Last week, I finished Glasshouse by Charlie Stross.
I’ve been reading a lot more lately than I have in a long, long while. Part of that has included a lot of last year’s award winners. There’s been a lot of really great science-fiction that I haven’t read in recent years and I’m trying to catch up a bit. Glasshouse is one of those.
The title comes from the name of a kind of prison where the inmates are under continuous surveillance. However, the story is about a kind of experiment with partially mind-wiped patients. Ah, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. The story starts with a man named Robin who has recently undergone a significant surgery, to wipe certain parts of his memory. In fact, he’s undergone a rather radical mind wipe, no doubt driven by a significant trauma. At least, that’s what he supposes, since no one seems to know and, of course, he has no memory. Actually, he has to rely quite a bit on what people tell him and, frankly, a lot of guesswork. So, with that setting as a beginning, Robin explores who he is, why he’s there and why he knows about and is so comfortable with violence.
He quickly meets and gets involved with a woman named Kat. Though, in this future, definitions like “woman” are somewhat flexible. Kat, for instance, has four arms and is blue. And, she’s also gone through a mind-wipe, though not as radical as Robin’s. She convinces Robin to sign up for an experiment, an experiment in politics, sociology and history. The experiment takes the form of a game, of sorts, set in what would roughly be our time that includes constant observation to make sure everyone stays in character in this artificially created time and place. It’s an interesting way to look at gender roles and societal norms of our time, while layering on some other ideas for us to think about. And, of course, nothing is quite what it seems.
I have to admit, even though this won awards and was interesting, it’s not my favorite. I have a couple more by Charlie Stross in my stack of books to be read, and I’ll definitely read them, but I enjoy John Scalzi better. Still, the ideas Stross presented in this book were interesting and good, hard science-fiction. I won’t spoil any plot twists, but he creates a world where people can change gender almost at will and wear pretty modified bodies, too. Also, he portrays a world where, as an outgrowth of the mutable nature of humankind, sex and sexual morality has shifted far from our current standards, even in the most liberal of communities. I like, though, that it all fits together and makes sense internally. Sure you have to suspend disbelief in several instances, but, after that, everything else follows logically. In that respect, Stross is a very good writer, even though his style may not appeal to me. In the end, I’ll read more of his work because I can learn from it, and that’s more than enough reason for me. Also, there’s a fun “inside joke” reference to the Prisoner that made me laugh.
In short, if you’re patient and like so-called hard science-fiction, there’s a lot to like in Glasshouse. It’s well worth finding in paperback and reading.