom; in the novel's genetic politics and impenetrable agendas, we hear echoes of Dune; the massive Oships destined for other solar systems tip their hats to Aldiss and Wolfe, Banks and Macleod; and by examining what happens when the space between the real and the illusory is reduced to nothing, Marusek tackles virtuality as well as anyone since Dick. But in all of these areas Marusek offers new visions and asks fresh questions, addressing the perennial issues of the genre but in such a way that he does not lose himself in the process. There is a particularly notable paragraph early on in the novel which sees Marusek neatly explain away the singularity, allowing his advanced AIs or "mentars" to exist without invalidating the purpose or profundity of speculation. It's a single paragraph, but it elegantly dances between the dominant oppositions of SF, finding a middle way between obsolescence and posthumanity. "We are not your successors, rivals, or replacements," one AI insists. "[Your] fears have not materialised. ...You are quickly catching up as you learn...to incorporate some of our advances into your own biological systems." In case you were wondering, this is not only a very good, but also a pretty important, science fiction novel.
Split into three parts, the book opens with Marusek's 1995 novella, "We Were Out Of Our Minds With Joy." It is an intoxicating piece of writing, a character-driven human drama which builds its world delicately but forcefully, simultaneously alienating its reader and drawing her in. Set in 2092, the novella introduces us to Chicagoland, some decades after a terrorist biological attack on the US which has forced the surviving population to take cover in cities protected by largely impenetrable "canopies." This backstory is hardly dealt with, in Marusek's singular imaginative vision becoming barely a hiccup in the development of his society. With the second part of the novel, the story jumps forward another forty years, and we are exposed yet further to this dizzying, alien, but above all believable, future.
In this future, the human lifespan has been increased to practical immortality. Biological science has progressed to such an extent that even the most grievous of injuries are no obstacle to resurrection—the only real death in the novel occurs when a character's body is liquefied. Nanotech enables the recycling of any material, and with enough credits any other material or product may be "extruded" from easily accessible units, with no need for manufacturers or workforces. The richest in this utopian society, known colloquially as the "affs" (Marusek's neologisms are some of the novel's zestiest touches), are constantly undergoing "juve" treatments—two-hundred-year-old women appearing thirty—whilst their every need is attended to by armies of clones, each known by the name of the specialist human from which they proceed (the security guard jerrys, law enforcement russes, medical nurse jennies, and empathetic evangelines). This system of specialist labour, however, has meant a reduction in status for the non-aff humans, and they gather together in "charters," or large groups of workers, which share the meagre earnings of their members across an entire household in an attempt to remain solvent.
This is, therefore, a complex society, neither marked improvement on our current system nor total disaster. Complexity here is the watchword—laziness of all sorts is the principal target of Counting Heads. There is a wonderful section in which we are warned against an easy critical reading: Sam Harker, ex-husband to the corporate politician Eleanor Starke, at one point lambasts a holo documentary about his career in art for choosing to interpret his work in gift-wrap as an expression of his basic superficiality: "Everything on the surface—get it?" he remarks disparagingly. (p. 188) Thus the merely metaphorical is questioned, and we are asked to analyse the book more seriously and more closely. The russ clone, Fred, is convinced that his "brothers" must think the same way he does, but discovers they do not; the "true" human, Bogdan, has a holographic copy of him rendered by his employers, and it knows everything he knows, concludes everything he could ever conclude. Marusek constructs an entirely believable future by rejecting the accepted truth of every simple shorthand we have.
And thus with his characters. Our human frailties are not just transplanted wholesale into the future, but translated into that new context. The book begins with Harker and Starke falling in love in a way so embedded in the assumptions and protocols of their time that it seems to us it cannot be love at all. Their first date does not take place in "realbody." They do not for a second countenance the possibility they will spend their entire lives together—when millennia stretch before them, such a belief would be idiotic. The child they are permitted to conceive (in a world in which a human may live forever, reproduction must be strictly controlled) is a stored foetus onto which their DNA will be grafted. Despite all this, the reader never doubts that Eleanor and Sam are in love, since, as Marusek explores his characters and concepts, we come to understand, if not share, their definition of it.
It is this child on whom the rest of book hinges. When she is involved in a terrible crash, only her head survives. With doctors now able to re-grow a body for that preserved brain, the enemies and allies of the Starke dynasty must engage in a race to first reach that head and then either save it or destroy it. In truth, though, the Starke plot is an excuse for Marusek to follow his characters through what amounts to just a few days of their lives. These are the days in which Sam Harker, "seared" forty years ago in an unexplained but accidental hit by "Homeland Command," his cellular make-up condemned to incompatibility with life-giving nanotech, will die; in which Chicagoland's canopy will be lowered, the Outrage officially over; and in which a handful of clones will begin to explore what it means for complete predictability to be your most valuable asset.
Counting Heads is a book principally about identity, then. There is a lot in here about artificiality, and the necessity of the distasteful, but ultimately each story is about what motivational speakers might call self-actualisation—the drive, desire, and ability to create and define oneself. The society Marusek posits, of course, is an extrapolation of our own—our obsession with youth and celebrity, our tendency to applaud the upwardly mobile and ignore the socially stationary, and our instinct for prejudice and self-preservation are all here—but it is also, crucially, a thing all of its own. The characters in it care about their own lives, not ours, and strive to become something of their time, something which makes sense to them.
The clone evangelines, redundant and unwanted, wonder how to become useful once more; Meewee Merril, the passive and wheedling devotee of the Garden Earth Oship project, strives to make his plans come to fruition, groping for post-capitalism in a decidedly more traditional climate; each character at some point wonders whether they can trust their mentar, their ever-present AI and personal secretary; and for her part the reader muses how far the holos and sims in which the characters take such interest get in the way of engagement with something more real and immediate. This book seethes with crises of purpose we both recognise and find entirely alien. In its depiction of new parents struggling to understand the implications of what they are about to do, the opening novella establishes this discord between the familiar and the strange perfectly: "There was a baby in a drawer in Jersey with our names on it. We were out of our minds with joy." (p. 11)
The second two parts of the novel cannot follow that first for sheer verve—they are not so consistently well-written, so viscerally gosh-wow. But that first part is phenomenal, and so to point out this relative failure is but a small criticism to make: the story Marusek appends to his novella is worth telling both in its own right and as an expansion of that first tale. Indeed, the subsequent parts take place further into the novel's future, and are thus replete with even stranger and more gripping details and denouements. The end of the book perhaps devolves a little too far into a stock thriller crescendo, but a plot must be resolved, and by that point in the novel we care so much about the characters that their role in the chase is far more important to us than its objective quality. Indeed, this is Marusek's real coup—not only does he create a world which fuses the queasy future shock of Stross with a new and more humane aesthetic, but he fills that future with characters that belong there whilst also remaining utterly empathetic and three-dimensional.
Counting Heads introduces us to a world which gives us the very best that science fiction can offer—a vertiginous sense of wonder which, in displacing us from our assumptions, believably leads us to ask serious questions about our own world without descending into weak allegory. It also introduces us to a novelist of real power and intelligence, who can infuse his work with an entire genre and not be too scared, nor lack the ambition or ability, to go yet further. In short, it takes itself seriously.
And so, in turn, do we.
Dan Hartland is a British writer of various words, of which some are occasionally about science fiction. He retains a perspective decidedly outside of the genre, one which could conveniently be described as well-wishing frustration. He awaits the day he can do this for a living and copy-write for fun.