Counting Heads by David Marusek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was caught by the premise and what can I say? I love hi-tech future-Earth stories, especially when they don't automatically deform into the dissolution of society, but rather, they discuss important issues in sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing, sometimes just plainly WTF.
This one is definitely all of the above.
The entire novel is extremely rich in wonderful world-building ideas in the grand, nearly overwhelming sense that it's all over the place, from nanotech everywhere, to domed cities to keep out the nasties (weaponized nanotech), AIs that haven't taken over the world, but instead cohabit with us, humans who have been augmented in both capacity and health that we're pretty much on the same playing field as the AIs, helpful clones everywhere, a grand colonizing expedition set up for a fairly distant star, and an interesting, not generic utopian society.
So where's the story?
Oh, of course things go wrong. In fact, tons of things go wrong for this large cast of characters, from complete disenfranchisement of all the joys this world has to offer, to losing one's head, to learning that the greatest adventure the world has to offer might be a con-job, to living in fear of the omnipresent surveillance.
This book, despite the very strong beginning and focus on poor Sam, isn't, unfortunately, about him. It's easy to get misled by the some of the hype. Instead, this is a book about all the people, and overpopulation, and the kinds of societies that we allow ourselves to create.
Of course, that's not to say that the characters aren't fascinating, even with such a large cast, because they are. But also don't expect a traditional thriller or plots that weave back together again in a grand fashion, because that's not what this novel is really about. Nor is it an easily defined and thematic novel, either.
Instead, it is an extremely rich exploration of imagination and life, full of loss, duty, loneliness, joy, and especially of hope, mostly transcending the base cares and proving that no matter how advanced we become, or how we might eradicate disease or old age, we're still human, for good or ill. And I'm not leaving out the clones.
Hell, even the AIs are only human.
Don't let me mislead you, though, because there's plenty of action and adventure here, too, as well as creepy images of slugs everywhere and babies with adult heads, but there's also some totally wonderful allusions mixed in with some extremely clever prose, too. And in any account, no one should ever discount extremely crisp writing.
If you're looking for futuristic SF in the vein of Stand on Zanzibar or Brave New World, that focuses more on what the world of the future has to say, with lots of extras that paint as interesting a picture as the MCs, then you really can't go wrong with this gem of a novel.
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