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Counting Heads, by David Marusek, Tor, 2005, $24.95.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, by George Saunders, Riverhead Books, 2005, $13.
The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, by Jess Nevins, Monkeybrain Books, 2005, $50.
Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia, edited by S. T. Joshi & Stefan Dziemianowicz, Greenwood Press (in 3 volumes), 2005, $299.95.
I'LL ADMIT it: I worry a lot about burning out on science fiction. At first, my concern was that, after nearly two decades, the effort of reading and writing the stuff every day might finally be taking its toll. But of late my real fear has been that the destabilizing effects of actually living in the dystopian world I read and worried about back in the 1960s and 1970s might simply push me over the edge. Big Brother, cloning, global warming, environmental catastrophe, massive overpopulation, freakish viruses, exploding spaceships, Virtual Reality, artificial intelligence, the Singularity: it's one thing to think about this stuff for fun. It's quite another to wake up and realize that today is the Bad Tomorrowland we dreamed about yesterday. The great dystopic works of the last century have been overtaken by events. It's hard to be entertained (and even dystopias need to entertain) by 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, if one knows that Big Brother is monitoring one's contributions to Greenpeace while radical Christians make a bonfire of Harry Potter books. It's even harder, maybe, to stimulate a palate jaded by thirty-odd years of reading science fiction.
All of which is a long way of saying that David Marusek's Counting Heads is the most exciting debut sf novel I've read since Neuromancer. My first exposure to Marusek was his heartbreaking 1999 novella "The Wedding Album," a cautionary tale for those whose dreams of longevity tip over into immortality. "The Wedding Album" and later stories like "VTV" and "Listen to Me" were warning shots across the bow for Counting Heads, an exuberantly inventive page-turning dystopia so crammed with memorable, beautifully drawn characters and day-after-tomorrow scientific breakthroughs that for several nights I dreamed that Marusek's world is the one I live in.
Soon, it might well be. Samson (Sam) Harger, the man at the center of the novel's often dizzying whirl of characters—human, cloned, simulated and otherwise—was born in 1951, the same year as Marusek, and also shares his creator's background as a graphic designer. The book opens in the year 2092, not long after Sam has met Eleanor Starke, the woman who becomes his latest (and last) wife. Sam is briefed on her by his personal AI, who informs him that, despite looking like a woman in her mid-twenties, Eleanor is
"…between 180 and 204 years old. She earns over a million a year, no living offspring, degrees in History, Biochemistry, and Law. Hobbies include fencing, chess, and recreational matrimony…. And her celebrity futures are trading at 9.7 cents."In Marusek's near-future, the famous stay famous forever; as long as they can afford their rejuvenation upkeep, anyway. Nanotechnologies allow wealthy individuals to remain ever young, but even the not-so-well-off can save their credits, choose an age—twelve, seventeen, thirty—and stick with it. Nano weapons bombard the protective canopies erected above cities in response to the Outrage, the twenty-first century's prolonged war of terror. Other nano weapons, nicknamed slugs, patrol the cities and randomly check individuals for signs of treason. Itinerants—clones and other bioengineered humans—and AIs do most of the grunt work, with unreconstructed individuals seeing to those jobs that still need a human touch. The main challenge for the wealthy upper class "affs" is to keep themselves amused and, of course, youthful.
The first part of Counting Heads is drawn from an earlier story, "We Were Out of Our Minds With Joy." Sam, the narrator, is a successful artist turned packaging designer, Eleanor a Type-A businesswoman who might be the unholy spawn of Donald Trump and Martha Stewart. Their wedding, streamed live on the Wedding Channel, brings in "1.325 million billable hours of wedding viewership." And their honeymoon (five days on the real moon) is interrupted by the news that Eleanor has been nominated to the Board of Governors of the Tri-Discipline Council. Eleanor accepts the position, which makes her one of the ten most powerful people alive. Shortly afterward, she and Sam are granted a rare permit that will allow them to become biological parents of a baby that will be grown from a confiscated fetus conceived in an illegal pregnancy.
But before this happy event takes place, something horrible happens. Sam is probed by a defective Homeland Command slug that mistakenly identifies him as carrying nano weaponry and so looses a nano counter-assault that boils through Sam's entire body, burning his neurological system. The probe leaves the anguished Sam permanently infected—"seared," in Marusek's terminology—with nano monitors. As a security chief of staff explains,
"Tiny wardens have been installed into each of your body's cells. Any attempt to hijack your cellular function or alter your genetic makeup will cause that cell to self-immolate. Roll up your sleeve and scratch your arm."Sam's civil rights have also been revoked, including his right to father a child. His DNA is erased, his genome destroyed as well as his personal AI. A true demolished man, he is left with the last and most humiliating legacy of the seared: the putrid, ineradicable stench which makes it impossible for them to move among others without triggering a gag reflex.
