Book Review: Glasshouse by Charles Stross

Although his writing covers everything from cyberpunk to space opera to alternate history and fantasy, Charlie Stross is, for good or bad, viewed as one of the leading SF authors exploring the Singularity. Fans of that aspect of his writing will be pleased to know that his latest novel, Glasshouse, continues delving into the Singularity. Fans who appreciate Stross’ other works will be equally happy to know that Glasshouse explores much more ?— and that may make it a perfect introduction for the uninitiated.

The novel opens in the 27th century, centuries after the Singularity, which, as in his Hugo Award-nominated Accelerando, Stross calls “the Acceleration.” Broadly speaking, the Singularity is a point in the future where technological and societal change produce such superhuman intelligence that those who precede the event are unable to comprehend it. This “Rapture of the Nerds” produces a “posthuman” society in which technology and biology are almost seamlessly interconnected and interdependent.

Glasshouse is told from the viewpoint of Robin, who is just adjusting to “identity reindexing.” Robin had a “radical rebuild,” in which he had virtually all his memories purged. His only clues to his past are a letter he wrote himself (he thinks) before the procedure. He lives in a society still recovering from the “censorship wars.” The post-Acceleration humans of Robin’s universe travel by teleport gates that can transport them interstellar distances. Some “cognitive dictatorships” infected the gates with a virus that allowed the the gates to censor elements of the personalities and memories of those using them, often to suit the needs or desires of the society or ruling party where the destination gate is located.

Occasional flashes of memory tell Robin he was a warrior in the battles to control the virus and those behind it. But even that isn’t clear to him. Was he “a tank regiment,” an intelligence operative, both or more?

Struggling with the psychological aspects of his situation, Robin volunteers for the Glasshouse, an experiment created by archaeologists, historians, psychologists and social engineers. This “experimental polity” is meant to resemble life during the period from 1990-2010, “the middle of the dark ages.” The dark ages, generally the period from 1950 to 2040, are considered such because of the frequent incompatibility caused by the rapid change in methods of storing data. Because data from one period (e.g., magnetic tape) was not compatible with or always transferred to later storage forms (e.g., digital), significant gaps exist in knowledge of that period that led up to the Acceleration. The experiment hopes to recreate how society developed during that time. To encourage historical accuracy, participants are awarded or lose credits based on how their behavior comports with what are believed to have been the standards of that time.

Yet that gap also means those setting the rules governing the polity do not fully understand those bits of knowledge they do possess. For example, they view as a standard, rather than an option, the male going to work and, upon returning home, sitting on the couch watching TV with the female relegated to the role of homemaker. As usual, though, Stross delves deeper. Not only does he play with gender and gender roles, using posthuman characters who do not understand the historic meaning and significance of the rules by which they must live allows Stross to explore and comment on religion, politics, security, relationships and numerous cultural habits, customs and mores of today’s society.

Once in the Glasshouse, Robin begins experiencing states in which more parts of his memory are restored. But, again, Robin is never quite certain whether they are real or a manifestation of a psychological disorder. These events also lead Robin to suspect evil is afoot in the experiment. The investigation of that suspicion and changes in Robin’s own psychological state provide thriller-type plotlines that further enable Stross to simultaneously examine the history of the Acceleration and post-Acceleration society.

A few plot devices used to resolve the mystery of the experiment and the intent of its creators left me feeling make this a slightly weaker work than Accelerando. Yet in the scheme of things, that is a quibble. With Stross once again blending of Acceleration/Singularity concepts, what some might analogize to “hard SF,” with a more straightforward story examining today’s world, similarly analogous to “soft SF,” solidifies his reputation and standing. Fans will welcome and enjoy Glasshouse. Hopefully, it will also lead scores more readers to discover his innovative work.

Time is a corrosive fluid, dissolving motivation, destroying novelty, and leaching the joy from life.

Charles Stross, Glasshouse

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