Fiction Reviews

Jack Glass

(2012) Adam Roberts, Gollancz, £14.99, hrdbk, 371pp, ISBN 978-0-575-12762-3


Well, by the time you have read this review you should know that Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (subtitled The Story of a Murderer) is a multiple award-winner, taking the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and before that, winning not one, but two British Science Fiction Association awards. One for best novel, obviously, and one for best artwork which went to the design company Blacksheep for a cover designed to look like a futuristic, stain glass window and very pretty it is too.

Roberts, as well as being a professor of 19th Century Literature at the University of London is also a prolific author and critic, with some of his novels being 'straightforward' imaginative works, while others have been parodies of other well-known novels or series. I say 'straightforward' in that there is nothing really straightforward about them, and so it is with Jack Glass a novel that starts with a disclaimer from its unreliable narrator who explains the multifaceted character that is Jack Glass – detective, teacher, protector and murderer who will appear in the three connected murder mysteries that follow. One is a prison story, one is a whodunit and one is a locked room mystery, and guess who the guilty party is in each case? Congrats, you could be a detective too. A fan and an expert of what is termed 'Golden Age Science Fiction', Roberts is trying to marry that form with “Golden Age Detective Fiction”, although rather like a classic episode of Columbo we are never really in doubt who the killer is.

Ostensibly the novel is told in three parts. The first being a grim, relentless, over-the-top prison drama with its tongue placed firmly in its cheek. Roberts does have a penchant for satire and his previous novel, By Light Alone featured poor people drawing nutrients from the air through their long hair, while the rich fatties went bald and ate all the harmful stuff to sustain themselves. Here, in Jack Glass, the super-rich have possession of the Earth, while the rest of humanity (which run into billions) are known as the Sumpolloi and live in shanty bubbles that orbit the sun. In this future society, the Hannibal Lector of their age (think charm, genius and madness) is one Jack Glass. Wearing his satirical hat at a jaunty angle, Roberts posits a prison drama that is not set in a prison – yet, but here comes seven dangerous criminals who are dumped on an asteroid and forced to work together to carve out an existence in order to survive and by the end of their 11 year sentence they will have converted the asteroid enough for it to be sold on as a habitable property. Satire aside, this section makes for grim, claustrophobic reading as a horrible hierarchy arises with those at the bottom having to endure being the lowest of the low on this remote piece of rock.

Part two of the novel is called 'The FTL Murders' which starts play-like, with a list of the major characters, or dramatis personae divided into heroines, their tutor, their bodyguards and various hand-servants and hangers-on. We all know what murder is, but 'FTL' means 'Faster Than Light' and here Roberts treats us to a warped version of an Agatha Christie whodunit with a manor house murder combined with sibling rivalry, genetic engineering and humans having their emotions either heightened or dampened to suit their employer’s needs.

And as for part three, 'The Impossible Gun',…well, let us just say that everything is not as it seems, and 'The Jack Glass Glossary' that follows is not going to be much help either.

I have always thought that award-winning novels should push the envelope a little in terms of subject matter and writing style (like Caitlin R. Kiernan’s recent success with her novel The Drowning Girl) as well as being a little bit controversial and stretching both the confines of the genre and the expectations of the reader. On that basis Jack Glass is a worthy award-winning novel, that some people will love, while others, well…

Ian Hunter

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