Jack Glass is the third Adam Roberts book I have read. For the third time I haven’t been disappointed. What I enjoy most about his novels – apart from the fact that they are always well written – is the unique angle presented in each one. All of them deal with big ideas, they are conceptual SF at its best. Roberts usually constructs elaborate conceits upon some wildly fantastic notion and then immerses you in a world where that novum is more than just believable, it is essential for the operation of reality. Then he complicates it all with a narrative twist that actually tricks you to surrender fully to the SF setting. Because by the time you realize what the twist is, you already want to be tricked.
Stone, my first encounter with Roberts, is about a universe where nano-machinery and teleportation have opened up the world to an all-inclusive human utopia – a cosmos where there is plenty for everyone, murder is impossible and yet the main character is the last serial killer remaining in all of humanity. Yellow Blue Tibia (read my thoughts on it here) is about a fictional alien invasion (or is it?), Chernobyl, KGB and quantum mechanics. It is set in Perestroika USSR and told from the point of view of an ex-alcoholic SF writer. There is oddness galore in each of Roberts’s books, but those oddnesses are many-limbed and their separate extremities somehow balance each other out, leaving a core oddness that is somehow weirdly intuitive. It’s always high-concept stuff, h.g.wellsian in some ways, but also richly flavored in terms of narrative complexity.
Jack Glass, as its subtitle reveals, is the story of the eponymous murderer. In a future that is definitely a far one – but how much exactly remains unspecified – the Solar System is populated by trillions of people. Most of those, the sumpolloi, live in “shanty bubbles” – small habitats made of cheap, industrially-produced matter. Billions of the transparent bubbles litter the farther reaches of the system. Those zero-gravity ghetto clusters are filled with disenfranchised poormen living on a diet of spore-grown ghunk, dying slowly of solar irradiation and worshiping a million different cults. Political and economic power in the system are parceled out between large commercial organizations, six administrative dynasties ruled by genetically-enhanced clan-leaders and the Ulanovs – an uncompromising law-enforcing structure that emerged victorious from the last system-wide war. Against this richly-imagined tapestry we are told three stories by an unnamed doctorwatson. Three stories about Jack Glass the murderer, each of which is supposed to shock us in spite of our expectations.
A major strength of Roberts’s books is that they flow so easily. They may not be very fast reads, like Yellow Blue Tibia, but they nevertheless tend to unfold smoothly, like a masterfully choreographed performance. Jack Glass is no exception to this thoughtful methodology of narrative construction. The three stories in this novel all exploit classic schemas from the detective/crime fiction genre. The author himself explains that in Jack Glass he has tried to splice together motifs from the respective Golden Ages of SF and detective fiction. Which works rather nicely, providing a sturdy skeleton to all three stories and teasing, toying and tampering with readerly expectations.
The first tale is an escape-from-prison one. The prison here is of the most brutal and inescapable kind. Six prisoners are deposited by a spaceship into a niche within a small asteroid in the middle of nowhere. The men are given some cheap instruments and food spores, as well as sentences of eleven years each. When the ship comes back for them after the time has passed, they will be free. Provided they are still alive and the asteroid is hollowed out and salable for a huge profit. I enjoyed the first story immensely, maybe the most of all three. It mixes in the best possible way familiar narrative schemas, giving them a distinctively SF spin. There is the impossible prison break thread, but there is also the power struggles between the stranded prisoners, reminiscent of, say, Lord of the Flies. Another narrative dimension is the very practical matter of terraforming and Roberts has done a great job with it, fitting in place every mundane detail: from oxygen level management and sexual roles to the problem of shitting in zero-G. All in all, an oppressively believable prison and a story with loads of punch. It almost feels like an archetypal situation where every participant and action stand for something universally valid, which might well be the scariest thing about the story.
The second part is a whodunit story. On Earth, a servant is a killed in a house sealed from the outside. Diana, a supersmart aristo teenage girl with a penchant for mysteries and problem solving, takes up the task of teasing open the conundrum. A classic locked room mystery which reveals a lot about the world of the novel and introduces a great number of variables into the political equation bringing tension into plot. The third story is a direct continuation of the second, only this time the action takes place in the space bubbles and the mystery is of a different breed: an impossible murder. Its setup is so elaborate that I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole book grew around the idea of it. Thus, this constant interplay between SF and detective/crime fiction introduces a very pleasant torque effect. After all, SF is about the impossible, whereas detective fiction is about finding possible solutions. The clash between the two could produce a real flame, if done right.
