Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review of "Glasshouse" by Charles Stross

(This review has also been posted at

So chock full of the social consequences of nano-science and memory editing is Stross’s Glasshouse, I’m still trying to pick myself up from the floor.  In a whirl, I can’t decide whether the ideas were expressed in cohesive enough fashion to produce a book I can praise or if I’ve simply been blinded by an imaginative eruption that is worthy enough in itself of admonition.  Beyond dumbfaced sense of wonder, I’m also wondering if anyone else could have a more defined view after riding Stross’s tilt-a-whirl of futuristic possibilities? 

Set at an unknown time in the far future, humanity - or what resembles humanity considering anyone can edit memories or nano-dapt into any living form – is recovering from war.  Infected via the A-gates and T-gates which humanity used for said alterations, society had been attacked by rebels wielding viruses that affected the psyche before the body.  But with the rebels now defeated, the main character, Robin, has his memories as a soldier in the war wiped and is attempting to start a new life - woman, man, two or four arms, it all changes depending on “his” mood, the gates safe once again.  Choice regarding appearance not an issue, paranoia, however, is.  Fearing that the rebels are still after him, Robin checks into a research program and agrees to participate in an experiment.  While isolating himself from society, he helps recreate the dark ages, aka the late 20th century, the history for this time missing due to Censorship Wars. 

Funny and insightful, Robin’s experiences in the biodome-style experiment, while providing the bulk of the novel, also serve to offer up Stross’s post-humanist agenda.  With the sky the limit in terms of physical appearance and emotional display, how do you know what anything is?  Who to trust?  If your worst enemy could be smiling beside you and you wouldn’t know it, how would this effect the psyche?  How do we measure identity?  But this is only the beginning.  There is a plethora of other questions and ideas packed into Glasshouse and simply not enough room in this review to discuss them.  

No space opera lasers flashing or spaceships warping, Glasshouse is sci-fi to the extreme but with a social agenda.  The plot devices too numerous to express Stross’s premise cogently, perhaps style was all part of the theme: to flood the mind with possibilities until it’s uncertain what is real.  No matter pertinent or not, the ideas are interesting enough to warrant a read.  Readers of Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling, Frederick Pohl, Philip K. Dick, and William Gibson take note.  All the stops pulled, this is science fiction for the 21st century.

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