Glasshouse by Charles Stross

When I picked up Glasshouse I didn’t really expect it to be anything special. The blurb on the back cover hinted that it would be a somewhat interesting futuristic detective type story with a twist. In a distant future war veteran tries to escape his past by going into a bio dome style closed circuit experiment. He and other volunteers agree to live in a historical simulation of 20th century American town. For several years they would have no access to advanced technology, no contact with the outside world, and would have to “role play” inside the simulation. Those who manage to adjust to the new environment and play their part will be rewarded with bonuses paid at the conclusion of the experiment. The only problem is that there seems to be more to the experiment than the volunteers are being told. Something sinister is going on, and the hero sets out to find out what it is.

Glasshouse Cover

What I expected out of the book was a bit of mystery and suspense. What I got however was an incredible vision of the distant future. What the blurb on the back cover does not tell you is that the experiment is but one part of Charles Stross’ imagined universe. One he meticulously crafts and describes via characters inner monologues or flashback sequences. While the main story is quite good by itself, what really makes this book exceptional is the setting.

In fact, I am even reluctant to describe it to you because discovering how Stross’ world works was half the fun. Let me put it this way: most SF authors imagine that human societies of the future will work pretty much the way they work now. People will spread across the galaxy, live on hundreds of different worlds, but there will be no mind boggling paradigm shifts, or cultural changes save for a few lost worlds which population went feral, and few technological utopian or dystopian worlds that are merely an exception to the rule. Stross however imagines a post-singularity, post scarcity universe in which everything has changed. Nanotechnology which can disassemble and reassemble matter on molecular level is ubiquitous replacing traditional methods of manufacture and traditional medicine. Human minds can be fully digitized, backed up and restored at a whim. People swap physical bodies the way we change clothes and they easily edit or manufacture memories at any time whenever they wish to forget, or remember something. Human societies spread across the galaxies with most of the populations living in cylindrical space habitats interconnected via intricate network of wormhole gates which make everything to be in a walking distance. It is visionary, strange, fresh and original.

Such post-singuarity, post-scarcity settings are basically the new frontier of science fiction. The standard space opera framework we have been using for years now is becoming incredibly stale. Similarly the “5 minutes into the future” novels tend to have a tendency to become “alternative history” rather than “science fiction” as time and science rapidly catches up to them. That’s why I’m always thrilled when I find an author that dares to look beyond that. Who crafts his own vision of a world that may exist after we cross over that magical technological acceleration point, and everything will change forever. I suspect we will see more and more such books in the future. For now though, I recommend Glasshouse as one of those very intriguing visions.

The prevalent theme of the book is identity, self determination and their relation to the concept of reality. Stross brings up some very interesting questions that I haven’t seen discussed in quite a while. For example, what defines who you are? Is it your memories? What if they were erased? What if someone tampered with them and falsified them? How can you distinguish which memories were real? In fact, how can you distinguish reality from a perfect virtual simulation? Does reality even exist? How do you know if you are really alive or trapped in some sort of autonomous solipsistic loop. These are the sort of dilemmas that Robin, the main character of the book deals with on a daily basis.

I highly recommend this book. It’s smart, somewhat philosophical but it never turns into a lecture. Stross keeps things interesting, and whenever things are starting to settle down he shakes them up so you can hardly turn pages fast enough. That said, the ending is a bit abrupt, and cut short. I personally think that the author could easily stretch the content he jam-packed into the epilogue into at least two or three more chapters. Still, this minor flaw does not change my opinion of the book.

Get it and read it. Or if you have read it, let me know how you liked it. Also, I’m always open for book recommendations. Do you have anything in your collection that uses similar distant, post singularity setting?

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7 Responses to Glasshouse by Charles Stross

  1. Hexren GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Hi,

    try something by Alastair Reynolds I liked Galactic North.

    Oli

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  2. Naum UNITED STATES Google Chrome Mac OS Terminalist says:

    Sounds interesting…

    Not a big fiction fan, though SF/Fantasy titles I infrequently enjoy…

    This/these title/series? blew me away:

    Daemon
    Freedom

    by Daniel Suarez

    Basically, savant MMOG maker unleashes AI bot Jesus on the world, a daemon that wreaks havoc and attempts to establish a new order…

    Far fetched poppycock, yes, but still plausible and all the tech in the book does exist in some form or another already…

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  3. Daniel GERMANY Google Chrome Mac OS says:

    Sounds indeed quite interesting!
    A book that blew me away was

    “Stone” by Adam Roberts.

    It has no real twists or so, but the way the future is imagined (space travel is just possible because we live in some kind of stellar “bubble” that will close someday, but heck nobody cares) and mankind has adopted nanotechnology at a really ubiquitous level…

    Here’s a link. i can really recommend it
    http://www.adamroberts.com/writing/stone/

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  4. James Heaver UNITED KINGDOM Google Chrome Windows says:

    Thats not a Charlie Stross I’ve read yet, I’ll have to add it to my list.

    Another series of books you may well enjoy (and I started rereading last night) are the Ken Macleod books. I forget the name of the series I’ve just started reading, but the first book is ‘The Star Fraction’.

    From my memories of the series (Its a good few years since I first read them) it is following collapse and reordering of society with its roots in the political movements of the 20th Century, through to post singularity worlds.

    Macleod has a great grasp on alternative politics, he’s obviously been around the hard left and libertarian groups his whole life. He approaches them with both cynicism and sympathy – He appreciates their world views, but seems most of them as niaive. Whilst very much about these groups in the UK, it may well be interesting to someone who grew up in soviet (somewhere). The book has a politicking that I don’t see often in SF, except possibly Dune.

    He brings in some very interesting ideas about the nature of the singularity, what it results in and how we as a species deal with it.

    Ken Macleod is one of my favourite authors and I couldn’t recommend him highly enough.

    Another book that springs to mind is Fairyland by Paul McAuley. Its cyberpunky and built around the effects of nanotechnology and biotech.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Hexren:

    Putting it on my list. Thanks. :)

    @ Naum:

    It could be interesting, but the term “MMOG maker” and “AI Jesus” sort of ruined it for me. Does the AI actually claim to be Jesus or does it just play the generic messiah role?

    I shall investigate this further on Amazon. I’m putting it on the list.

    @ Daniel:

    Read the linked page and it sounds interesting. Putting it on my list.

    @ James Heaver:

    Btw, this was recommended to be as “the best thing that Charles Stross wrote ever”. That said, I already bought one of his other books (I think Singularity Sky or something like that) – it is on my shelf now waiting to be read. :)

    I saw Ken Macleod mentioned several times in Amazon reviews next to Vinge and Stross. I don’t think that I picked up anything by him in my latest batch book order but he is going on the list. I loved Dune.

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