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.

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