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Charles Stross: Glasshouse

Glasshouse is a nifty little book about memory and identity. Although it could arguably take place in the same future as Accelerando, there’s no clear link between the two other than references to the “acceleration”.

Our hero, Robin, wakes up after having some of his memory removed, apparently at his own wish. In the recovery environment, he hooks up with a woman named Kay, but soon finds out that someone seems to be out to kill him. So he opts to sign up to live in an experimental environment designed to simulate the society of the “dark ages” (i.e., the late 20th/early 21st century). Once there, he finds that it’s maybe a little true-to-life for his tastes: There are no wormhole gates (T-gates) between habitats, and there are no nanotech assemblers (A-gates) to recycle and create objects, or to back up your memories. Everything must be done through manual labor, and aside from a hundred or so other volunteers for the experiment, the habitats are all occupied by zombie humans.

All this would be an inconvenience if Robin didn’t quickly become convinced that the overseers of the experiment were running some sort of scam: They set themselves up as religious leaders, and enforce desired behavior by means of a point system, which is supposed to result in more money earned once the experiment is over. But there are some oddities in the experiment, and loopholes in its rule system, which convinces Robin that something is very rotten indeed, and he’s still not sure why he had his memory edited, quite who he was before then, or who was out to kill him.

As Paul Di Filippo observed in his review, Glasshouse consciously absorbs and reconfigures many elements from earlier books by other authors. I’m not very familiar wih most of the references, although I have read a little Cordwainer Smith and John Varley, but Stross puts his own stamp firmly on the story, with a sardonic wit and lively narrative that makes this a much livelier and more engaging story than Accelerando, even if it’s not the nonstop parade of fantastic ideas that the previous book was.

Perhaps the best thing in the whole novel is the backstory: Glasshouse takes place after the “Censorship Wars”, where A-gates were infected with a software virus which fractured humanspace by editing peoples’ memories when they went into an A-gate. Although it’s largely part of the backstory, the sort of fragmentations that occurred and the extremes to which people were driven still haunts several of our characters. No wonder some of them want to forget certain things!

Stross asks many good questions which only become possible when memory editing is possible, and this leads into the main theme of the novel: What is identity? Not so much who we are (although that’s an important question), but who we think we are. Is continuity of memory necessary? Are skills necessary? Relationships to specific people? Gender? Attitude? And does it really matter? If you’ve lost some set of those elements, but retain others, is it important that you remember who you used to be?

Glasshouse also studies how Robin adjusts to the artifical culture in the experiment, especially since he doesn’t know anything about his fellow citizens, or whom to trust, or how extensively he’s being monitored. His sharp-tongued descriptions of life in the dark ages are hilarious, even in the rather grim context. But it’s also an interesting cauldron which brings out the worst in some characters, and the best in others.

Overall, the novel is thought-provoking, tense, and a lot of fun, with a fully rewarding climax and resolution. Stross is able to manage some concepts which might otherwise run away with the story and makes it all believable as well as exciting. It might not be as ambitious a novel as Accelerando, but I found it more enjoyable.

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