Warning: If you have not read “Glasshouse” by Charles Stross, do not read this review if you wish to avoid spoilers. If you don’t mind spoilers or already read the book, go ahead and read this!
I’m back with another book review, and this time it’s “Glasshouse” by Charles Stross! I’ve actually reviewed a book by Stross before entitled “Halting State,” so it’s nice to pick up another book by a familiar author and see how this one stacks up. Here’s a summary so we know what it’s about:
“When Robin wakes up in a clinic with most of his memories missing, it doesn’t take him long to discover that someone is trying to kill him. It’s the twenty-seventh century, when interstellar travel is by teleport gate and conflicts are fought by network worms that censor refugees’ personalities and target historians. The civil war is over and Robin has been demobilized, but someone wants him out of the picture because of something his earlier self knew.
On the run from a ruthless pursuer and searching for a place to hide, he volunteers to participate in a unique experimental polity, the Glasshouse, constructed to simulate a pre-accelerated culture. Participants are assigned anonymized identities: It looks like the ideal hiding place for a posthuman on the run. But in this escape-proof environment, Robin will undergo an even more radical change, placing him at the mercy of the experimenters—and at the mercy of his own unbalanced psyche…”
The overall plot was decently paced, but it was a bit slow in the middle. Most of the time was spent during the whole experiment situation, which I think made a lot of sense, but I didn’t have a clear idea as of why Robin was being hunted down by people. The flashbacks to the past are written out either through nightmares or actual discussion between characters, but even then they feel like disjointed pieces rather than one whole, big picture that helps us understand what happened.
In terms of worldbuilding, there were a bunch of info-dumps throughout the book, more notably in the first half. Following the characters through this worldbuilding also was a bit difficult at first in this book, given that the experiment they participated in deliberately involved them having new identities (including changing their gender entirely, unfortunately for protagonist Robin who is later known as Reeve in the experiment) and not being allowed to really talk about their old lives (though some people break this latter rule anyway). The experiment deliberately reconstructs stereotypical gender roles as much as possible by having a “Church” in charge of all of the experiment participants, monitoring their every move and assigning point values to what actions they do (and yes, there are creepy priests involved!). Interestingly enough, Robin points out that there are little-to-no negative point values assigned to negative actions such as rape and abuse in this experimental community, while adultery of all things is given a huge negative point value. This point involved in the worldbuilding reminds me of when I discussed the rape scene in Mercedes Lackey’s “The Black Swan” and how it was handled, but I’ll analyze both these particular plot points and worldbuilding further in a future post.
When it came to actual character development, I was very confused when it came to the relations between characters, particularly between Robin (also known as Reeve in the experiment) and Sam (I don’t think we ever found out his real name post-experiment), as well as Robin and Kay (who was known as Cass in the experiment). I want to be angry at Robin for deliberately taking advantage of Sam, and even when he apologized afterwards I still felt angry. Apologies don’t go and fix everything, especially if it’s something such as sexual assault. What made the relations between Robin and Sam worse were that Sam let himself take the blame for the whole incident when it was purely, completely, Robin’s fault. I disliked the chemistry between those two as a result.
I also found Robin and Kay’s relations in the book to be lacking. They go from ‘friends with benefits’ to just ‘friends’ during the experiment, right back to being married or at least being lovers at the end of the book post-experiment. However, Robin spent a lot more time with Sam in the book due to the experiment situation than he did with Kay, giving Robin and Kay a lot less time to bond through the whole story, and I actually wish there were more scenes involving the two of them rather than between Robin and Sam.
Overal, I would rate the book 2.5 out 5 stars for its worldbuilding, decently paced plot and lack of character development as well as messed-up relations between said characters.