Still, Eleanor, now one of the world's Governors, doesn't abandon him. She gives Sam a home in her heavily armed compound, and since she's rarely in physical attendance—her sims do all the requisite communication—Sam's stench doesn't bother her. He becomes stepfather to her daughter, Ellen, bioengineered from simulated DNA and Eleanor's own genes; but Sam is too physically and psychologically damaged to remain for long. Two days after Ellen's first birthday, he leaves his wife and stepchild forever.
Part Two picks up forty years later. Sam is still alive, living in a charterhouse, a communal home whose residents put up with his stink in exchange for the living credits he gives them—Homeland Command has long since tried to make financial remuneration to the unjustly seared, whose straightforward method of drawing attention to their plight, public self-immolation, has brought them much public sympathy in the last few decades. Eleanor and Ellen are returning from space when their yacht is sabotaged on reentry. Eleanor's body is burned beyond any hope of reclamation through the regrowth techniques that have made death a bad dream for most affs; Ellen is another matter. Her head, still encased in a deployed safety helmet, has been saved and brought to a private clinic where it will serve as a kind of human sourdough starter to generate a new Ellen.
But who assassinated Eleanor? ("No one of her stature has died since Stalin," a colleague dryly observes.) And what will become of Ellen's head?
So begins a labyrinthine and surprisingly upbeat tour of Marusek's dystopic future, with Ellen's head serving as the Maguffin that sets all sorts of characters, human and non-, on a wild Caucus-race that would dizzy Lewis Carroll's Alice. There are Sam's post-hippie housemeets, including Bogdan and Kitty, retrokids who have chosen to remain pre-pubescent forever; Fred and Mary, married clones who, against the odds, begin to suffer "clone fatigue" and develop personality traits unrelated to their genetic types; the diminutive Merrill Meewee, a man who served on the board of the Garden Earth Project with Eleanor; and numerous AIs, from Ellen's personal attendant, or mentar, a tiny Neanderthal named Wee Hunk, to Eleanor's loyal, chilly Cabinet and the more ominous, super-efficient Concierge.
The loyal, decent Meewee is the one closest to Eleanor, recruited by her for the Garden Earth Project because of his ability to communicate with the world's less fortunate persons. GEP is an ostensibly altruistic venture in sending millions of human colonists out in vast generation starships, in exchange for their land, which will then be allowed to revert to its pristine wilderness state. What GEP's "volunteer" colonists don't realize is that the project is in fact spearheaded by Earth's wealthiest affs, who intend to get rid of the riffraff so they can claim private ownership of our planet: the solar system's biggest gated community. The resulting skullduggery and derring-do, much of it executed by non-human characters, is intricate and sometimes confusing—all those affs, nanos, mentars, HUDs, TUGs, slugs, not to mention mano a mano nanos: ono!
But Marusek's world is so lovingly detailed, and his characters so warmly drawn, that momentary concerns—like, what the heck is actually going on?—tend to be swept away by the author's tireless, indeed exhausting, imagination. This is science fiction of the first order, and quite old-fashioned sf too. There are infodumps a-plenty, distinguished (mostly) by their brevity and clarity; enough neologisms and cunning acronyms to keep fans and academics alike happy for years to come; careful decodings of the clone society, which is both remarkably intricate and utterly believable—Marusek's background in cultural anthropology is especially well deployed here.
Counting Heads contains echoes and resonances of numerous other writers—John Varley's humanism, as well as his clones and generation starships; Samuel R. Delany's braided social networks; William Gibson's vertiginous VRs; the nanotechnologies employed in Kathleen Ann Goonan's novels and Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi; the iconic AI sigils of John Clute's Appleseed and M. John Harrison's Light; Pat Cadigan's raffish street urchins; the surveillance wasps of John Crowley's "Snow," and, over all of these, the long shadows cast by Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. Marusek is capable of standing at ease among them.
If there are weaknesses to Counting Heads, most of them lie in its loose, slightly loopy narrative. The alternating points of view begin to take on the quality of a long relay, with the narrative baton passed breathlessly from one to the next. By the novel's end, the story begins to run out of steam even as the pacing picks up, so that the ultimate effect is of smashing through the finish line without a real clear memory of the last twenty or so pages. Marusek does a beautiful job of extrapolating a future from our present, but there are no giddy leaps that present us with something that we might not have anticipated: the book seems very much of its moment, which is now. Its fascinations and obsessions—eternal youth and even more eternal litigation (there are some very amusing riffs on legal matters), instantaneous communication, identity theft, the limits of information collection and dissemination; the fallout from the war on terror and the looming specter of a surveillance culture; our unease with cloning, reproductive technologies, and artificial intelligence—are ours. Counting Heads functions more as a funhouse tour of a particularly Western, affluent, cultural moment, than it does as a tocsin, like 1984 or Stand on Zanzibar. We see little concrete evidence of the billions of sweating, starving people in Marusek's dystopia, though its underlying plot generator—the Garden Earth Project—turns on getting rid of them. Likewise, there's a lot of complicated AI relationships, but little sense of what real human beings do with their needs for sex and love, which presumably have not yet been outmoded. The most moving and (by early twenty-first-century standards) realistic relationship in the novel is that between its most provocative characters, the clones Fred and Mary, whose tentative and ultimately exhilarating evolution toward a more human status is one of the book's great triumphs.