That is probably my favorite thing about Jack Glass. It is obvious that the author enjoyed immensely sculpting the mysteries and walking through them. That is reflected in the construction of the fictional world, which, although more of a stage for the puzzles, is actually an impressive creature. Somehow the need for elaborate mechanics behind the mysteries has fed its energies into the world construction process as well, and the result is fascinating. The politically-tiered and human-teeming Solar System of the future sizzles with imaginative spark; the everyday technological nova and the way they are put to use imbue the event canvas with vivid colors. A bit of a pity really, as the world and its politics never become the centerpiece of the novel. Almost throughout I had the nagging feeling that they were to the story as costumes and decors are to drama. It certainly doesn’t make too much sense to draw such a boundary, doing so is a bit like the style versus content argument, quite empty of meaning, and yet the impression remains. Roberts himself mentions in the afterword that he wanted to put a focus on the detective/crime element, and that shows.
As I mentioned before, there is plenty of delicious varieties of tensions in the book. The author is very critically-aware and that definitely shapes the text, even though it is by no means a focal or even explicit feature of the book. In the implicit subtexts, however, one can easily spot parallels with taxonomies of genre and science, such as hard versus soft SF, realist versus fantastic fiction, natural versus social sciences, etc. There are also nice bits concerning the will to power, Marxism and interlocking social discourses. I would even go as far as to suggest that in the character of Jack Glass the text focalizes an image of critical theory as the key that unlocks the will to power.
“A window would be a useful thing. Even a small one. With a window you can… see the outside world,”
says Jack Glass, meaning a very real and physical window, but I couldn’t stop thinking that he means more than just that.
Another prominent idea is that:
“Dreams iterate and test mental schemas, discarding the maladaptive to return the adaptive to the slush to be reworked. Dreams are emotional preparations for solving problems – that is why we have evolved them, because problem-solving abilities are highly adaptive and thus strongly evolutionarily selected. Dreams intoxicate the individual out of reliance on common sense and preconception, and tempt her into the orbit of private logic. Dreams have utility.”
Diana uses dreams actively in her mystery-solving process, to shuffle contexts and combine them alchemically. Once again an analogy could be extended to the functions of SF, literature and the social sciences.
As it should be clear by now, Jack Glass contains extraordinarily fecund material, in terms of narrative structure, worldbuilding and ideas. The writing in it is consistently excellent, too. One can sense the assurance Roberts has in his skills on every line and he has plenty of reasons for it. He is really good at cutting out crisp and clever dialogues and even better at imagery. Here are two of my favorites:
“Death,” said Iago. The snow outside had stopped falling. A snake of white slept on the outside windowsill, and the bare yard beyond had been softened and blanched.”
“Dia watched, fascinated. Nothing discouraged the beast: it went back and back at the window. Dia leaned over and used her bId to zoom the creature in. It was striped like a cartoon tiger; an anvil-shaped head and those little tight half-globes of black-bubblewrap for eyes. Its wings were smoky blurs. Even setting the bId to its maximum slow-down setting didn’t resolve them into discernible organs in motion. She moved the bId focus to its wasp head: curled antenna like ram’s horns. Anvil-shaped cranium. A monster.”
So what is it that doesn’t work in Jack Glass, or at least didn’t work for me? The dominant focus on the mystery element was a major detractor, I have to admit. Not that the mysteries are not enjoyable in and of themselves. On the contrary, but at the end I was actually more interested in the world itself, which is only a secondary preoccupation of the book. The characters too seem to suffer from this single-mindedness of the book, as they are little more than plot vehicles, which is probably typical of detective fiction, I guess. I am not necessarily pointing that out as a flaw, because the novel is certainly aware of the limitations it has placed on itself, is in fact glad to work within them. But even Jack Glass himself, though he gives the book its title, does not come off as a very memorable character (despite some huge potential). I expected a larger-than-life figure, really, but that kind of story also falls outside of what Jack Glass is interested in.
Which leads me to my last complaint and that has to do with dramatic structure. The narrative structuring along the lines of separate mysteries is really clever and cool but the resonances, contrasts and build-ups between the different stories fail to form an overarching design, at least they failed for me. Especially the connection between the last two parts and the resolution of the book itself felt rather disappointing. But then again, these are mostly reasons why the book is merely quite good and not great. If you aren’t looking for a revelation but nevertheless insist on skillful execution and imaginative dash, Jack Glass could easily be your kind of book.