I’m not a connoisseur of Coen Brothers films, but there are two I love: Fargo and Burn After Reading. Both of these bleak-yet-comic films have in common their stellar ensemble casts and strong, interwoven stories. Neither has a single, clear protagonist following a simple, linear plot. That would be boring! Instead, each film presents a complicated set of narratives in which everyone is the protagonist of their own life even as they antagonize others.
Counting Heads is a bit like these Coen Brothers films, in that it doesn’t have a single protagonist or a single plot. The back cover copy on my edition is outstandingly, astonishingly, unabashedly misleading in this respect. It promises a thriller in which Sam Harger is on the run from the authorities while trying to retrieve his daughter’s cryogenically preserved head so he can resuscitate her. Instead, we have more than 300 pages of several slow-moving, dare I say smouldering embers of, plots, with more characters than I can comfortably include in any kind of stick-shaking.
I have nothing against ensemble casts in general, as evidenced by my movie preferences above. Unfortunately, David Marusek’s ensemble cast here isn’t … ensemble … enough. His choice to use a three-part structure doesn’t help either, because the first part (which was apparently its own novella originally) feels very different in tone from the subsequent parts. After getting used to the idea of Sam and Eleanor as the protagonists, fighting back against the corrupt rich who have manipulated their lives, suddenly Marusek has skipped decades into the future, and Sam is an old man who isn’t going anywhere. All of these new characters enter the narrative—and then they never leave.
This wouldn’t be so frustrating if the plots to which these characters cling all came together into some kind of climax of mutual annihilation. Although many of the plots are resolved, some are left dangling badly. For instance, in the first part of the novel, Eleanor and Sam posit that a single individual is behind their sudden social and political success (and Sam’s equally sudden and unjust pariah status). They call this person the Unknown Benefactor, and Eleanor bends all of her resources and paranoia towards finding that benefactor … or at least, that’s what she says. This plot never resurfaces later in the book, leaving us to wonder exactly who manipulated Eleanor and Sam into those circumstances, or why.
Marusek seems overwhelmed by the sprawling complexity of the world he has created. At first, I admit I was seduced by the setting of Counting Heads. From nanotechnology to artificial intelligence, Marusek envisions a fascinating future where life extension and other revolutionary medical treatments has made aging and death rare at the expense of further taxing Earth’s resources. The rich continue to get richer; the poor can’t afford such treatments and continue to die.
Indeed, there are a few aspects to this future that particularly intrigued me. For example, I enjoyed the doubt regarding whether mentars like Cabinet and Wee Hunk were compromised by their trip through probate. I loved the idea that their programming might have been altered without their knowledge. Alas, this is another plot point that Marusek never fully puts to use.
And as the story goes on the setting continues to unfold, it lacks a complexity comparable to the plot. So there’s nanotechnology and easy tissue regeneration and lines of clones bred for a dominant trait. North America is a surveillance society dominated by the super-rich, while the poor countries have remained poor. But how has living longer changed the way democracy works? With mentars practically running companies, why do people bother doing any work at all?
Counting Heads strikes me as a book that could be a thriller, or a social thought experiment, or both … yet it manages to be none of these things. It is so frenetic, so full of furious yet unfocused ideas and plots and characters and emotions, that, at least for me, it is just untenable. There were times when I just wanted to put it down and walk away; I soldiered on because, to be fair, the writing is not poor and the characters are, on their own, interesting people. It’s just when you take them altogether that they become a bit much.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic or positive, because Counting Heads started with plenty of potential. Unfortunately, it quickly loses altitude as it starts to go into a fatal tailspin, and there’s no one around to make an emergency landing. Marusek doesn’t quite manage to achieve the type of balance between social commentary and thriller that Neal Stephenson pulls off in something like The Diamond Age. Instead, Counting Heads is little more than a way of killing time.