The Next Big Thing
For the last few years, the genre has been looking at its watch like a commuter waiting on a late bus. There have been heavy sighs, of course, and glimmers of false hope where it looked like the bus was about to arrive, then turned out to be nothing but a stretch Hummer or a really flashy sportscar. Despite the fact that the Last Big Thing has finally petered out (quick -- name the last time you picked up a cyberpunk novel and firmly believed that fresh ideas would be held within?), the Next Big Thing has continually failed to arrive on schedule.
With the publication of David Marusek’s Counting Heads, the bus is here. And now I should slip in a metaphor about jumping on board and paying your fare, but I think I may have overplayed this literary device. In short, Heads, in the best way possible, is unlike most of what’s out there. That’s not to say that it doesn’t contain some of the tropes of other genre works -- like nanotech, oppressive governments, and virtual constructs -- it’s that Heads crunches them up and spits out something unique. It is visionary. It is goosebump inducing. It is challenging. It is just plain, stay-up-all-night-to-finish it good.
Marusek has been hovering on the radar for ten-ish years, but his output had mainly been short stories like Sturgeon Award-winning “The Wedding Album” and the wonderful “Cabbages and Kale, or How We Downsized North America.” When not writing short stories, Marusek earns his keep by designing brochures, which his website assures us is still the case, and teaching others how to do the same. Publishing his first piece of book length fiction, while much anticipated and deliciously devoured, hasn’t ameliorated his need to buy things like food.
It may not be long, however, before Marusek can make his living from book sales. He may not choose to, of course, but the option may provide itself if word spreads about how good this book is. While I don’t want to disappoint any future readers by overhyping Heads -- I mean, at a certain point, it’ll be impossible to fulfill the expectations that too much hype would create -- I also don’t want to err in the other direction, otherwise you may miss something great.
Marusek’s prose is fun, but betrays no great stylish choices of words or syntax. You’ll find no defining lines like this one from Neuromancer, the book that defined the last big thing; no sky in Heads resembles a TV tuned to a dead channel. What is most noticeable about Marusek’s text is the humor, which isn’t the sort to bash you on the head to make sure you get the joke. It’s more an environmental whimsy, like this passage: “My first professional design was the old box-in-a-box routine, only my boxes didn’t get smaller as you opened them, but larger, and in fact could fill the whole room until you chanced upon one of the secret commands, which were any variation of 'stop' (whoa, enough, cut it out, etc.) or 'help' (save me, I’m suffocating, get this thing off me, etc.)”
Again, it’s not fall-down funny, but this and many more paragraphs similar to it betray a certain lighthearted glee at putting words in a row.
The science fiction bits aren’t what make Heads feel so fresh either. Most of the tech whizbangs -- like cryogenics and nanotech and clones and rogue AI -- aren’t new. But what makes them vital is the way that the characters exist with them. There is no sense that all of these advances have made people of the future less than human. In fact, they almost feel more human somehow, as Marusek’s use of technology makes people more vulnerable rather than less. I suspect that, in 30 years, Heads will feel as prescient as Heinlein or Asimov when it comes to describing governments of the future and their increasingly intrusive observations of our lives.
And it’s the lives that really matter here. Marusek weaves a series of complicated storylines into a seamless whole without ever making his characters into mere ciphers in a metronome-like plot. Tales of a lost, frozen head inform a larger story about an old coot who wants to off himself in a spectacular manner. Running alongside is a clone in crisis and a virtual assistant in chaos. The stories feel organic, as if they weren’t planned so much as allowed to bud like yeast. Heads, however, doesn’t suffer from the plot-drift that usually trips up other organic storytellers. Instead, the story moves like a Japanese bullet train without ever feeling forced. For that alone, Heads would be worth reading as an exercise in how a book should be structured in order to make the story pop and jive.
But there is more to Heads than its plot and characters. Something larger is at work here, some ineffable something that makes it resonate. It’s hard to pin down, though, and I lack a suitably catchy name for the territory that Marusek is mapping. I’d like to stay away from the whole “cyber-“ prefix, simply because it has gotten tired. Likewise “-punk,” which Marusek isn’t. “Virtumanity?” “Futuregeist?” “George?” Catchy nomenclature escapes me. The ability to spot amazing work does not.