Counting Heads: exciting, major new sf novel

David Marusek is one of the best-kept secrets of science fiction, a wild talent with a Gibson-grade imagination and marvelous prose, and a keen sense of human drama that makes it all go. Science fiction editors nurture short story writers — many sf insiders keep track of the short fiction markets and watch with keen interest the writers who are doing good work there, but until those writers manage to get a novel out, it's rare for the field at large to take note of them. Writers like Ben Rosenbaum and Ted Chiang do incredible, brilliant work in short lengths, and the field does yeoman duty recognizing them with awards and approbation, but ultimately, the audience for short fiction is regrettably small.

Marusek's amazing story "The Wedding Album" floored me when I read it in 1999, was a finalist on the Nebula ballot, won the Sturgeon and Asimov's Reader's Choice Awards, placed in the Locus, Seiun and HOMer awards, and left all who read it gob-smacked. It was the story of the AI avatars cast as a sort of wedding photo of a couple on their big day; the story traces the avatars' lives through thousands of years of technical evolution, through the Singularity, and out the other side. The story reels from heartbreaking to mind-bending like a poet on a magnificent drunk bouncing from lamp-post to lamp-post.

I have a gigantic backlog of reading that I've promised to do, but when the galleys for Marusek's first novel, Counting Heads, came to my mailbox, it went into my shoulder-bag and has stayed there ever since, while I read it in sips and draughts, stealing every possible moment to read more of it, wanting to see what happens next and not wanting it to end.

Counting Heads is the story of a humanity thrashing on the horns of the dilemma of too much of everything. In the Counting Heads world, the idea of being a single individual is obsolete. Some people are clones. Some are virtual. Some are avatars cast for some utility function and then discarded. Some are AI minders who babysit the others. Even families and households are fluid and multiplicitous: in a world as crowded as Marusek's, social institutions are necessarily larger and weirder than our contemporary nuclear families.

Yet all is not well, for too much can be as confounding as not enough. Counting Heads is the story of a vast intrigue, through which an emergent conspiracy rockets a remarkable woman to near-empress status, and then visits upon her indignity after indignity. Her husband, Sam, is the main protagonist of this story (which sports a gigantic cast of fascinating and likable characters), and it is through his eyes that we see every corner of this amazing world, from its highest heights to its lowest gutters.

It's hard to summarize this book because again and again, the plot hinges on wonderful, original inventions, and just describing the storyline would spoil too many of David's delightful surprises. I haven't felt as buffeted by a book since Gibson's Neuromancer — haven't felt more like I was reading something truly radical, new and exciting.

When David was writing short stories, he was an exciting writer. Now that he's onto novels, he's practically a force of nature.

Phones came in a dizzying array of forms and substances–wearable, edible, and environmental–many of which were free to the consumer. But Bogdan wanted his own phone, a phone without location or ID transponders, polling or advertising agreements, subliminal motivational messaging, remote medication metering, or membership to a suicide prevention community. In other words, Bogdan wanted a phone with no agenda outside the simple function of connecting him to the public opticom. This ruled out phone crisps, phone tattoos and nail polish, phone house plants and air fresheners, and most other models within his narrow price range. After five minutes of searching, he was about to give up when he stumbled across the new crop of cap valet felt, and he felt another pang of misery for his stolen Lisa.

Magister Scholastic Valets had come a long way since Kodiak Charter had bought him Lisa's "Little Professor" model nineteen years before. For the same price that they had paid back then, he could purchase a "Rhodes Scholar" with seven million times the processing power and triple the Turing index. But the price! This small strip of nanofacture cost five hundred United Democracies credits! Was it possible that nineteen years ago, when he really was a ten-year-old boy, his charter had the wherewithal to invest five hundred yoodies in his education?

Bogdan sighed and scrolled to the next page where he found exactly what he was looking for–simple phone patches that you stuck to your throat and behind your ear. They were audio only, but at 00.0001 UDC, the price was right. Bogdan ordered a set and went to stand in line next to the extruder.

Link, Link to Marusek's book blog