November 9, 2007

Book review: "Glasshouse," by Charles Stross

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Glasshouse
By Charles Stross
Ace/Berkley / ISBN: 0-441-01403-8

As I've mentioned here before, although as an adult I try to maintain as varied a reading list as possible, I do naturally gravitate regularly towards the science-fiction (or SF) genre on which I was raised, as well as the "weird-lit" novels of our contemporary times that have been influenced by the genre. And indeed, if you take a close look at the projects that are getting so much attention these days among the so-called "creative class" (the same people who mostly make up CCLaP's readership too, by the way), you'll see that now more than ever, mainstream and even academic literature is being influenced in subtle ways more and more by such fantastical genres as SF and weird-lit. When you look at the entertainment choices made by people who are comfortable with technology and spend a decent amount of time online, the world can indeed become a strange place; a place where even among mainstream novels and network television shows, some awfully odd things can happen within the middle of a supposedly straight-ahead character drama.

Glasshouse, by Charles Stross

So it's natural, then, that we straight-ahead SF fans would of course especially appreciate so-called "hard" SF writers in this day and age, or those who write such head-scratchingly brilliant stuff that only SF fans in particular are going to appreciate and love it; and boy, you don't get much more fanboy-crazy than with author Charles Stross, a multiple award winner and favorite among fellow SF writers, who nonetheless is barely known beyond the SF community that worships him so much. I just had a chance to read his latest* novel, in fact, 2006's Glasshouse, which happens to be my first novel of his in my own life; and believe me, I now understand why people go so freaking nuts over him, and am already plotting a way to get ahold of one of his earlier novels as quickly as possible. It is a flabbergasting book, one so smart and complex you can scarcely believe it actually exists; one that has a 95-percent chance of officially blowing your mind by the time you're finished, even if you do have a guess at which way the story is headed.

So before anything else, I guess let's start with a truism about hard SF; that the reason it's called so is because it's highly technical in nature, highly complicated, very concept-heavy, and reliant on a complex backstory to serve as the plot's overarching "universe." And indeed, it's no different when it comes to Glasshouse, which right off the bat throws you for a loop by setting the story 700 years in the future; a future where old Earth has been abandoned and is now semi-mythological in nature, a future (like Cory Doctorow's) where a lifetime of memories can be uploaded into a computer and then downloaded into a new physical clone whenever needed, essentially making every person immortal. The two inventions that make these things possible? Well, they're called "gates," and both basically do the same thing; they break matter down into molecules on one end, then reassemble them instantaneously on the other, basically creating a galaxy-wide teleportation network running off a form of free energy.

But there's a difference between how the two types of gates accomplish this; "T-gates" are naturally occurring wormholes, for example, able only to transport matter from place to place, while "A-gates" are manmade, and work by digitizing matter on one end and re-assembling it on the other, meaning that you can change the properties of the matter along the way as well. And thus are A-gates used not only for cloning, but also Star-Trek-style replication of food, homes and clothing; and thus are T-gates used by far-flung domed space colonies to "stitch together" autonomous states, called "polities" in the future. (Confused? Think of a bunch of websites that all link to each other to form a network, where clicking on a name will instantly take you "next-door;" now imagine being able to do the same with a piece of physical property, by lining T-gates along its edges.)

Such a future opens up all kinds of body-modification options, as long as you're smart enough like Stross to actually think them up; not just the opportunity to be either gender you want, for example, but both genders at once, no gender at all, an animal instead of a human, a fictional or even fantastical species, even a sentient machine...like a "smart tank," for example, the previous incarnation of Glasshouse's multi-named main protagonist, which he/she/it had inhabited during an apocalyptic war in his/her/its youth, a war that is too damn complicated to even begin going into in this review. And then if you're like our hero and end up emotionally traumatized by the atrocities you committed in such a war, you can simply elect to have these memories purged from the digital backup before your next clone is put together, creating a hole in your memory you know is there but with no clue as to what once filled it.

Ah, but according to Stross, suddenly losing months or years of your memory isn't as easy as it might sound; that your persistent unease and stress afterwards over what's no longer there and why it's no longer there, along with the lessons about getting along in polite society you learned in that period that also got suddenly erased, turn many people into rampaging murderous psychopaths after such a process...which granted, is not so alarming in a world where everyone is immortal, but nonetheless is disruptive to the functioning of a polite society. And thus are different options offered in the future for the multitude of blank-minded, violently angry veterans that this now-finished war produced; a formal system of dueling, for example, in order to vent one's rage, jewelry that dynamically reminds people when to smile and be polite, even entire experimental polities designed as massive rehabilitation centers.

