Recently, my eye fell upon a quote from a “celebrity” about a mentor who had died. He said the older man would be “badly missed”, and I got to wondering about the perversity of language. If I was to shoot a gun at a target, never having fired a gun before, the odds are that the result would be a bad miss. In other words, a “bad miss” is one that clearly demonstrates the shooter’s incompetence. Yet, somehow, when we talk of people who have moved away or died, a “bad miss” is converted into grief at their departure. Words are, at best, slippery friends. So, if I were to ask you whether you enjoyed counting heads, the answer is that the task rapidly became boring since most people only have one.
David Marusek is an author who enjoys playing with words and ideas. Mind Over Ship is a sequel to Counting Heads, continuing the story of the Starke family, their business empire, and the various individuals, both cloned and AI, who variously help or oppose them. In a way, this book encapsulates one of the reasons why I continue to read so voraciously. Even at my old-dog age, I still hanker after new tricks. Although I no longer write straight fiction, there is much to learn as Marusek casually litters the text with neologisms to tickle the palate, and throws away clever predictive notions in an idle sentence or two. In one sense, he is a confrontational writer, making few concessions to the readers. You are expected to get on board, buckle your seat belts and enjoy the ride, reading slowly to savour each sentence’s gourmet subtleties. Given this, I suppose I could condemn the book market as full of writers who pander to their readership, producing thin gruel, all surface show of content and little real sustenance for the intellect. But easy-to-read fiction with a reasonable plot sells and, as a retired publisher, I will not criticise mass-market suppliers for putting these books on the shelves. The penny dreadfuls of Victorian times have never gone out of fashion, but merely changed their writing style to match current culture’s expectations. So does this mean Marusek is writing only for an elite of literary connoisseurs? I suspect the sales do not reflect a mass-market appeal, yet he has sold sufficiently well to encourage the publication of two novels and one collection, Getting to Know You. There are enough people around who like their fiction to be challenging.
In reality, the plot is very straightforward. Large corporations manipulate the world and, if they cannot win by conventional means, they are not averse to murder. So, in Counting Heads, the “opposition” manage to kill Eleanor K Starke, the family matriarch, and leave her daughter as no more than a head, carefully preserved to ensure the possibility of regeneration. You raise your eyebrows in mild question. This future world has managed to master cloning, not only to create new bodies conforming to stable templates, but also to regrow bodies when their heads have so carelessly lost everything below neck level. Add into the mix an advance in artificial intelligence so that we are either at the point of singularity or just beyond it, and you have the final piece in the jigsaw of plot. People and AIs team together in a world where virtual and real have, to some extent, become indistinguishable. Machine personalities can be archived and recovered from back-up should anything go wrong. Humans struggle to achieve the same degree of security, but this does not stop the machines from wondering what it would be like to inhabit a body. This curiosity is mirrored in the almost total loss of privacy across society as obsessive spying is now made possible by nanotechnology. Only in the so-called null-rooms and in Earth orbit, is it possible to escape surveillance.
As Mind Over Ship starts off, the body growing on to Ellen’s head is in infancy and she still harbours the “delusion” that her mother is alive. The key individuals who rescued the head, live with the consequences of their actions. Since the assassination was not a success, the threats remain although, for now, they are more economic than physical. The story is therefore a conventional mystery and/or political thriller, set in a future world in which the status of different personalities and body types underpins the prevailing class and economic structures. Marusek pessimistically assumes that no amount of futurity could change the capacity of individuals to discriminate between themselves on the basis of differences, real or imagined. He also speculates that population pressures may dictate either a draconian restriction on births or a move off-planet. This could take the form of in-system habitats or a more ambitious attempt to find habitable planets and export the surplus population. Either way, this could leave a lot of land on Earth available for acquisition — a tempting target for the wealthy in search of extensive private estates.
Overall, this is a delightful romp through the problems arising from cloning, the nature of intelligence and the value one places on life in all its forms, the whole being told in language that, at times, positively bristles with intelligence (whatever that is). As with other books forming an emerging series, it would be better to read Counting Heads before plunging in the sequel. If you have read the first, this continues in the same deep, rich vein and leaves the door open for more to follow.
Here is a review of a collection by David Marusek, Getting to Know You.
This book won the Endeavour Award 2010 for the best fantasy book written by a Pacific Northwest author.