Niall Harrison (coalescent) wrote,
Niall Harrison
coalescent

Counting Heads

I think Gabe was the first to spot Dave Itzkoff's NY Times review:
But what truly shames me is that I cannot turn to any of these people, or to my friends, or to you, and say: Whether you read books because you have a genuine, lifelong passion for literature or because a feisty woman in Chicago tells you to—you should pick up this new work of science fiction I just finished reading, because you will enjoy it as much as I did.

I cannot do this in good conscience because if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual. And you would very likely come away wondering, as I do from time to time, whether science fiction has strayed so far from the fiction category as a whole that, though the two share common ancestors, they now seem to have as much to do with each other as a whale has to do with a platypus.

A perfect case in point is the work of David Marusek, whose first novel, "Counting Heads" (Tor/Tom Doherty, $24.95) was one of my favorite books of last year in any category, and an exemplary entry in the sci-fi genre. And before some overeager publisher starts slapping that endorsement on a fresh set of dust jackets, let me explain what I mean.
Now think of all the people you might expect to have the opposite reaction. Was Dan one of them?
Whether in despair at the impending singularity, or simple acceptance that SF has so often got the future wrong that it has become pointless to pretend you think you're right, a fair chunk of recent science fiction has seemed more interested in game-playing than ambition—emphasising genre navel-gazing rather than any serious discussion.

Counting Heads, David Marusek's startling debut novel, is a book acutely aware that science fiction achieves its true power and potency only when it also exhibits self-belief.

It is not that this is a book divorced from the genre. Far from it—in its depiction of a future ruled by cynical and self-justifying corporations, Counting Heads reminds us of Bester's The Stars My Destination; humans (these are emphatically not posthumans, whatever they may be) are resurrected or "rebooted," as in Doctorow's Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom; in the novel's genetic politics and impenetrable agendas, we hear echoes of Dune; the massive Oships destined for other solar systems tip their hats to Aldiss and Wolfe, Banks and Macleod; and by examining what happens when the space between the real and the illusory is reduced to nothing, Marusek tackles virtuality as well as anyone since Dick. But in all of these areas Marusek offers new visions and asks fresh questions, addressing the perennial issues of the genre but in such a way that he does not lose himself in the process.
I'm about 130 pages into Counting Heads; I was hoping to have finished it by now, but I got distracted by shiny things last night. The headline is--hold the front page!--it looks like Dan and I agree it's a good book, if perhaps not about why.

Anyway, to get back to Itzkoff, there are of course reactions all over the place.
  • Letters to Locus Online by Lucius Sorrentino ("Dave Itzkoff is the perfect foil for those who want to remain ignorant about SF and feel justifiably superior about it"), Elizabeth Hand (Why no women, or writers younger than China Mieville, on Itkoff's list of favourite books?), and L.E.Modesitt Jnr (going off at a tangent: "Our "literary" lights and reviewers within the field, with a few notable exceptions [this will allow all reviewers to claim that exception], focus on their own narrow interests to the exclusion of much good and great work, and paradoxically, often go out of their way to avoid bringing notice to works that are considered "commercial" or "popular."")

  • Matt Cheney tried and failed to read Counting Heads a few months ago (interestingly one of the things Matt didn't like about section two--the fragmentation into multiple viewpoints--is one of the things I like), but takes down Itzkoff's column anyway.

  • Lauren McLaughlin wonders whether Itkoff has a point about the 'geekiness problem'; interesting discussion in the comments.

  • Andrew Wheeler argues--quite rightly in my opinion--that it's not geeky, it's immersive. One of things I'm finding so impressive about the book is how naturally Marusek gets into the heads of his characters, and conveys both the differences and the familiarities of their psychology.

  • Nick Mamatas thinks it's about class.

  • General discussion at metafilter.
I think that's all the major links. Two bonuses: Iain Emsley interviews Marusek, and Marusek wants to know if you want a short story collection (hint: you do).

Unfortunately I don't have time to attempt to synthesise all the points raised in the above links into a coherent or useful discussion, but there's a lot of chewy stuff there, and if anyone wants to get into it in the comments I'd be more than happy to join you.

POSTSCRIPT: Karen Joy Fowler writes about Octavia Butler for Salon, and in the process takes a swipe at Itzkoff. Michael Schaub responds. megmccarron comments here. And somehow nobody told Marusek about the fuss until now.
Tags: david marusek, sf
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  • Poll follow-up

    For anyone wondering about the results of that poll, see here and here, and links to all the other posts from the past week here.

  • A Poll

    A couple of months ago, Tricia Sullivan gave an interview in which, among other things, she discussed the fact that the proportion of Arthur C…

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