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Counting Heads by David Marusek

Cover art by Chris Moore

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Over a decade ago I read an earlier version of the first several chapters of this book as a story in Asimov's Science Fiction, under the title "We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy." It was a grim story of a future in which biotechnology had turned life into a nightmare for everybody but the elite, where illegal pregnancies resulted in the confiscation of the unborn, who was then put into stasis until some elite person got a retro-conception permit and got to overwrite the child's DNA with that of themselves and their chosen partner or partners, thus confiscating the child's authentic self and replacing it with a convenient substitute self at the genetic level. The protagonist had attracted the attention of a really big wheel and thought that he had everything going for him, until suddenly everything falls apart -- he's wrongly accused by a robotic police device known as a slug of being a biological threat and even after he's cleared, the government is so angry at being proven wrong that they punish him with a technology known as "searing" which will deny him the benefits of all advanced medicine, forever. It ends with him divorced from his big-wheel wife but living in her basement wallowing in self-loathing, pulling hairs from his chest and watching them fizzle into nothingness as the searing mechanism destroys them to prevent any bit of his DNA to ever be scanned or replicated.

It was a story that left me creeped out on multiple levels, yet not so much that it kept me from reading other stories of the same imagined future of nanotechnological warfare, of biotechnology in the service of a security state that didn't seem to be accountable to the ordinary people any longer, and might not even be accountable to the elites that claimed to be running the country. And when I heard that he was writing a novel, I was interested in seeing what he would do with it.

Having read it, I have to say that the results are most definitely interesting. He uses the novella "We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy" as the first part of the novel, but has made substantial changes in it. Some of them were updates, bringing the story into line withe both the changes that had occurred in the Primary World in the intervening years and with shifts in the sorts of technologies that are being talked about as lying just on the horizons. For instance, ascribing the increased importance of the Homeland Command or HomCom to the 9/11 attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security is a pretty sure bet, and I've noticed how nanotech seems to be coming to the fore a lot more in the novel version.

However, there are also shifts in the narrative structure which may be the result of the author's maturing skills, or could just as easily be the result of the different way the narrative works as part of a larger whole as opposed to a stand-alone work of short fiction. For instance, in the original version, seared people were already fairly common, and the protagonist encounters (and is repelled by) several while on a trip early in the story. In the novel version, the protagonist is the very first person to be so treated, and it's strongly suggested that he got it only because his (soon-to-be-ex-) wife was too important to permit him to simply disappear, as HomCom had done previously to people in his situation. It is quite possible that the original version needed some foreshadowing of the climactic fall of the protagonist, but once the "unfortunate accident" was no longer the climax, but just part of the beginning, that foreshadowing was no longer necessary and was removed. However, it also had the effect of removing the element of irony by which the protagonist becomes what he had previously despised.

The remainder of the novel takes up twenty years later. The girl that Eleanor retroconceived with a random sampling of former partners' DNA to prevent the original baby's progenitors from making a legal claim on him has grown up and become a major holodrama producer. The two of them are on their way to a meeting when their hypersonic ship has a very suspicious accident that looks an awful lot like an attack and crashes. Eleanor is killed instantly, reduced to an unrecoverable smear of organic matter, but young Ellen manages to get her head into her safety helmet barely in time. The rest of her body is reduced to a smear of protoplasm, but thanks to the super-advanced medical technology of their world, her severed head can be saved and a new body grown from it -- if the safety helmet keeping it in cryosuspension can be recovered by her allies before her enemies can get their hands on it.

So far we've got the standard sort of setup we've been seeing in cyberpunk and its various offshoots ever since William Gibson's Neuromancer. Grim and gritty urban society with an often brutal and certainly unaccountable government which may or may not be controlled by corporate interests, and everybody pretty much amoral and interested primarily in power. The hero may be chaotic good rather than completely amoral and thus interested in righting some wrongs rather than merely settling scores, but he's typically in it for himself rather than any larger group. The level of generalized social trust is pretty much zero, and anybody who thinks otherwise is a sucker and deserves whatever he or she gets.

Except as we push onward into this novel, we discover that while this situation holds for the affluent elite, commonly known as "affs," there's another layer to this future society that's quite a bit different. Remember Sam Harger, our betrayed and embittered protagonist from the first part, whom we last saw lurking in the basement of his ex-wife's house, an outcast from polite society? It turns out he's still alive, although he's become quite old and frail as a result of being unable to benefit from any except the most basic of medical procedures. And he's no longer Sam Harger, but rather Sam Kodiak, having become a member of the Kodiak Charter.

The Charters are a network of intentional communities, each of which function as a sort of extended family for its members. The Kodiak Charter once was based in Alaska, but as its fortunes diminished, it has come to occupy part of a building in Chicago. And if anything, as their luck has become harder and harder, they've become steadily closer to one another. Theirs isn't just a marriage of convenience, but bonds of genuine caring -- which makes it doubly ironic when Fred, the russ who's working security at the Chartists' annual convention, recognizes Sam as Eleanor's ex-husband whom he once guarded and wonders how a man who was once on the top of the world should have descended so low as to end up with a bunch of chartists. Fred doesn't understand how Sam might not see his new circumstances as coming down in the world, but a net gain.

Perhaps I should explain about what a russ is. In this world, much of the routine work is done by iterants, lines of clones who are selected for specific qualities. They aren't slaves like the Mesan genetic slaves of David Weber's Honorverse, and in fact they have lives more like those of regular people than even the azi of C. J. Cherry's Alliance-Union universe. But even if they do get paid wages and have benevolent societies that look after their interests, they're still definitely subordinate to regular people, whom they refer to as free-range people. Each line has its niche in the economy, and it's simply presupposed that of course they will work in those lines of work. Russes are clones of a Secret Service officer who died saving a President from an assassination attempt, and they are security officers noted for their loyalty to their employers.

However, it's simply been assumed that their loyalties could be casually bought and sold, that as soon as they moved to a new employer their loyalty would transfer completely, and they would keep those loyalties completely separate from the personal loyalties they feel for the iterant women they wed. And Fred's about to discover just how powerful some of those outside loyalties can be, for his wife Mary, an evangeline (a line of iterants specifically designed for enhanced empathy) has been selected for a most special job.

Ellen's head has finally been located and brought to a regeneration clinic in Decatur to grow a new body. But her mentar (AI assistant) has suspicions about the reliability of the clinic, which is owned by one of Eleanor's powerful rivals, and has hired a group of evangelines to continuously monitor her progress. In the course of her employment Mary has gotten one after another hint that something is amiss, but never quite enough to prove anything. But when Sam discovers that his not-quite-daughter is in mortal peril and decides to take action, suddenly Fred discovers that his loyalties aren't quite as simple as he thought, and off they all go for a wildly dramatic climax.

And that's just the main storyline. I also loved the charming side-story of Bogdan Kodiak, the eternal boy who works for the E-Pluribus consumer research company as a statistical control, which was intricately interwoven with Sam's story. And then there was the shuddersome revelation that HomCom had less destructive alternatives to searing available to them even in Sam's time, yet chose not to use them for years, relying on the sheer gratitude of their victims at being allowed out at all to prevent any complaints about having been mutilated in such a socially destructive fashion.

On the whole, this is a book that really redefines everything we thought we knew about cyberpunk and its various offshoots. Even in a dark, dystopian world of amoral power-brokers, we can still manage to have glimmers of hope among those who would seem to have the least reason to hope.

Review posted October 31, 2010.

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