Book Review: Glasshouse by Charles Stross

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

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When it comes to the science fiction genre, Glasshouse initially struck me as a little bit of an oddity. At it’s core, it’s a powerful self-examination of society style of speculative fiction with deep science fiction elements; but it also seemed to twist itself away from the science fiction and dove wholeheartedly and without reservation into a sort of Southern Gothic storytelling style that delivered a civilization meets Lord of the Flies.

The core story of this book is a bit of a departure from Charles Stross’s usual flamboyant technology-meets-humanity by presenting much more the humanity in total; although the entire story is inset in a technological framework, it’s really the humans who do all the moving and shaking, move the plot, and drive every fundamental element of the story.

The story starts out in the otherwise well-known hypertech and human singularity style that readers of Stross-type science fiction have gotten used to. The main character is the survivor of a series of wars that were fought over ideas more so than land or resources; in fact the last war took place by erasing knowledge from people’s minds and changing their very personalities to fit its means. In fact, most of humanity now is entirely divorced form their bodies in that they can essentially just change form anytime they want upon walking through a teleported—what’s important is the continuity of identity and that’s what the war’s viruses essentially modified.

The novel’s protagonist, Robin, is a veteran and survivor of these Censorship wars and he’s not come out without his own scars—i.e. he’s suffered some very traumas and had many of his memories erased. The virus that fought the wars is named “Curious Yellow” and he fought long and hard against it, he had to commit horrific acts that he wanted to forget; so as a result he put himself metaphorically “under the knife” and had those memories excised.

He’s also on the run.

Robin may be something of a badass, he’s not equipped to take on individuals who might otherwise see him as a threat to their existence and they’re out for his blood—or at least in this case his ultimate destruction as a person. Knowing that he may not be able to outrun them, he chooses the lesser-of-two-evils and seeks a way to hide from them by making it look as if he’s died and in the process take on a new identity. To do this he takes part in a strange anthropological experiment that would transfer his sentience out of existence and place it in a single-copy outside of the sphere of influence of his trackers.

This is where the story diverges from science fiction and becomes an examination of the human psyche and a highly anthropological almost-Hawthorneseque treatment of human behavior.

The Glasshouse experiment is one of a panopticon surveillance society recreating humanity’s “dark ages” aka 1940s to 2040s. The participants are loaded into their own roles and bodies that match people who lived during this era, given duties and jobs that fit that mold, and are quickly taken under the thumb of a tyrannical supervisor in a fashion that heavily mimics the Stanford prison experiment—in a way, the Machiavellian behavior and drama of the other experimental subjects has a strong scent of Kafka and Nietzche.

Robin is thrust into a female body and given the role of a middle-aged housewife in the late 1900s (not that far away for us) and he quickly finds himself disgruntled at the position he’s been put in. Not because of the gender-swap—he comes from a society where the concept of gender itself is something of a atavistic artifact of human nature—but being a person who doesn’t deal with authority of peer pressure well he finds the expectations of the society he’s been thrust into as unbearable.

The society that the experiment reflects is a draconian white-picket-fences meritocracy where the participants see the ability of others to perform their roles properly as reflecting on themselves. As a result, they gang up on Robin more than once and there’s obvious abuse taking place against other actors in the experiment. More than once, the protagonist is forced to reflect on his own role and ability to change the situation of others—such as a friend in the experiment who he knows is being brutally beaten by her in-experiment “husband.”

I would not suggest picking up Glasshouse if you’re looking for a junk science fiction read to burn through while sitting on a plane; it forced me to really think about the way that humans interact and how certain hierarchical and social structures can be subverted by evil and selfish motivations. It stripped away all the questions about saving-face and looking good in public and revealed a grim underbelly created by an almost sadistic overlord looking to push the participants to the breaking point.

Add that to a main character who is essentially a war survivor with his own strange hypertech PTSD—who at the beginning wasn’t very empathetic, but quickly gained me sympathy as he tried to make hard decisions.

As usual, Charles Stross creates powerful, passionate characters who find themselves trust into harrowing situations. It may dance away from the standard fare of science fiction in that the technology only lays the foundation for the story that gets told from the Glasshouse experiment; but as I said, this story is more about how people are people and less about how they adapt technology or how it adapts to them.

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