Glasshouse by Charles Stross

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Book Information  
AuthorCharles Stross
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by 
(Mar 02, 2007)

Glasshouse, by Charles Stross.

What do galactic civil war veterans do after the ugly war is finally over? They sign up for a mind wipe/backup, social rehabilitation, and a new life. What do galactic civil war mastermind war criminals who are sore losers from losing the war do? They open up a rehab center, and sign up as many violent killing machines and war criminals as they can find, all in the name of “social experiments”.

Stross continues in his futuristic world we were introduced to in Accelerando last year. His future is one of natural and man-made worm holes, all connected through a series of gates which can pass and save information, replicate anything material, and move things and people from one end of the universe to the other. So while your fabricator gate is fab’ing you a new saute pan, you might as well back yourself up, just in case you didn’t prepare that blowfish correctly. If you can wipe your own memory, or pay someone to do it, what’s to stop someone from doing it without your knowledge, or consent?

We learn all this through Robin, our main character, and war veteran who signs up for the Glasshouse under the pretense that it will be a safe place to rehabilitate, and hide from people he is sure are trying to kill him. He can’t quite remember because his last mind wipe seemed to be a botched job. When Robin wakes up in the Glasshouse, he’s in a woman’s body (named Reeve), and has to learn the rules of the new world, and learn them fast. Her life depends on it, and the first rule is to find a husband, and act like the perfect wife. The Glasshouse world is part The Prisoner, part Survivor, part Stepford Wives and part dark satire.

What Reeve learns in her dreams, about the Glasshouse, about Robin, about what she was in the war, and what she did, is emotional and evocative. Stross gives us an intimate look into his world, but also forces his readers to wonder: are all soldiers created equal? Are all war criminals created equal? There’s a reason why all these people are having mind wipes.

This just might be my favorite Stross novel. He blends dramatic thriller with detective noir-ness, with his trademark cyberpunk dark future of where every human is wired into the world of big brother, and no one would ever think of living any other way. I spent most of the book being utterly creeped out by actions fueled by mob mentality, yet amused by the way Stross’s futuristic characters attempt to recreate a “pre-acceleration” environment, complete with washing machines, church meetings, and the fashion police.

Although it took me a few days to sew my brain back together after reading this, it was quite the enjoyable read – successful cyberpunk with characterization, rather than overblown with technobabble. Stross is improving as a story teller, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Submitted by Karen Burnham 
(Sep 07, 2006)

“Glasshouse” is an interesting examination of gender, memory and identity in a post-human world, all wrapped up in a plot that builds up into a thriller. It’s not as idea-dense as Stross’ previous “Accelerando” series of stories, but it is more accessible. There are fewer Big Ideas being tossed at the reader (although fewer for Stross is still usually twice as many as your average SF book), plus the single first-person narrator is easy to empathize with.

In the aftermath of a calamitous war encompassing almost all human-occupied space, Robin is recovering from memory surgery. Apparently there are many things in his past that he’d like to forget. He knows that he was once a tank battalion during the war (post-human, remember?), but not much else. He suspects that there are people around who may want to kill him permanently, so on the advice of his fellow post-op Kay (walking around in the guise of the goddess Kali) and his therapist, he signs on to a three year sociological study that will take place in a fully enclosed habitat, where his pursuers won’t be able to get at him.

The idea of the experiment is to replicate portions of history erased from all human memory by a pervasive computer virus called Curious Yellow, one of the causes of the war. This mirrors a current day concern of technologists and historians that all sorts of documents and sources that were saved on obsolete media may never be accessible in the future. Did you transfer everything from your 5-1/2 inch floppies to newer media in the ‘80s? Neither did many other people. What if a virus could erase not only digital media but also the actual memories in people’s minds? How much history would we lose? Apparently, in this story, one of the periods lost was the pre-Acceleration “Dark Ages,” roughly from 1950 to 2020.

Robin arrives in this habitat in the body of a period-accurate woman, now named Reeve. In the set-up of the experiment, the bodies are what we consider to be normal humans, with no self-repair functions of any kind. In order to enforce the social order that the designers have decided was period-accurate, the subjects are encouraged to follow many rules and protocols, being awarded points for conforming and having points deducted for breaking convention. For instance, all the participants are forced to pair up in random “marriages” and attend “church.” Group psychology quickly takes over as catty women plot against each other and nonconformity is quickly punished. In this Panopticon scenario, Reeve has trouble conforming and learning the rules. She quickly suspects that other agendas are at play as she begins to remember more of her past.

There are some wonderful things in this book. The point system encouraging social conformity points up the arbitrary nature of whatever social conventions we find ourselves living in. The misery that Reeve suffers as a (nowadays) normal woman shows that what we consider normal now may be considered barbaric in the future, much as we would now consider living in caves with no way of treating infections to be a horrible fate. She is used to a universe where she can change her look day by day and is effectively immortal; anything less is almost unacceptably primitive. It is particularly amusing to watch Reeve, basically a Heinleinin Competent Man hero, try to operate while limited by both biology and social convention. It’s a nice counter-point to how Heinlein wrote his dream women. On the psychological level, Stross investigates what it may mean to have literally malleable memories and personalities. There is a brilliant passage when Reeve has been the victim of brainwashing, very subtly shown in the first-person narrative.

That’s not to say that it is flawless. Oddly, in the course of putting our Competent Man hero through his paces, Stross seems to almost come down on the side of biological determinism. Why should a person who has spent their entire life with a malleable body plan be so acutely uncomfortable as a woman? Plus he allows the narrator to be far, far superior to everyone around him/her in almost every respect. All the other experimental subjects start to enforce this arbitrary social system in zealous glee. If the society they came from was as free-form and permissive as described, it seems like at least some of the other participants should have had a problem with it. In setting up a 1950’s style society to conform to, he seems to be setting up a strawman social critique. Women’s roles have changed so dramatically since then that to go to some lengths to show how awful it was back then seems irrelevant

Generally speaking, this is a fascinating book. It covers a lot of territory thematically speaking, all while wrapped in an engaging adventure/espionage plot. The ending is a bit abrupt and a bit odd, but the journey to get there is absolutely worth the price of admission.

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