Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: Counting Heads by David Marusek

Overall Grade: B+
The book jacket for this 2005 science fiction novel includes blurbs such as "One of my favorite books of last year in any category" by the New York Times and "The most exciting debut SF novel I've read since Neuromancer . . . one of the best novels, period," by Fantasy & Science Fiction, and "one of the best first novels of the decade so far" by Locus.

It's certainly a good novel in many ways, though it didn't leave me eager to pick it up every day and I thought it was really running out of gas by the end.

Setting: I'd give the book a B+ in this area. As noted under "Cool Factor," the setting is very creative, but I never had a strong feel for how everything held together. Marusek throws in clones, artificial intelligences, moderate transhumanism, and advanced biotech and nanotech without really explaining or showing how all of these elements could coexist. That is, he shows them coexisting, but there's a lot of smoke and mirrors involved. I have no real idea of the citizenship status of clones, or the artificial minds called mentars, or exactly how the majority of regular people manage to earn money, or even how people regard the very strict population controls (which seem to vary throughout the course of the book).

Most critically for me, Marusek presents a future North America that seems to have a draconian centralized security authority that can violate individual rights, yet seems to derive its powers from no clear source of political or economic power. There are just a lot of competing companies that apparently cooperate to create an oligarchy that then monitors their own actions and members? It just felt disjointed at a fundamental level without some sort of clarification.

Now, some people, including the ectastic reviewers, were probably thrilled that Marusek neatly avoided the traps of info-dumping and lecturing to the reader that plague so many novels of ideas. He really concentrates on the show not tell approach. But his ideas were too complex and his plot too meandering for me to get a good grasp of them as I read. I felt that very little was explored--as a reader I was shown many surfaces of the world but not the heart or machines that drove it. So it left me a bit flat. I give it a high B simply because Marusek has so many intriguing applications of technology to society.

Characters: The book gets a solid B in this category for me. Some of the characters have the potential to be quite interesting, but we never seem to spend enough time with them as the narrative flits around from person to person. Others seem to exist mostly to show that supposedly stereotyped people (clones, retroboys, etc.) can struggle against the expectations of their type. The author cleared cared about characters and characterization, but I didn't care about most of them as the book drew to a climax. Others may have been more annoyed by the lack of likable characters than I was. I just wanted more interesting or fully developed characters. But I credit Marusek for caring about them.

Part One of the book is stronger on characterization and could stand alone as a novella. Part Two was a mish-mash. Several key characters do change over the course of the story, which is good. But the changes they undergo don't really seem to have anything to do with the main plot that supposedly links them together, with the exception of the clone Mary.

Plot: This is a B-, based largely on how disappointing Part Two of the book was. The plot at the core of Part Two is exceedingly simple: a powerful woman has been assassinated and there are mysterious forces trying to kill the barely living remains of her sole daughter and heir. This is then cluttered by byzantine twists and turns, multiple point of view characters, a lot of deus ex machina episodes with super-powerful computers and hidden conspiracies, and a lack of specific information to pay us off for our attention to the twists and turns. It's either a Gordian knot that doesn't get cut, or else the villains and their motivations are so simple that those we are led to suspect by one character in the beginning are really behind it all for the simple motivation of profit.

By the end, the thing I expected to happen had happened, and I felt somewhat annoyed at the twists and turns we took to get to that predictable event because the length seemed to be made largely of detours intended to show off clever ideas for the setting, which while entertaining individually were often confusing when I took a step back to try to fit them into the setting as a whole.

Language: While I wasn't bowled over by Marusek's style or his turns of phrase, I thought he wrote well. I was impressed enough by the jargon he devised to describe his future to rate his use of language as an A. The book is loaded with evocative terms like seared and iterant and company names like E Pluribus that are both informative about their subjects and believable in their usage.

Cool Factor: The book gets an A or A+ in this regard for the sheer quantity of clever and weird ideas that are jammed in. Everything from security slugs that crawl around sampling skin cells to rectal plugs that monitor neural and physiological reactions to the orbital Skytel billboard originally created as an anti-terrorism device are simultaneously creepy and intriguing. There's a very gifted imagination at work here.

Big Ideas: I really could not find a Big Idea in the big bubbling stew of little ideas and events that Marusek cooked up. In Part One, the Big Idea seems to be that in the future we will give up our privacy in the name of security.

Overall Grade: B+, carried by the trifecta of language, cool factor and setting while being dragged down by the characters and plot. I would have given the novel an A-, but several times over the course of the last 100 pages I had to stop and decide if I wanted to finish the book or not, because the stretching out of the wandering main and sub-plot lines and the lack of connection to the constantly shifting multiple characters made it feel like a chore. I had no expectation of being surprised by the ending (and I wasn't), but I had hoped that it would prove more illuminating as to why many events were taking place, or that it would resolve more than it did.

In general, I think speculative fiction critics are most often impressed by complex, innovative settings that involve multiple plot threads and characters. They don't seem to care much if those characters are likable (or at least capable of being related to), if the plot twists show good pacing and structure, or if the setting makes the reader work too hard to get a grasp of it. I do care about those three things, so while I've read highly praised books that were superb in my view, quite often I find them disappointing as stories because they fall flat in those areas.

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