In an interview, David Marusek stated that, like some of his memorable creations, he thinks he'll live to be at least two hundred years old; maybe even three hundred. Counting Heads isn't just one of the best first sf novels to come down the pike in some time; it's one of the best novels, period. I hope David Marusek will be writing more of them for centuries to come.
George Saunders, author of the story collections Pastoralia and Civilwarland in Bad Decline, writes funny, sideways speculative fiction, tales that have more in common with Kelly Link's short stories, or the cinematic visions proffered by Charlie Kaufman, than with most mainstream sf. His near-future world is recognizably ours, with even more mindspace and real estate deeded to a WalMart economy; his disaffected narrators talk the way I imagine most of today's young teenagers will, ten or fifteen years down the road, their argot equal parts IM slang and advertising slogans. I'd love to see him turn his talents to a full-scale sf novel.
But Saunders's newest work, the novella-length The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, is a political fable. It's amusing but lacking in real moral heft, despite its timely targets: a political administration, ruled by an idiot, attempting to control the flow of immigrants within its borders.
"It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner."Saunders cites Edwin Abbott's Flatland as an influence on his fable, and says that the idea came to him before the onset of our current political administration. Still, it's hard to read The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil without drawing certain, er, conclusions as to its targets —
"Mr. President," Phil said when the applause had died down. "May I also say how proud I am to have been appointed your Special Border Activities Coordinator?"What does it say about our world, when Saunders's absurdist take on it—a planet whose residents include someone "who resembled a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it, as if a gigantic belt buckle with a blue dot affixed to it had been stapled to a tuna fish can," a place "where cows' heads grew out of the earth shouting sarcastic things at anyone who passed"—doesn't actually seem extreme enough? In Saunders's world, the horrible Phil gets his just due:
"And that is where Phil is today: hidden in a thicket of weeds, not loved, not hated, just forgotten, rusting/rotting, with even the sign that proclaims his name fading away."We should be so lucky.
Finally, new reference works, one of which should become indispensable to anyone with three inches of empty shelf space. That would be Jess Nevins's The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, a magical and marvelously eccentric portmanteau volume that begs to be dipped into time and time again. Nevins may not have set out to create a scholarly or all-inclusive work, but he ended up with one; a roadmap to themes and characters, many of them obscure, who appear in Victorian popular fiction—science fiction, fantasy, detective stories, and the like. "I've tried to…strike a balance between the important, the entertaining, and the goofy," he states in his foreword; and who could possibly resist that?
Not me. So The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana gives us entries on Detectives and Sherlock Holmes, but not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Diamond Dick and lots of Doctors—Doctor Coppelius, Doctor Caresco, Doctor Halifax, Doctor Heidegger, all the way to Doctor Yen How, who appears in M. P. Shiel's The Yellow Danger, which Nevins calls "one of the vilest Yellow Peril novels of the 19th century." Ethelind Fionguala gets her own entry—"It is not known what Ethelind Fionguala was like before the vampires took her" is an enticing morsel from it.
If you want to read more about Ethelind (and who wouldn't?), you will have to buy this book, which will allow you to also read Nevins's astute entry on Proto-Mysteries, with its fascinating digression into the Newgate Calendar; as well as Rinaldo Rinaldini, Monsieur Synthesis, Lord James Marauder, and Gondez the Monk, "a delightful combination of maliciousness, lust, ambition, and craven spite." The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana is one thousand pages long; its fifty-dollar price tag can be significantly reduced by buying it from online vendors, which makes it not only one of the best books of the year but one of the best bargains too. Of one obscure text, Nevins states, "A Strange Manuscript is the final result of a good, educated mind spending its time and energy on a project which eventually bored it." Jess Nevins directed his very fine, educated mind to a task that obviously delighted him, and will do the same for many many readers.
S. T. Joshi and Stefan Dziemianowicz's three-volume Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia, is a more straightforward effort. The entries are extensive (though there were errors in at least one of them), running the gamut from film to fiction to theme entries to authors, and many entries are appealingly outfitted with illustrations or excerpts. The price tag may put this out of reach of most casual readers, but for those with deeper pockets, this reference work may be indispensable.
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