Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Charles Stross - Glasshouse

Glasshouse is a tightly written and ambitious Science Fiction novel that's made up of dazzling and complex world building, an exploration of how memory makes us who we are, and a commentary on the prejudices and oddities of our current lives from the vantage point of the future looking back. All of those aspects are intriguing, but none of them are wholly successful, or even particularly close to it, ultimately leaving Glasshouse far more memorable for what it could have been than for what it is.

We begin in the Invisible Republic, one of the many polities that make up Stross' future, and our narrator has just erased his memories. From what he does remember, though, he knows that someone's chasing him. As a result, he takes refuge in an experiment designed to simulate the dark ages that so little is known about, a simulacrum of our very own 20th century. Before long, though, ominous hints begin to appear that the experimenters may not only be connected to the people the narrator (Robin, Reeve within the experiment) is running from but may be connected to one of the greatest disasters in recorded history.

All of this is intriguing and inventive, particularly Stross' countless clever uses of wormholes; all of it, also, is soon strangled by the weight of the novel's uncountable inconsistencies and nonsensicalities. Some of these can, perhaps, be explained by how hazy the future is, much as that's just swapping one problem for another (debatably worse) one. An example along these lines is how, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, the future's ultimate fighters do battle with swords. They're rather fantastic swords, mind you, but if there's any reason at all why their foes don’t sit out of range, mayhaps on top of a wall, and blow them away, we're not treated to it.

But the problem of inconstancies goes as deep as the character's essential motivations, as L. Timmel Duchamp shows in her excellent Strange Horizons review. The participants in the experiment are enticed in with the promise of a huge payout, and the experimenters twist them into conforming through the use of an omnipresent, in-their-heads, always watching points system that drags them on with the promise of "bonus money" (p. 32). Stross seems to be combining social and financial incentives into a force for conformity. Okay, that could prove interesting. Except for one rather fatal flaw. This future is post scarcity (this is never said explicitly, but because the experiment is emulating a pre-acceleration scarcity society (p. 31), and because the Invisible Republic is post-acceleration, it undeniably is implicitly post scarcity). For all their constant musing about money, we never see a single character actually use or need it for anything outside of the experiment.

Stross' failure to think through the implications of his own world building is not limited to large-scale decisions but gets right down to the prose level. In this world where A-gates can make absolutely anything one might ever require, we still hear about a "failed business venture" (p. 3)  (what kind of business could exist post-scarcity? how did/could it fail?) and a character is "paid handsomely," (p. 18) without a mention of what that might entail or to what end. Lest it seem like this is a problem solely related to economics, a character whose first thought upon hearing 20th century is "hunt[ing] mammoths with a spear," (p. 30) still senses danger in terms of a metaphorical "warning bell(p. 5). The one exception to all this is time, which is related through a timescale based around the second that primarily results in the reader just having to constantly flip back to the page with the conversions.

The nightmarish quality of life in the experiment is frequently discussed, how it's just like a prison, how it's all one fearful panopticon (p. 223), and so forth. But that's nonsense. In the beginning, Robin/Reeve's snooping is allowed due to the highly questionable idea that the experimenters, dedicated to the validity of their  experiment, wouldn't use modern (meaning, for us, future) surveillance techniques in it. Their dedication to the experiment's validity is later shown to be utter tosh, but, even granting that they want to stick to the 20th century, it's still rather questionable that these evil masterminds evidently don't have the basic technology that you, dear reader, probably use to protect your house this very moment. The dastardly and so-technological villains don't even have an alarm on their door. And as for the more general aspects of surveillance, we're told again and again that someone might always be listening, that there's, at the very least, keyword monitoring (p. 307), but that just makes me wonder why none of the following trigger any of these keyword alerts: the walls have ears, (p. 303) [the experimenters] are war criminals, (p. 288) and Team Green's job is to secure the hall, drop any armed support the bad guy's have, and kill as many [of the experimenters] as we can find (p. 314), to just name a few.

