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  • TITLE: Counting Heads
  • AUTHOR: David Marusek


    In 1965, the young cinemist Arthur Penn was coming off his career-making and Oscar-winning 2nd film, The Miracle Worker. Given carte-blanche by the studios for his next project—he would go on to become one of America's most influential and creative filmmakers of the decade's midpeaks between 1965 and 1976 with a string of masterpieces including Bonnie & Clyde, Little Big Man, Night Moves, and The Missouri Breaks—Penn directed a postmodern and existential vision that could only be made under his “golden boy” parachute at the time. It starred then-unknown Warren Beatty and was called Mickey One. A critic said, to paraphrase, that trying to make a masterpiece, Penn made a mess instead.

    These circumstances are totally dissimilar from David Marusek's debut novel, Counting Heads. There is no early, celebrated accomplishment posted, unless you count hitchhiking to Alaska and living there since 1973, as per the backflap bio. But just as Mickey One was anticipated with wild enthusiasm yet consumed with scratching heads and yawns, author Marusek's novel is hawked by some of the best on the back cover—Silverberg, Crowley, Kress, Cadigan, Goonan, Dozois—yet its ignition feels like a frantic array of conceptual sparklers looking for a plotline before they fizzle out.

    The novel's initial impression is fantastic. It quickly establishes a relationship between two people so divergent that pageturning becomes mandatory just to see why and how they can get along. It also drops you into a dense but intriguing techno soup of bewildering excess projected a century ahead. There are the familiar SF tropes of longevity, holographic entertainments, constant governmental observance, scarcely-credible nanotechnology devices, cloning and robotics, and computer systems that do a far more efficient job of running the world than humans. But quickly after the main characters get together and receive permission to have a child, the husband, Samson Harger--world famous artist esteemed for his novelty gift wrappings—is probed by a security slug, falsely judged a priority-level threat, and is “seared” (Tor, ISBN 0765312670, c.2005, p.36) as a fail-safe precaution, deeming him a reprobate to society. The child is born without his genetic imprint and, because his wife is a newly-elected, political up-and-comer, the legal and social aspects of their marriage are terminated. Samson becomes undesirable for further technological participation in enhanced living and is cast out from society's stream as a “stinker”, a sly colloquialism referring to the aftereffects of searing that make him smell “like a roomful of cat's piss” (p.43).

    This is Part 1, entitled “We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy” and, coincidentally, was published separately as a short story almost 10 years previously. It is a tight, controlled vision on a personal, intimate stage, grinding together the themes of love asunder and forced, social ostracization engendered by clandestine, external forces. These intriguing plotlines are established at full tension strength in the first 50 pages of the novel's 336-page length.

    Unfortunately, Part 2 defuses into 40 Years Later, focusing on the leper-like Samson and his world enmeshed in baffling caste or guild social systems populated with misfits and sub-humans slanged as Lulus, Penelopes, Russes, Pikes, Steves, etc. His wife from the past emerges, only to be immediately assassinated along with their daughter, whose head has gone missing and assumed still alive. The storyline of finding answers to these horrible assaults gets dribbled out by the author's fascination of the future he's created for us all with his brainiac tinker toy set. Words like “houseputer”, “gengineered”, “Hollyholo”, start entertaining the lexicon like “visceral expression probes” (p.86). The emphasis shifts to an externalization like that moment in Weir's The Truman Show when the audience discovers Cristof running the whole microcosm from above, and the affectionate communion for interpersonal relationships is abandoned.

    There are some wonderful ideas here, both old and new. But ideas alone do not a novel make. And they were not enough to sustain me into the second and third acts of this work. The creation of possible futures are fantasies, but characters must be believably real for anyone to care if it's a masterpiece or not. But judging by the professional acceptance of his shorter works, a maturing David Marusek in a longer assembly is thoroughly baited with anticipation.





    --Illustration by Viktor Koen from a photo by Kenneth R. Kollodge

    --Published March 5, 2006 in the NY Times Book Review



    © copyright 01/28/2009 by Larry Crawford

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