Ace, 2006, 335 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-441-01403-8
After the massively successful Accelerando, expectations ran high for Charles Stross’ follow-up SF novel Glasshouse. Would he try to top his wide-screen vision of a post-singularity future? Would it even be possible to go even one step beyond Accelerando? Wisely, Glasshouse doesn’t even try. Instead, it heads for a different territory with a more focused narrative and an intent to satirize.
It begins more or less hundreds of years after the events of Accelerando, in a comfortably post-human empire scattered around the galaxy. Our narrator is learning the world again, fully conscious that his latest incarnation has had entire chunks of his memory removed. That doesn’t worry him all that much, through: Simply being human is a challenge enough after a lengthy period being something else. To heighten the experience, he declines regular personality backups, risking everything on his continued existence. The first chapter even has a sword fight, just to keep things hopping. As it turns out, the biggest problems with amnesia is that you can’t remember your worst enemies…
But there may be a way to hide away for a while, as his medical advisers have an idea to facilitate his recovery. Why not, they suggest, volunteer for a harmless psychological experiment? Nothing serious, of course: just a few years locked-up in a fabricated environment, interacting with other volunteers according to a predefined set of experimental social rules. A good way to take a break from the infinitely mutable, constantly evolving post-human diaspora. Completely harmless. Completely safe.
Oh sure. Just as the opening quotes by Kafka and Hitler are there completely by accident. Just as the Zimbardo references are purely coincidental. Things are about to go bad really quickly for our narrator, and they indeed do from the start of the experiment: Waking up with no memory of actually signing and backing its mind up, it also finds itself stuck in a weak female body after a long stay in a succession of powerful male bodies. But then it has to contend with its fellow lab rats…
Glasshouse quickly turns into a nightmare as the narrator slowly comes to realize the insanity of the experiment, recover bits and pieces of its previous memory and pieces together a sinister motive behind its current situation. While deceptively simple at first, Glasshouse eventually comes to reveal itself as a narrative simultaneously working on different levels, as Science Fiction thriller, as post-human speculation and as social satire.
Because, you see, the micro-society in which the narrator finds itself turns out to be American Suburbania, circa 1950-2000. Built from fragmented records, of course, given how few reliable accounts of the period survived the various information wars that followed the Acceleration. As a female, our narrator finds itself relegated to the role of a housewife, weakly built and socially ostracized. But then she finds out what’s really going on…
If, at first, Glasshouse seems a step back after Accelerando, it eventually becomes obvious that this is, in many way, a more complex novel: Voluntarily mirroring Accelerando in regressing from a post-human future back into something innately familiar to us, Glasshouse then uses its not-quite-contemporary setting to deliver, in interweaving instalments, both a social critique and an affecting military SF thriller.
The satire is easy to perceive, especially as the narrator can’t figure out the massively counterintuitive social mores of suburban America. The gender roles are inefficient, the religious and social restrictions are insane and the technology is brain-damaged. There are a number of smirks and gags in store as readers get to see a post-human try to cope with our restrictions. As an alienating device, it works well. Given how Glasshouse seems to target a quasi-mythical cold-war American way of life that died with the sixties, it’s not hard to emphasize with the narrator while taking along the points that are still valid today. Gender roles, in particular, are thrown in a blender and whirred around: It will be interesting to see if the book manages to make it on the Tiptree Awards lists next year.
But there’s also an espionage/military thriller lurking in the back of Glasshouse as hidden identities are revealed and the protagonist’s own mind reveals its mysteries. This is where Glasshouse, for all of its hyped-up links to Accelerando, is more likely to remind readers of Stross’ own Iron Sunrise in its grim depiction of a post-humanity that nonetheless keeps all of its pre-human brutality. The protagonist’s flashbacks offer the equivalent of a military SF novelette in which fancy weapons do their best to destroy anything that can be called human. One particular scene in which heads have to be decapitated in order to be saved is likely to remind some readers of a related scene in Richard Morgan’s Broken Angels. As a writer now fit to be compared to Morgan, Stross fulfils his growing reputation as a writer able to be, even in the same book, both hilarious and horrifying.
The non-flashback thriller also succeeds brilliantly, especially given how it has to take place in a panopticon environment. Plotting an escape, or even a hassle-free life, can be a real problem if you can reliably be expected to be under surveillance all the time, whether by unseen experimenters or by fellow experiment subjects. Some scenes carry a real thrill as the narrator plots and schemes how to reach set objectives while trying to avoid detection. There are even unexpected payoffs in the form of bonus points for craft. But the penalties for being caught can be high, especially when your enemies have complete access to your brain chemistry…
It goes without saying that Stross’ similarly-renowned ability to cram four times as much speculation as other SF writers is also on display here: although he lightens his prose after the mega-pascal intensity of Accelerando, there is still plenty of good crunchy speculation, fancy gadgets, excellent techno-fluidity, appalling back-stories and shock-a-minute ideas. The narrator literally perceives suburban life differently. It’s one of the book’s small treats to hear perfectly ordinary objects being described using ultra-technical vocabulary.
Given all of the above, it almost seems petty to complain about weak plot points. But the sometimes rough caricatures of the antagonists (relying on the ever-popular wife-beaters or religious leaders) aren’t particularly sophisticated and take away some of the creeping horror of the situation: It’s one thing to show normal people being manipulated in committing hair-raising horror, but its a different, lesser thing to simply show monsters without conscience running free. Worse still are at least two coincidences essential to the plot: The narrator meets and then recognizes two powerful allies in ways that seem awfully convenient. (Though I may have missed an unseen manipulation: this book isn’t light on unseen controls and made-up contrivances, after all.) &ldqu
o;Awfully convenient” is also a good way to describe a mid-book discovery which facilitates plotting in a panopticon environment, or the way the villains seem unusually forgiving of perceived threats.
But every Stross book seems to top the previous ones, if not in scope then at least in execution. Here, the theme may not be a broad as Accelerando, nor as guilt-free as The Atrocity Archives, but Stross is showing even more maturity in how he tackles his story on several different levels, weaving and shuffling his stuff without pausing for breath. Reading Glasshouse is a lot like seeing a card trick being performed right in front of your eyes: focus on this, focus on that, oh didn’t see this coming didn’t you? Stross has recently been a regular on the various SF awards ballots, and you can expect Glasshouse to go on to similar success. It’s a strong entry in a year already blessed with plenty of good science fiction books.