Counting Heads by David Marusek
Sammy Harger, a wealthy artist, is living the good life in 2092. Lifespans are greatly increased. Cities thrive beneath canopies: domes that filter out any stray viruses or nanobots still floating around out there from the wars of the last century.
Rich people live a luxurious life of leisure because all production is taken care of by nanotechnology. All service jobs are seen to by an efficient and placid workforce of clones, consisting of different “lines” specifically grown for different jobs. Mentars (artificial intelligence) serve the rich like personal valets, hovering at their beck and call. Each can be programmed with a distinct personality and appearance.
It’s true that 98% of the world’s population are unemployed. In fact, the poor have to band together into various threadbare “charters” or communes to defray the costs of living. A productive member of a charter can sometimes carry the others along on what he or she makes as a street performer or a scavenger of junk.
But all this is not really Sammy’s problem. He is in love with Eleanor Starke, one of the world’s most powerful citizens. Thanks to her connections, the government has approved their permit to have a child. They have even sent their genetic material off to the lab to have it grown into a baby. They are celebrating with a glass of wine at an outdoor cafe when something terrible happens that changes Sammy’s life forever.
A “slug” tastes his ankle. Slugs are tiny pieces of biotech that roam everywhere all the time, attaching themselves to people just long enough to sample their DNA and verify that no one is contaminated with any toxin that might have passed through the canopy. It is a necessary inconvenience. No one even notices them anymore; they’re that all-pervasive.
But this slug makes that one-in-a-million error and confuses Sammy with a criminal. Or possibly a contaminated criminal. Sammy is not sure because suddenly his loyal mentar Henry has been hijacked and shut down, and the slug has expanded to swallow his entire body into a menacing and impermeable envelope.
If this weren’t fascinating enough, it leads to further developments in which Ellen, their daughter and the heir to Eleanor Starke’s vast network of power and assets, falls under attack by enemies of the powerful Starke family. Her head is severed from her body and stolen by the enemies! The worried Starke retainers manage to recover Ellen’s body, and launch an all-out effort to track down her head.
The various mentars who serve the Starke family entangle several hapless innocents into their increasingly Machiavellian maneuvering. One pawn in their hands is a Bishop Meewee who hopes to launch an idealistic project to send colonists to the stars.
Meewee already has his hands full trying to recruit among the disenfranchised who live in the charters, including a character named Bogdan who is really a grown-up man but who has retained the body of a young boy through various hormone-inhibiting treatments because he can get better work for his charter that way.
Another pawn swept up in the action is Mary, a clone who is facing the phasing out of her particular line: she’s an “evangeline” created to be a lady’s companion to ailing rich women. What with the medical technology as good as it is, there is not much demand for evangelines anymore and soon they will all be pathetic creatures out on the streets, unable to do the work that they genetically crave doing.
When she and some of her evangeline “sisters” get hired to keep company with the headless body of Ellen Starke, she thinks her big break may have arrived. Her husband Reilly is a “russ” created to do security guard work. He starts increasingly wondering about the place of clones in society and the price of conformity. In a novel filled with fascinating subplots, the story of Reilly and Mary stands out as especially involving.
This novel, a finalist for the Nebula Award, is an engaging, fast-paced tour of the future that is greatly satiric without being shallow. Don’t miss the touching and funny dedication to his father at the front of the book