The majority of Glasshouse, in fact, takes place inside one of these experimental rehab and research centers; most of what I just mentioned is simple backstory (or, er, "simple" backstory) to the main plot taking place. And this of course is when Stross starts earning that worshipful reputation among fans that he has; because this is no ordinary rehab center, in fact, but rather a recreation of our exact current age (AD 1950 to 2050, to be precise), which in their future-history is known as "The First Great Dark Age," in that almost no records still exist 700 years later of our particular time in history. (In fact, Stross makes a great jab at the music industry, Microsoft and others, when explaining what brought about this Dark Age; that for reasons that are inexplicable to citizens of the future, all the information-gathering organizations of our age locked all their information behind encrypted and corrupted firewalls, making them useless within just a century or two of the companies holding the decryption codes falling apart.) Future historians know that something important happened in these years -- this was the period of human history, after all, that saw the Singularity take place, leading to what Stross refers to as the "Accelerated Age" -- it's just that these historians don't know what exactly it was, hence the experimental rehab center based on the societal rules and norms that are still known from that period, in an attempt to see if a similar-acting society can be created and tightly studied.

In effect, it lets Stross be devastatingly critical about our current times, the War on Terror, George W Bush, passive-aggressive suburbanites and the like, all within the framework of a theory-heavy SF plot that is constantly threatening to go over one's head -- a chance to show all the "normals" out there just what an alien, confusing, arbitrary world polite society appears to be, to bohemian crackpot geniuses (or traumatized violent war veterans) who can't understand the rationality behind its rules, or why you would ever care about pleasing a bunch of random strangers in the first place. Take this paragraph of inner-brain dialogue, for just one of many examples, on a day when our hero (in female form here) is contemplating why all her fellow female participants succumb to artificial peer pressure so easily...

However much I try to, I can't put myself in their shoes. It's as if they don't realize that you can game the system by ignoring it, by refusing to participate, as well as by going along with the overt rewards and punishments. They've all unconsciously decided to obey the arbitrary pressure toward gender partitioning, and they won't be content unless everyone else conforms and competes for the same rewards. Was it like this for real dark ages females, created as random victims of genetic determinism rather than volunteers in an experiment enforced by explicit rewards and penalties? If so, I'm lucky: I've only got another three years of it.

To picture things even more simply: Imagine one of those "civilization-building" videogames like SimCity, and all the simplified recreations of complex societal criteria that come with it; except imagine it built on a one-to-one scale, where the town you're trying to create and run is the size of an actual town, the non-player characters actually flesh and blood, walking around this full-sized town and interacting with the actual humans. And that's maybe the most brilliant thing of all about Stross, is that ultimately almost every element of Glasshouse has been cribbed from an existing well-known project -- from the aforementioned SimCity to ExistenZ, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Ender's Game, Rendezvous with Rama, The Truman Show, and a lot more -- but with the end result being profoundly different and better than a mere summing-up of all these plots. Here Stross has almost magically plucked all the hot topics of our modern age out of the air, like the anarchic little fireflies they are, and has somehow trained them to fly in a formation so that we see a ghostly image of the Mona Lisa floating in front of us in the night sky. Well, okay, maybe it ain't that poetic, but Stross sure does inspire you to think along those lines, that's for sure.

There are so many other things I could mention about this book that I'm not going to -- it's one of those novels that entire theses can be based on, if that gives you an idea of how complex a story it is. Like I said, it's easy upon finishing Glasshouse to see why SF fans go so nuts for Stross as they do; but it's also easy to see why he mostly remains a writer for lovers of the genre only, and why a bigger and more mainstream audience has thus far eluded him. It comes with a big recommendation from me, but with the usual caveat; that you should be prepared to take this book slowly, contemplate it wisely, and have your mind very slowly screwed with, bit by delicious bit.

Out of 10:
Story: 10
Characters: 9.6
Style: 9.9
Overall: 9.8

*By the way, turns out that this isn't Stross' latest novel after all; his newest one, Halting State, just came out a couple of weeks before this review was written. I was lucky enough to get my hands on it today through the Chicago public library system, and as always will have a review of it posted here soon.

Read even more about Glasshouse: Official site | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:19 AM, November 9, 2007. Filed under: