Counting Heads, Volume 1
Counting Heads is David Marusek's extraordinary launch as an SF novelist: The year is 2134, and the Information Age has given rise to the Boutique Economy in which mass production and mass consumption are rendered obsolete. Life extension therapies have increased the human lifespan by centuries. Loyal mentars (artificial intelligences) and robots do most of society's work. The Boutique Economy has made redundant ninety-nine percent of the world's fifteen billion human inhabitants. The world would be a much better place if they all simply went away.
Eleanor K. Starke, one of the world's leading citizens is assassinated, and her daughter, Ellen, is mortally wounded. Only Ellen, the heir to her mother's financial empire, is capable of saving Earth from complete domination plotted by the cynical, selfish, immortal rich, that is if she survives. Her cryonically frozen head is in the hands of her family's enemies. A ragtag ensemble of unlikely heroes join forces to rescue Ellen's head, all for their own purposes.
Counting Heads arrives as a science fiction novel like a bolt of electricity, galvanizing readers with an entirely new vision of the future.
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This novel is a scifi cyberpunk mystery. There are three parts, forty-five chapters, and an epilogue. Chapters are numbered, e.g. up to 1.3 or 2.29. Part 3 adds days of the week to the titles up to Friday 3.13. It begins in first person for part 1 which was originally a short story. The year is 2092. There are a pair of main characters. Tech includes nanotech, clones, robotic insects, friendly AIs, wearable valet processors. holopresence conferences, and high velocity surface travel. HomCom is the initial antagonist. There is a realistic world. The rest of the parts are told in third person after forty years have passed. The point of view changes among several main characters. The antagonist may be an AI. A glossary would be appropriate. The title refers to heads for which the body can be replaced. A sequel was published, Mind Over Ship.
I purchased Counting Heads because I was captured by the central premise, as expressed on the back of the book: "An assassination attempt nearly kills his daughter, and Sam's only hope of saving her is to recover her cryogenically frozen head before it falls into the hands of his enemies. But in a world of clones, robots, and advanced artificial intelligences, how can one crippled man overcome a top secret cabal that seeks to control the future of the entire human race?"
The notion of a protagonist was struggling desperately with evil forces over a cryogenically frozen head is both funny and horrific. I thought it might make for a strangely wonderful sci-fi adventure and perhaps even a wonderful RPG adaptation.
In the end, this struggle isn't the highlight of the book, and in fact Sam isn't the most important protagonist. A number of other characters, each with their own quirks and goals, take center stage at various times, and you come to empathize with some of them more than you do with Sam. The plot lines have various twists and turns, often unpredictable, but sometimes a little slow and lacking in an over-arching, grand framework. If this had been all there was to the book, it would have earned 3 stars.
However, there is one undeniable asset this book has: two amazingly inventive settings (separated by a moderate span of time). Both are filled with new ideas as well as eerie reflections of modern concerns, from rampant consumerism and mass culture to the sacrifice of privacy in the name of security from terrorism. Counting Heads makes you think about many real world issues, from human genetic engineering to government surveillance, in new ways.
The setting easily pulls the book into the 4-star range, but I'll hold out against giving it 5. If only the plot were a little more meaningful– rather than simply acting as a vehicle to show off the setting– this would be a cracking good piece of science fiction writing. Counting Heads is quite an achievement, but it falls just a little short of the mark.