Glasshouse

by Charles Stross

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: July 2006
ISBN: 0-441-01403-8
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 335

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Humankind has scattered among the stars, living in millions of habitats circling convenient star systems or in long-travelling spaceships. The exact physical surroundings no longer matter much. They have discovered the technology to build instantaneous teleportion gates, to store patterns (including people) and recreate them, and therefore to churn out whatever they might desire, including backups and copies of people. But digitization and recreation of people has a dark side: the patterns can be changed.

It started with a virus, Curious Yellow, which infected the gate system through the people travelling it and caused everyone to forget... something. Others quickly siezed on Curious Yellow as a carrier for more typical human mischief. People were infected to turn them into mindless slaves of a state, into components of hive minds, and into even less pleasant creatures, until the unified human world shattered into independent polities and war. By the time Glasshouse opens, a network free of Curious Yellow has been painfully constructed by hand, the infected dictatorships have been fought back and forcibly processed clean, and a scarred, battered normalcy has returned.

The story starts with our protagonist, Robin, recovering from extensive and apparently much-needed memory surgery. He knows nothing but general background, tantalizing glimpses of his past, and a set of effective battle skills. If you're going to use one of the oldest narrative tricks in the book to create mystery and help readers identify with the viewpoint character, you have to do it in style, and I think constructing a world background that gives new justification to the amnesiac hero story counts. At one level, this is the plot written by everyone from Robert Ludlum to Louis L'Amour: Hero wakes without memory of his past, discovers the nastiest elements of his past are chasing him, has top-knotch survival skills for reasons he can't recall, and slowly pieces together his life while defeating his enemies. But Stross's world-building puts a reason behind the amnesia and uses it as a jumping-off point to twist memory, identity, and loyalty.

Stross isn't the first writer to point out that turning human brains into software means giving others more control over human minds than one might wish. This is, however, the most effective and thought-provoking (and creepiest) treatment I've read. Partly this is because he ignores the path of uploaded personalities and virtual reality entirely and puts his characters back into human (possibly modified) bodies, which allows more of a reader connection to the characters and brings home the intangibility and constant uncertainty this capability creates. Partly it's because he avoids making mind modifications the center of the story; Curious Yellow is world background, not the plot focus. It's also not the plot of a maniacal dictator. It's a computer virus: a brilliant but straightforward hack, functioning by a simple set of rules, modeled after the behavior of real computer viruses, and scarily effective only because of the structural flaw it uncovers and exploits. Stross, unlike all too many writers, understands how computers and information systems work and what plausible exploits look like. He also understands how governments use them but usually don't originate them.

This would have already been a fascinating book, but everything I describe above is only the secondary plot strand. The primary plot strand kicks off when Robin, hiding out from unknown attackers, accepts a position as a research subject for anthropologists studying the dark ages of humankind: the late 20th century. The experiment is a glasshouse, a world with ubiquitous surveillance, set up with a set of rules designed to simulate what is known of 20th-century living. That Robin knew going in. What he didn't know is that he'd wake up in a female body, in a world with a scarily effective reward and punishment system that builds on peer pressure, and with a hidden darker purpose.

Glasshouse is a book about mind and identity control, and Stross doesn't stop with obvious science fiction manipulation. The simulated 20th-century world, which could have been boring in contrast to the high-tech setup, turns into a scary examination of how social rules and norms are a form of mind control themselves. Stross tackles the threats of a surveillance society (with far more realism than David Brin, in my opinion), social control through reward/punishment cycles, gender roles, and the conflicting appeal of freedom and safety. He routinely runs two or three plot threads simultaneously without confusion, gradually widens the scope and stakes without disappointing, and pulls off a twisty ending that managed to give me everything I wanted without following the courses I expected. And this is all happening at the same time as an often-sharp parody of modern times (with an excellent in-character explanation), some admirably rich world-building, and a romance sub-plot that (in a first for Stross) had me both uncertain of and caring about the outcome.

This is the best book Stross has written to date. It still suffers from lapses of techno-babble, and both the world background and Robin's personal history sometimes arrive in wads of exposition that are a bit intrusive. Both problems are better than any of his previous books I've read, however, and his characters here are better than Iron Sunrise and significantly better than his other books. This is the first book of his that reached out and grabbed me, kept me interested all the way through, and left me feeling satisfied and sated at the end. I can still see room for improvement (the kilosecond/gigasecond thing was a bad idea that just makes reading the story harder), but with Glasshouse Stross moves beyond technophiliac science fiction and tells a story of surprising depth.

Update: On-line commentary I've read since I wrote this review raises legitimate concerns with the treatment of gender issues in Glasshouse. I think Stross was trying hard to tackle 20th century gender issues as part of the glasshouse plot by reversing the sex of the main protagonist, but that reversal seems to be literally skin-deep at times. There are all sorts of biological problems here with leaving attitude unaffected by a complete change in endocrine systems (and yet, elsewhere in the book, there are some puzzling gender stereotypes), and the protagonist clings fairly tightly to very traditional gender roles despite living in a world in which one can change gender at will. Gender roles and the world background fail to hang together in some annoying ways if one tries to analyze them.

I think Stross was trying something quite hard and didn't entirely succeed, although for me (a white male, so not really the audience that would have the most problems) it didn't hurt my enjoyment of the book too deeply. But for a much more in-depth reaction that highlights the flaws, see L. Timmel Duchamp's excellent analysis.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-04-08

Last modified and spun 2017-04-29