Even leaving aside the innumerable inconsistencies and questions of its security and existence, the experiment proves a poor tool for Stross to give us any actual insights about our actual world. There are the occasional amusing moments when post-human liberties run up against 20th century barriers, but the majority of Stross' creations are far too exaggerated to actually show us anything at all. The majority of it is just Stross hammering on about our close minded sexual politics, which would be fair game if it weren't twisted so far to make his points. In the point system, Adultery […] gets minus one hundred while rape isn't mentioned [and] murder loses you just seventy points. (pp. 194-5) But… no. Arguing that modern day, or even 20th century America (which, I should point out, is all of the past that's ever interacted with) considered adultery worse than murder and rape not even a crime is simply stupid.

Then there's one of the novel's most interesting elements, at least on paper, the memory-erasure that colors so much of the background. Stross doesn't shy away from the potentially cataclysmic, personality-effacing implications of such things, and the technology becomes vital to the novel. As the narrator says at one point: If I forget, then it might as well never have happened. Memory is liberty. (p. 224) The first person perspective allows Stross to weave this deep into the character and plot of the novel. Deprived of any distance from Robin/Reeve's own fractured recollections, sureness is difficult, and a calculated disorientation of absence leads to some of the novel's best scenes.

But, though the idea is utilized, it's never wholly successful. The memories that the narrator's lost are specific ones, and what we do know limits us to a limited number of plausible truths: I'm a tank; I'm a dissolute young bioaviator with a death wish: Maybe I'm a sad gamer case instead, or a deep-cover agent. But all of these possibilities are a whole lot sillier and less plausible than what everything around me is saying, which is that I'm a small-town librarian who's had a nervous breakdown. (p. 250) That may be the most plausible explanation, but it's of course not the right one, because it would make for a horribly boring story, while the idea of him/her being a gamer would make for a silly one. The fact that Robin/Reeve is a deep cover agent/tank is never in doubt, in part due to the copious multi-page flash backs (that often verge more into the territory of info-dumps) that elaborate on that past.

Leaving aside all of my issues with its themes and the consistency of its world building, Glasshouse still runs into serious trouble as just a fun read. The majority of this is due to the pacing, which lags badly once the experiment begins, picks up for a bit, slumps to nothing again after the main character's escape attempt, and then finally starts to climb up again before we reach the novel's utterly absent climax. At the end of the last proper chapter, the tension's at its height, and both victory and defeat seem equally possible. Then things cut away. The first line of the epilogue? To cut a long story short, we won. (p. 329) Thank God Stross cut the story short, it's not like I'd paid eight bucks to read it and had just gone through three hundred and twenty-eight pages of buildup. Maybe next time he can perfect this so-great formula and, for his next book, simply publish that sentence.

I really, really wanted to like Glasshouse, and not only because of the author's high profile, repeated Hugo nominations, and interesting blog. Unlike so much failed Science Fiction, Glasshouse doesn't stay where it's safe, throwing us the same tired storyline we've seen so many times before. Stross is an author of vision and daring. Unfortunately, at least here, he seems to lack the skill required to bring them off. Still, better an interesting failure than dull mediocrity, and I'll likely give Stross another chance to pull things together better some time in the future.


  1. Hello! I have two words for you to consider: "unreliable" and "narrator" ...

    (If you re-read "Glasshouse" without assuming Robin/Reeve's interpretation of events is correct, you might notice a different story hidden behind the surface. I mean, crediting a first person narrative in which the narrator is murdered three quarters of the way through the story ...?)

  2. Greetings, Mr. Stross. "Reliable" certainly isn't the chief word I'd use to describe Robin/Reeve, but most of the inconsistencies seemed too story breaking to give full credence too. Then again, I suppose memory and recollection are pretty much open to anything in a world with A-Gates, and that uncertainty was my favorite part of the novel... When I'm in the same state as my copy again, I'll look through for some of what I may've missed.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting and know that, despite the snarkier parts of the review, I did find Glasshouse an interesting read, and I will be checking out another of your books in the nearish future (Accelerando, likely - or, as I can never resist Lovecraftian, The Atrocity Archives).

    1. Thanks! By the way, they're mostly different. ("Glasshouse" was a one-off.)

  3. I have read most of Mr. Stoss's work, and Glass house was one of my favorites. But then, I like most of his stuff anyway...

  4. I have read most of Mr. Stoss's work, and Glass house was one of my favorites. But then, I like most of his stuff anyway...

  5. Stross's energy and imagination never flag, and the book comes to a satisfying (if a bit formulaic) conclusion. Look for it on next year's award-ballots. Highly recommended.