By Charles Stross
First Published: 2006
Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction, Mystery, Thriller
Glasshouse is an intricate far future science fiction thriller by Charles Stross. It takes place in the 27th century in a post technology acceleration culture where there are no longer any shortages of material goods, travel is instantaneous through teleport gates, the human lifespan has been greatly extended, and people can back up their consciousness. If killed, a person’s backup can be downloaded into a newly made body. One of the more difficult problems facing this society is how to deal with serious emotional scars which is usually handled by erasing the offending memories. The novel opens with the main character, Robin, awaking in a recovery ward for people who have had their memories erased and he finds that he has had much more erasure than most. He has severe amnesia with almost no memories of his previous life or lives except for a few pages of a letter he wrote to himself. He soon finds himself in serious danger but with no solid memories of who is after him or why. With no idea of how to get out of this situation, he gets offered the opportunity to become an anonymous test subject for a large scale social experiment in a completely isolated and artificially controlled society, a “glasshouse”. It seems like joining the experiment is the best option to buy time until he can determine what is pursuing him from his past.
The only thing Robin knows about the experiment is that the scientists want to recreate the social conditions of the “dark ages” just before the technological acceleration. Ironically enough, the “dark ages” corresponds to our current present time, between about 1950 and 2050. Due to the recent war, most knowledge of the “dark ages” was destroyed and the scientists behind the large scale experiment think the knowledge was destroyed on purpose but could be regained through a simulation with real human subjects. From this point on, most of the story takes place in the experiment where the “dark ages” environment has been carefully recreated and technology has been limited as much as possible to the technology of the time. However, Robin also experiences detailed dreams containing flashbacks to his life before memory surgery where he learns that he was a key participant in the recent war as a combatant involved in plenty of action. He also discovers that he committed some horrific deeds.
The glasshouse experiment attempts to create an environment similar to 1950’s America as viewed from the far future with only partial knowledge of the past. It includes incentives given to the participants to live as much as possible like the citizens of the time with mandatory attendance at church and adherence to strict gender roles where the women are subservient to the men. When Robin awakens in the experiment, he is horrified to find that he has been put into a petite woman’s body. Now, if any of his enemies are in the experiment with him, he may be at a serious disadvantage in terms of physical strength. This provides much material for humor as Robin has to learn not only how to live in a woman’s body, but how to live as a person who is a marginalized citizen and is essentially a servant for her husband. In addition, the experiment itself provides Stross many opportunities to make fun of current social conventions, society issues, and life in the 21st century as highlighted by the extremes produced by the experiment.
As Robin slowly uncovers clues both from the present and from his dreams of the past, the mysteries only seem to get more complicated. When Robin begins to lose hope of ever figuring out what is going on, a few pieces of the puzzle start to fall in place. For those who are squeamish, the violence occasionally gets graphic and there are also some bits of frank sexual content.
The best aspects of this novel are the situations and humor that arrise from the “dark ages” experiment as Robin finds himself stuck in the extremely “primitive” time of the 21st century with shockingly "primitive" technology and even more archaic social conventions. Robin also makes a likeable and very resourceful hero. My only real criticisms are that there is one major coincidence that seems way too unlikely and the ability to back up your consciousness mostly eliminates the threat of mortal danger. However, if you are ready to sit back and absorb a wild and complicated storyline, Glasshouse offers a large dose of pure entertainment.