Either my sci-fi reading needs to expand greatly, or memory wipes and backups have become hot ideas for building stories. Reading Glasshouse hot on the heels of John C. Wright’s three Golden Age novels at first gave me a vague sense of déjà vu, but Stross’ focus is decidedly distinct from Wright’s. The main character, Robin, has had a voluntary memory redaction and is simultaneously undergoing a rehab of sorts and dealing with some apparently justified paranoia. He – voluntarily? – enters an experimental habitat that immerses all participants in the “Dark Ages”—the mid-20th to 21st centuries. From there, things get quite interesting. A blossoming romantic relationship with an intriguing individual who agrees to enter the habitat—the Glasshouse—with Robin, plus another plot twist, add to the complexity of the story.
Technology that allows humans to create multiple backups, shift shapes, and resume life from a “save point” (backup) rather than die allows for a lot of interesting speculation. Stross knows this too, and perhaps indulges his desire to explore the possibilities a bit too much in Glasshouse. The story itself is a bit thin, and while the techno stuff is cool to think about, it doesn’t keep an attentive reader from wondering if Robin’s initial paranoia is justified, or if it’s simply an aftereffect of memory erasure, for example. Nor does it keep one from seeing plot twists well before they’re revealed by Stross.
It is entirely possible that had I read Glasshouse before Wright’s books, I would have enjoyed it more. Stross is certainly imaginative, and his rendering of our society’s customs through the eyes of his characters brings wry amusement. However, whenever an author has the power to create multiple action lines for his characters, he needs to be careful that readers can keep track of them, or at the very least figure them all out by the book’s close. I wasn’t sure I did; and worse, I don’t particularly care to read Glasshouse again to try to figure it out. Between a weak plot and characters with little development—plus interesting side characters that are essentially a dead end—there just wasn’t enough to hook me.
Stross has created better characters before, in The Hidden Family, briefly reviewed previously. As was the case with that novel, I read Glasshouse because it’s a Prometheus Award finalist. Honestly, I don’t know why either book was nominated, much less made it on the finalist list—there are freedom-relevant ideas and themes, to be sure, but they are inherent in the ideas being considered, rather than being important to the author, apparently, and therefore worthy of explicit examination. Absent that, I do not have any sense of liberty being a conscious, deliberately-chosen theme in Charles Stross’ life or work.
Glasshouse is a somewhat uneven book, but one that is mostly interesting all the same. I was sufficiently engrossed in the story and characters to finish it; and I suspect that readers who don’t have a strong preference for overtly pro-freedom fiction will find it more readable than I did. Charles Stross certainly has no shortage of intriguing ideas; it’s the mechanics of his writing style that are most troublesome for me. I’m hopeful they will improve as he continues to write.