It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.
- Sally Kempton
The prolific Charles Stross’s published work includes groundbreaking SF, the Lovecraftian Atrocity Archives, a fantasy trilogy, and a significant quantity of shorter fiction and non-fiction.
Glasshouse connects to its predecessor Accelerando in somewhat the same fashion that Iron Sunrise does to Singularity Sky. The earlier novel runs wild with brilliant ideas as it establishes a possible future. The second book takes that future as the setting for a more conventional story. Whereas Iron Sunrise seemed a small step down from Singularity Sky, however, Glasshouse is one of Stross’s best to date.
Author: Charles Stross
Expect a few spoilers.
Seven-hundred years from now, post-singularity human society has fragmented, largely due to the Censorship Wars. Humans can remake their bodies, back up their minds, and duplicate themselves endlessly. However, a techno-virus called Curious Yellow has been unleashed, erasing select portions of archived and human memory. In particular, it targets historians.
A former battalion, Robin/Reeve finds him/herself hiding in an experiment to recreate the Dark Ages before the singularity, the period from 1950-2040. Once there, our protagonist suspects the experiment has another, chilling purpose.
The experimental community brilliantly satirizes our society. The experimenters make (often hilarious) mistakes, but their version of our world is satirically perfect. Within days, we’re experiencing gender-stereotyped behavior (regardless of the subjects’ original sexes). Within weeks, we have the first incident of domestic violence. The experimental society takes turns amusing, depressing and brutal, and Robin/Reeve finally concludes that the experimenters are either "trying to generate a psychotic polity, or the people in the society they derived" the model from "were off their heads" (197). Many inhabitants of that society will find themselves nodding in agreement.
Stross also addresses the real problem with virtual reality. It’s not that the the Holodeck will malfunction; it’s that it will be used deliberately for dubious purposes.
The central character has been handled deftly. Stross understands how multiple identities work, and his fanciful far-future technology reflects on the current interface between humanity and our computers and on human behavior generally. The characters can physically realize their multiple identities, but they’re not so different than many of the novel’s readers, who may have different personae at home, at work, online, and elsewhere. The social controls in the glasshouse recall those used in actual societies as much as they do the artificial environments of games and Reality TV. The connection between those social controls and the resulting human behavior is all too familiar. The section where our narrator begins to accept the glasshouse society has a science-fiction explanation, but it recalls disturbingly real human behavior. The gentler attitudes present in the "Recovery" chapter sound very like those of the post-World War II society which the glasshouse recreates.
The book is not without flaws. I'll avoid discussing Stross's frequent nerd jokes; reader response to those will vary. A bigger problem is the characterization of the villains. They have few dimensions. The book would have been better if even the mild moral ambiguity attached to Dr. Hanta had extended to some of the other antagonists. Likewise, I wish abusive Mick had not been so entirely deranged. Had he been a more typical violent individual, certain actions that followed would have had some interesting moral ambiguity, and the satiric point would have been cleaner.
Stross’s innovative novel becomes a predictable thriller in the final chapter, a little too pat and clichéd. True, the ending provides a certain satisfaction, but it's not on the same level as the rest of the book.
Glasshouse combines science fiction, techno-thriller, mystery, and satire into a coherent whole. While Stross gives the story primacy, his novel distills a number of ideas worth discussing. In addition to thoughts on identity, society, and technology, Glasshouse has other thematic concerns. One of the book’s epigrams quotes Adolf Hitler, who asked in 1939, "Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?" If one understands that quotation in the context of history, one understands why history matters—and has a clue as to why this novel's Black Hats want much of it erased.
Glasshouse was nominated for a 2007 Hugo Award.