Fiction Reviews


(2006) Charles Stross, Orbit, 6.99, pbk, 388 pp, ISBN 978-1-841-4-9393-0


This is a far future tale of the 27th century. Backdrop: Humanity has had its technological singularity -- gone through a period of rapid technological acceleration and lives across a region of a few hundred light years of space with the ability to reorganise matter (including life forms), copy it, and quantum 'teleport' it (as we can now do with electrons) as well as actually teleport it (which we can't do now).

The future is one in which information, including biometrics in the fullest sense of the term, is everything. It is a future in which programs can be encoded into living things. It is a future in which information and programs can be the stuff of war.

In this future Robin is recovering from an identity rebirth that has seen much of his memory wiped. It is not entirely clear, but he thinks he did this to himself to forget as what he does not know cannot hurt him. Why? Because it appears some people are after him, presumably for something he did or knows and so he has to establish a new and anonymous life.

While recovering from the memory wipe, ID rebirth, and psychologically fragile, he decided to accept an invitation to join a sociological experiment as it involves being kept within a strictly isolated society. This should keep him safe.

Now is the difficult bit of the review. The back blurb does not say what this society is like. I do hope it is not because the author asked for this to be kept out as I am about to tell you. So if you do not want to know then jump straight away now to the next paragraph. ---- As the experimental society is described within the first fifth of the novel I do not view it as a spoiler (but some might) to reveal it now. Where Robin ends up is an isolated community designed to be a representation of late 20th century Earth. From Robin's future perspective these were the dark ages before the acceleration, a time when much of the Earth's records were kept on outmoded, difficult to transfer, and translate, formats. Consequently Robin has to forgo 27th century luxuries (that some might even consider necessities). Of course this theme of our present being recreated in the future has appeared in SF before and fairly recently in Haldeman's Old Twentieth and Reynolds' Century Rain. (There is also a another notable current example out this year we have reviewed but I do not want to spoil that one for you as many may not have read it yet.) Stross' approach is different as here the protagonist is not 100% willing and none of the participants really knew to what they were joining. So it comes as a bit of shock to discover you are being in effect thrust back into the primitive dark ages. But there is more. Have Robin's assassins followed him and why is this experiment being run? Surely it cannot have anything to do with the wars humanity has had? All these elements add up to a cracking tale.

This novel is (presumably) set in the same universe as Accelerando, see review 1 and review 2, and this you may remember was nominated for a Hugo in 2006. Fortunately for the reader it is not at all necessary to read Accelerando to fully enjoy this book: though I would recommend it anyway as it is a stonkingly good novel in its own right.

The bottom line with Glasshouse is that once again Charles Stross has demonstrated that in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century he is probably currently the best cyberhard SF writer on the planet. You are going to have to travel light years to get better.

Jonathan Cowie

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