Counting Heads
David Marusek, 2005

the eleventh book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Stacy Cowley

As the tag above notes, Counting Heads was published in 2005; according to Amazon, it was officially released on October 20. Eighteen days earlier, Mike D'Angelo had posted this:

Picture the world of, oh, 150 years ago. A world before the airplane, before the telephone, before the automobile, before television, before cinema, before the computer, before the Internet — pretty much before almost everything that we currently use and do and depend upon. I think there might have been milk. And pants. Anybody see Polanski's new version of Oliver Twist? Picture that world. Then compare it to today's world. Kind of a before and after sort of deal. Create a mental diptych that emphasizes the vast, overwhelming, museum-enabling difference between what life was like then and what life is like now.

Got it? Okay, now dump the Oliver Twist picture, shove the 2005 picture over to the left, and make the right side of the diptych your own conception of a future that's as alien and inconceivable to us as the contemporary world would have been to Dickens. What that will look like will vary from person to person, but the thing is that it shouldn't resemble, say, Blade Runner, i.e. basically today's world with a few superficial modifications (taller buildings, funkier flying machines, androids). You need to imagine something radically different. […] Got that? Of course you don't. It's inconceivable. That's the whole point. You can probably come up with a few sci-fi chestnuts, like teleportation or Tom Cruise shunting image-data around with little wrist-flicks, but really we're talking about a world that's beyond our comprehension. […] Okay, so now you've got a diptych with today on the left panel and some murky blur on the right panel. Here's what I just found out. The right panel? It's not 150 years away. It's maybe 30 years away. Maybe less. If you have a small child, the world that child lives in as an adult will be as foreign to you as the world of today was to Dickens. Probably much more foreign. And you'll still be around to see it.

Elizabeth and I have been working our way through Mad Men recently. Having done my undergraduate honors thesis on generational polemic, I couldn't help but start calculating each character's generational diagonal. Don, for instance, was born in 1926. He grew up during the Depression and was a teenager during WWII. The show is set in the 1960s, and he's my age (but looks about twenty years older than I do). Today he'd be 86. Peggy was born in 1939. She went through her teens in the '50s and is just starting her career when the show begins. She'd be my age in 1977, and 73 today. Then there's Sally. She's a kid during the era of the show, having been born in 1954. Today she'd be 58. Which means that she'd have been my age in 1992. Which is weird, because that's basically the present day, right? I mean, what was I doing in 1992? Living in the East Bay, going to classes, coming home and writing stories on my computer, going out and getting a burrito… my favorite book was Watchmen, my favorite song was "Smells Like Teen Spirit", my favorite game (by the end of the year) was Star Control II… hell, looking at all that I'm not so sure that 1992 is even over. But let's compare. What have I been up to here in 2012? Let's see: recently I tweeted that after googling some blogs I'd discovered that IE won't load custom 404 pages like Firefox—

—and in 1992, what I just typed would have made no sense whatsoever. There was no tweeting or googling, there were no blogs, and there was no IE or Firefox. (There were 404 pages, but only about eight people in the world knew what they were.) And this isn't just Back to the Future-style "ha ha, people in 1955 didn't know what Pepsi Free was" trivia. For better or for worse, I now live an Internet-mediated existence whose basic vocabulary would have been gobbledygook to me earlier in my adulthood. This vocabulary reflects fundamental changes in my relationship to information and in the way I communicate with people. And I'm not even some kind of trend-chasing early adopter; on the contrary, these days I'm basically a luddite. I did finally get a cell phone in (once again) 2005, but I pretty much only use it when I'm picking up Elizabeth at the airport. If an account of my life would require a lot of explaining to someone from 1992, how much more so would those of the gadget-carrying masses who spend their entire waking lives with Facebook in their peripheral vision? And all this being the case, how can a book be set at any distance in the future without the author either having to stick a hundred-page glossary up front or else immersing readers in a slew of unfamiliar language and hoping they don't drown in it?

Counting Heads begins in 2092 and soon jumps to 2134. It presents a world in which Siri-style personal assistant programs have become so complex that some have been granted status as sentients. On the flip side, there is little humans can do that machines can't do better, yet the fruits of automation aren't shared. People need jobs to earn a subsistence, but all that's really left for them to do is performance art and demographic analysis of the market for performance art.

Now, here is what reading this book is like. Aff. Myren. Oship. Payfer. Mentars. Yoodies. Nanocyst. Hollyholo. NanoJiffy. Glyph this. A dry swipe. Transit bee. Glom chimes. Dixon lifts. Potty plugs. Heliostream. Homcom slugs. Bloomjumpers. Plankholders. A hapless russ. Trailing Earth. Neuro-chem paste. Canopy generators. There in realbody. Cabinet's through probate. The conceit of the novel is that of course the audience doesn't need to have any of this explained, any more than I have to explain to readers of this article what a blog or a tweet is. And much of the argot can be figured out from context, eventually. But who wants to work through a novel line by line figuring things out? Obviously there are some who do; there are also people who, unlike me, spent more than thirty seconds playing The Gostak. But I want my mind to fill with concepts without my even really being cognizant that I'm looking at words, and that can't happen when the book is just page after page going on about how "a lo-index sub-subem" "interfaced with his brain through a half-SQUID EM I/O" and whatnot. I gave it a hundred pages and everything was still a murky blur so I gave up.

The fact that each sentence left me thinking, "Wait, what does that even mean? On the most basic level, what is happening in this story?" wasn't the only reason I gave up. In those hundred pages it became clear that the author was much more interested in painting a portrait of his brave new world than of the people in it. The characters made virtually no impression on me at all. This is true of most of the prose SF I've read. And yet — to turn the post I quoted up top on its head — historical fiction also has to deal with vast, overwhelming, museum-enabling differences between the world of the story and that of the reader, yet I rarely encounter the same indifference to characterization in works set in the past that I do in works set in the future. I mean, look at something like The Greenlanders: it's also about a distant, alien culture with its own vocabulary, and yet the author gives her characters souls. I don't understand why that should be any more difficult to do in 2092 than in 1392. Yet Marusek seems more interested in engineering moments such as the one in which a character discusses trifurcating his personality bud than in giving any of his characters much of a personality.

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