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Thursday, February 12, 2009

“Mind Over Ship” by David Marusek (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Order “Mind Over ShipHERE

INTRODUCTION: In 2005, I bought David Marusek’s critically acclaimed debut “Counting Heads” and was disappointed. It started great, the first 50 pages based on a previously published novella being brilliant, but sadly after that the book completely changes with no plot to speak of, incomprehensible jargon, and a completely different style that just did not work for me. However, those first 50 pages were so good that I decided to try the next Marusek novel. Fortunately, “Mind Over Ship” is a superior novel. The jargon is still there and there is no glossary so it's easy to get lost, but there is actually a multi-thread plot this time, the characters are much more vivid, and the ending promises even better things to come. While “Mind Over Ship” is a sequel to “Counting Heads”, you do not really need to read the first book, though a quick browse through will help with the setting.

SETTING:Mind Over Ship” takes place on Earth in the 22nd Century, and while obviously different from now, there are still many facets from today's society that are recognizable. There are clones—“lines” of “humans” used for one purpose or another; AI's, some embodied; corporations, backstabbing, intrigue, power struggles among the rich & powerful, and most of humanity still lives in relative poverty. A strong opinion swirl led to the manufacturing of starships for humanity to reach out to the stars and spread throughout the galaxy. However, the squabbles between the powerful has been keeping the project on the brink of completion for a while now, and the ships parked at the Lagrange-point space station, Trailing Earth, are starting to be used for various side-purposes...

FORMAT/INFO:Mind Over Ship” stands at 320 pages divided over three Parts and many short titled chapters, some even less than a page long. The epilogue sets up the next novel in the series. The narration takes place in the present of the novel and is in the third person via multiple POVs, most notably Ellen Starke, the powerful daughter of the presumed deceased Eleanor, whose head was retrieved from the attack on the Starke dynasty in the first book; Mary Sarkland, Ellen’s friend and self-appointed “protector”; Fred "Russ”, Mary's companion; Zoranna Alblaitor, CEO of major tech consortium Allied-People, and sometime ally of the Starkes; Bishop Meewee, “humanity's” representative on various councils; and Andrea Tiekel of the AI-led consortium, E-Pluribus.

January 20, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Mind Over Ship” via
Tor Books. Cover art provided by Paul Youll.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:Mind Over Ship” features a multi-threaded plot revolving around the fate of the starships, humanity's attempt to colonize the stars, and most importantly, who will control that fate and what shape the future of humanity will have. Maybe evolution dictates that AI's will completely supplant humankind, but what about the lines of clones, or the regular people caught in the crossfire?

Ellen Starke, formerly just a head saved from the fiery crash that doomed her mother and almost killed her, is recovering and trying to take control of the Starke empire, while her companion Mary wants to leave for the stars to find her “freedom”...

Fred wants to be counted as fully human, not just a “russ”, and struggles to decipher the history of the cloned servant lines, especially his own.

Zoranna, now among the major power brokers, finds her corporation threatened, and while everything points at the Starkes, maybe the truth is actually darker...

Bishop Meewee struggles to do what is best for humanity. But that is not easy since the powerful groups fighting for the control of the ships each have their own agendas, none with the welfare of the common people in mind. If humanity becomes extinct or fully enslaved by AI-masters, or if humanity continues as a playground for the rich & powerful, well that is to be decided in plots and counter-plots. But Meewee wants more and is willing to go to great lengths to acheive his goals, even if it threatens his friendship with Ellen and the support from her powerful dynasty.

And of course where would we be without a flesh & blood villain to hate and cheer for their downfall. It is well and good to despise the governments, the Council, and the callous power brokers, but Andrea, the new head of E-P, is the ‘right’ villain for us to savor so to speak, and her manipulations add a lot of depth to the dramatic content.

Mind Over Ship” is a very dense read, but the characters are so much better realized than they were in “Counting Heads” that you actually care about them, and that, more than anything, is what kept me engaged in the novel. While there are some surprises along the way, the final destination is never in doubt considering the author's announced plans for the series, so the drama comes more from watching the struggle than from wanting to know its end solution.

The novel also works as hard sf with the space station and future technology quite well done. However, the lack of a glossary is a major, major minus in such a jargon-laden book, and it truly detracted me from enjoying it more. If you liked “Counting Heads”, maybe it won’t be such a big problem, but I can well imagine people being put off by the “easy to get lost” quality of the book.

Even with the caveats above though, “Mind Over Ship” is recommended reading. It’s good hard sf, but the author can do better and I hope the next installment in the series will finally showcase the great promise that Mr. Marusek displayed in his brilliant novella that became the opening of his debut novel...


raul said...

ive seen the future in counting heads and it continued in this book. its not easy to start up because the jargon and terminology is a jarring adjustment to figure out, but this is truly a powerful possibility of our future...niether U nor Dis-topia....but both at once and more frightening for it.

and then you read that he wrote the urbane, high tech, upscale characters and setting from a cabin in the woods of alaska.

I read more Fantasy then SciFi because i feel the lack of realistic characters in modern hard scifi is rampant. But even the not so human clones and AI-comps act with internal realisms that are pretty consistent through out the two books. This is high on my personal scale of scifi books in this decade.

Dave said...

I'm in the middle of reading Counting Heads and am having the complete opposite reaction to you. I find the characters compelling (that you weren't emotionally engaged by Sal or Fred I find surprising) and the setting completely realized.

I love the well thought-out language and am happy to be treated like an adult and not have every word defined in a glossary or through awkward exposition in the text.

I'm about 75 pages away from finishing it and am thrilled that, when I do finish, there's more of the story to read in this sequel.

Where he really fails, imho, are his titles. Horrible titles.

And the covers are way too cartoony for the depth of his writing.

Liviu said...

While Counting Heads did not resonate with me after the novella opening, I agree that it is one of the most original and detailed views of a high tech future in recent sf and that was the main reason I remained interested in the series.

I would suggest looking out for Infoquake and MultiReal (this one I reviewed here, though better read Infoquake first) by DL Edelman since that series also has a very original and detailed high tech future world.

raul said...

infoquake was good, but the author's portrayals of religions were kinda wobbly and hollow. it would have suited him better to have them set as philosophies then religious institutions.

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