When teaching English, it’s often very useful to provide meters, for example, adverbs of frequency from the pole of ‘never’ to the pole of ‘always’. Such meters can also be useful in representing how ideas are used in stories, specifically quantity. There are some writers who hold to the left side of the spectrum and invoke as many and as much as possible. Charlie Stross is a veritable barrage of ideas. They flash before the eyes, few settling into place before the next appears. Adam Roberts occupies the right side. Selecting one or two ideas and thoroughly unpacking them, his novels take a premise and carefully examine its facets. It is thus good news his 2012 Jack Glass: A Golden Age Story contains three ideas to unpack. Whether they are something as fresh and invigorating as Stross would dream of, well…
Jack Glass is three windows into the life of the man, the legend, the eponymous Jack Glass. Using bits of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and pulp era sci-fi, Roberts presents three stories that together form something resembling a cohesive whole. Starting small and working outwards, a larger picture of the murderer, teacher, detective, rebel, guardian, farmer, etc. comes to light as the pages turn. The first story opens with Jac (as he is called then) imprisoned in an asteroid with six other hardened criminals. Left to fend for themselves with a minimum of supplies, Jac’s starting point is even more difficult than the others: he’s legless. Battling the harshness of social Darwinism in such a masculine, limited environment, Jac makes his incredulous escape. The second story is of the young heir to Clan Argent, named Diana, landing on Earth for the first time. A lover of murder mysteries, she is immediately confronted by not only gravity, but a real-life whodunit involving the servants at the house where she is staying. Roberts unveiling more of the solar system simultaneously, Diana, and her bodyguards Deno, Bethesene, and Iago, eventually solve the murder, but not without major surprises along the way. (For those who pay attention to details, the mystery was already solved in Roberts’ novel Gradisil.) And the third and final section of the book is a classic locked room mystery. An unexplainable murder taking place inside Jack’s house (or space bubble, as it were), how the shot came from in not outside is the question on everybody’s mind as matters in the solar system escalate to FTL proportions.
Jack Glass is an acknowledged homage to science fiction and murder mysteries of yesteryear. Roberts even trying his hand at writing in a similar style of prose, the English village murder in space comes across intentionally quaint.
“’Come out, back to the house, Miss,’ said Jong-il. Berthezene was pointing his gun into each room in turn, standing beside each opening with his weapon vertical near his chest, and leaping out to level it at possible assailants, over and again. The gun’s barrel: vertical – horizontal. Vertical – horizontal. ‘The servants are all outside,’ Dia called, peering at the corpse. ‘There’s nobody in here! You worry-warts!’
‘Death is never a safe environment, Miss,’ said Iago.
‘Please be careful, Miss!’ cried Jong-il. ‘The police have been notified!’”
The prison escape unravels in more exciting, contemporary fashion, and is the strongest section of the book. And the locked room, while resolving itself in quasi-deus ex machina fashion, nevertheless builds mystery admirably. Consciously borrowing, stealing, and shaping elements of crime fiction into a sci-fi narrative, the novel lives up to its subtitle: A Golden Age Story.
But for a writer like Roberts, there is a flip side to intentionally creating a novel, as such. Like test driving a car you know you’ll never buy, he is obviously just having a little fun with Jack Glass. The effort taken with only partial seriousness, he works out the premises (i.e. those aforementioned ideas to be unpacked nicely) with care, but doesn’t invest the same commitment to other aspects. For starters, the prose is inconsistent. At times playing with older styles, at others he lets his own take over. Diana’s voice is regular and regulated, but the prisoners in the opening section speak in a fashion that does not belie their actions—Roberts their puppeteer. Secondly, the conclusion is disappointing. An umbrella story involving the solar system at large weaving its way through the three sections, Roberts does not resolve a situation that had been building the whole book, choosing instead to leave those matters open. This is all fine and dandy, but why then devote so much narrative space to it in a plot-centric novel? And the note he does choose to end the story on—a Chandler-esque, Casablanca-esque note, lacks conviction. Now I’ll just move the pieces here and here, they will say this and that, and voila, denouement. Granted, the lack of resonance may be the result of Roberts’ effective usage of pulp devices (e.g. empty characters have difficulty invoking full emotions), but it nevertheless has a perfunctory rather than earnest feel.
In the end, Jack Glass is a solid work of storytelling that hearkens back to another time, but ultimately is a little fun had on Roberts’ part. It is Adam Roberts Lite. The stories and ideas unpacked with the author’s trademark attention to concept, the scenes and situations are cleverly contrived. The asteroid prison escape and reveal of the whodunit, for example, are very well done—even if the actual escape stretches reality a little far. But the inconsistency of narrative and prose have a detrimental effect, as does the ultimate knowledge it is all just a one-off in someone else’s shoes. Once having dined on Adam Roberts Lite (for as fluffy and tasty as it initially is), the innate substance is not rich or textured enough to warrant seconds.
A side note: it is quite interesting that Jack Glass is Roberts’ most successful book from an award perspective. (I don’t know about sales figures, but I’d guess there is some corollary.) Nominated for three and winning two (the Campbell Memorial and BSFA), it is by far the most recognized of Roberts’ works, but certainly not his best. It may be that the prior works aggregated into an awareness that Jack Glass reaped the benefits of, but it would seem to me the utilization of familiar story motifs, storytelling methods, accessible characters, and outright desire to produce something more mainstream are what gave it recognition over his more thoughtful and original Salt, New Model Army, and Gradisil. (Between those three novels, there are only four award nominations and no wins.) I see the same thing happening with Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House. It is an incredibly accessible novel compared to much of his backlist, yet it is the book often cited as his best. But I guess the message on the American speculative fiction award front these days is already clear: if it wins, it's sure to be user-friendly...