Tuesday 13 November 2007

Charles Stross: Glasshouse (2006)

Published: Orbit, 2006

Glasshouse (named from British army slang for a military prison) is basically a spy novel set in the future. The central character, Robin, starts the book recovering from memory surgery, a standard voluntary brainwashing technique which is part of psychiatric treatment: but he doesn't remember why he had memories removed, nor why the process was quite so drastic as it turned out to be. Then he is recruited for an experiment, in which he will live in a recreated environment from "the Dark Ages" (roughly, today) ostensibly to derive information and understanding lacking from the historical record (essentially because the knowledge required to understand our proprietary computer file formats has been lost). This sort of experiment has been done already: a famous attempt to get several families to live in a reconstructed Iron Age village in the late seventies was the earliest reality TV series I remember watching. When Robin wakes up in the experimental domain, he is no longer a man, but has been turned into a housewife in an environment distinctly reminiscent of the film Pleasantville. The undertones are even more sinister, as this isn't just a sitcom reflecting the attitudes of the fifties, but an experiment with a hidden purpose. This is made clear to Robin (or Reeve, as she is now known) when she realises that all the participants have been made fertile - this is normally a deliberate choice in their culture - and the aim appears to be to create a generation who know no other life than the experiment.

Using science fiction to satirise the attitudes of the present is hardly cutting edge science fiction. Even the use of time travel, re-enactment or simulation is common: it forms a major part of the film Star Trek IV, as well featuring in Pleasantville already mentioned. Other science fiction joins Stross in describing our age as psychotic or crazy (notably Robert Heinlein's Future History stories). Stross is at the edge end of this tendency in the genre, certainly more so than anything mentioned, but his writing here also contains much humour. (This is generally his writing style: dark but knowing.) The principal way in which Stross differs from many of the others who have satirised the present day in this way is that his future setting is very different from our own, even though the way in which it could have come about (apart from the unexplained cornucopia technology) is fairly believable as are continuing parallels with our own time (such as the detail that the cornucopia machines are subject to hacking and the equivalents of computer viruses) and people who are still recognisably human. To compare with Heinlein again, in his earlier works his future society is hardly distinguishable from that which he describes as crazy. Glasshouse also has a really good ending, after Reeve starts receiving messages that Robin had implanted deep into his subconscious before the memory surgery.

Glasshouse is publicised as a sequel to Accelerando, but this doesn't seem quite right to me. While dreaming of similar themes, much of the envisaged future here is different from that at the end of the earlier novel. It doesn't manage to be quite as interesting as Accelerando, which I feel is Stross' strongest work so far; nor is it as entertaining as the Merchant Princes series. However, it is still both interesting and enjoyable, and well worth reading.