Counting Heads by David Marusek

May 31, 2009 at 9:51 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

It’s always dangerous to make assumptions about an author’s influences, but my guess is Counting Heads is the product of someone who grew up admiring Neuromancer and, somewhat unusually, Gibson’s later work.  The future envisioned in Counting Heads is a world shaped by advances in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, but especially nanotechnology.  Marusek does a creditable job with this, and the result is a world which seems interesting yet comfortable if you are familiar with the many genre precedents that are being built upon.  Like a lot of modern futuristic science fiction it would probably be really bewildering to someone new to the genre.

Looming large throughout the story is the threat of a “gray goo” nanotechnology disaster.  This is an established trope, hardly something unique to this novel, so it’s a little unfair, but I personally am becoming increasingly convinced that gray goo scenarios are pretty silly.  The sort of molecular reassembly necessary for nightmare scenarios would require quite a bit of energy.  Are we supposed to believe these microscopic nanomachines are building little fusion reactors or something as they reproduce to power future modifications?

Much more troublesome than the details of the technology was the story, which I would classify as a collection of scenes presented in mostly chronological order.  Apparently this is a short story fixup, and while I haven’t read the original there’s a very clear discontinuity which I assume is where the original short story stopped.  If so, the original short story was a proper narrative with a beginning, middle, and a bewildering twist ending that seems like it has nothing to do with the preceding material.  The rest of the novel, building on that ending, was competently written and populated by relatively sympathetic individuals, but while this made for reasonably interesting scenes the overarching story was bland and uninteresting.

I’ll have to give another Marusek novel a try to see if he does better, but I’d only recommend this one to readers particularly interested in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

The Manual of Detection by Jedidiah Berry

May 4, 2009 at 11:18 pm | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

My copy of Manual of Detection had a very stylish hardcover design that amounted to a promise from the publisher that this would be an unusual book.  So it was.  The setup is pretty simple: it’s a fantasy novel about a detective.  If you’re widely read in fantasy you’ve probably read something similar, but the striking thing here is the subgenre of fantasy involved.  It’s not a Tolkienesque fantasy (like Brust’s Taltos series, which aren’t quite about a detective but read like it) nor is it urban fantasy (like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files).  No, this is a much more unusual brand of fantasy: dreamy and surreal in the tradition of Mervyn Peake.

And let’s get this out of the way.  When someone who isn’t good at it tries to do surreal and dreamlike it’s a disaster, but Berry very much knows what he’s doing here.  He resists the urge to overdo the prose and instead focuses on the main character and his battle to understand his surroundings.  The protagonist’s disorientation is transmitted to the reader as the world depicted seems to operate according to subconscious whim instead of conscious logic.

Alas, it doesn’t quite work.  Not for me, at least.  The first problem is thematic: detective stories are about facts and logical inference.  Surrealism is…not.  This won’t be news to Berry, for this is explored somewhat in the book, but not nearly to my satisfaction.  Lurking beneath the currents of delightful oddity is a very ordinary mystery with few surprises.  Meanwhile, the fantasy element ultimately destabilizes the action, for the demands of the surrealist tone mean the ground rules for the world are never setup.  In fact, the setting is kept deliberately vague and out of focus.  It’s a device that does a marvelous job communicating the alienation of the main character but it prohibits world building of any sort.  The revelations, when they come, seem out of left field, and with these restrictions how could they not?

Sometimes the journey can make up for an unimpressive destination, and I felt that was the case here.  Ultimately this may not be totally successful but it is a book worth reading, especially if you enjoyed Gormenghast or similar books.

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