by Charles Stross
Review by Sam Lubell
Ace Hardcover Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0441014038
Date: 27 June, 2006 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Charles Stross may be the science fiction field's most exciting writer. Glasshouse is his best book to date. Stross excels at creating post-Singularity futures that are not the Roman Empire or Napoleonic era in space but complex universes in which people act differently than those of today or of the past but entirely fitting their setting. What he has not been able to do is create great characters -- until now.
Robin, the book's narrator, is that SF-standby, the man with no memory. He is undergoing "identity reindexing and rehabilitation" that includes memory excision. His only conscious link to his past is a letter saying he was a military historian who had to submit to memory surgery or die, but this does not match his dueling skills and flashes of a more active past. Kay, a woman he meets in a bar, and also his robot therapist suggest that he participate in an experiment to try to reconstruct the culture that existed before the censorship wars, essentially a live role-playing simulation of an amalgam of the dark ages 1950-2050 (dark because everything was computerized using formats that are now unreadable). Both Robin and Kay agree to participate in the experiment (Robin to avoid a killer who is after him) and Robin wakes up as a woman who is quickly required to pair off with a man and follow a wide variety of rules, with peer pressure enforcing a point-system. This provides an opportunity for satire of present-day mores, (with which Stross could have done more), including gender roles.
At first, I feared that the mock-20th century setting would negate Stross' future world-building. But there is stuff going on behind the scenes. In this far future A-Gates are used for manufacturing, teleporting, memory storage, and duplicating people. But in the book's past they had been infected by a computer virus-type worm called Curious Yellow that deleted information from all sources, including people's brains, so no one knows the cause of the war. Yellow lost the war and disappeared. Even in his female state, Robin (now Reeve) begins to have flashbacks of participating in the war and gradually realizes that her past self has a mission and is keeping secrets from her present identity. Moreover, this experiment may not be a peaceful recreation of the 20th century but the breeding ground for something more sinister.
Stross handles the issues of identity, memory, and personality expertly. The reader truly feels Robin/Reeve's horror at the willingness of her fellow participants to surrender themselves to this society where everyone is watched and controlled. And her own hold on reality is tenuous as her flashbacks grow more violent and she begins losing bits of time. Despite this, Robin resists her programming – and the ritual shaming that takes place at church – and cobbles weapons out of the materials she is allowed to buy at the hardware store (she gets points for creating a Faraday cage to shield her actions because she knits it, an approved female activity.) And she schemes to find out what is really going on and how to contract the authorities. But, ultimately her rebellion goes too far and she is brainwashed, which should bring an end to her plot. And then there is a surprise twist that I refuse to give away.
The novel is not quite perfect. There is a little too much dependence on coincidence, sometimes unnecessarily so. In the fake society, Reeve decides not to be a housewife and is assigned a job at the library. This becomes crucial to her plans since the library has a locked room with secret information and a working A-Gate. But the author could have avoiding this coincidence (made worse when another character with a useful job turns up) simply by having Reeve find out about the room first and then talking her way into the job. Still, this is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent book.
Stross' books always create interesting futures that seem as alien to us now as our world would be to those who lived 500 years before today. But Glasshouse shows that these are still humans living in this future, with their own hopes and flaws. The novel is as much about Robin/Reeve as it is about his/her fantastic future. Glasshouse is very highly recommended and I would be greatly shocked if this is not nominated as one of the year's best novels.