I was delighted when the organisers of The Kitschies asked me to review Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass, a 2012 finalist for the Red Tentacle. The Kitschies seek to reward fiction with speculative or fantastic elements that is progressive, intelligent and entertaining. With this in mind, I have looked for these three qualities in Jack Glass, and happily, have found them. Jack Glass is published by Gollancz, and the print edition is 382 pages. I read the kindle version, which includes extra content at the end which I don’t discuss here.
I began reading Jack Glass with an awareness of Adam Roberts’ broad knowledge of literature and fondness for playing with language, and I was not disappointed in my expectation that both would be in evidence. There was never any doubt in my mind that this book would be intelligent.
This is a wide-ranging, engaging tale that plays fast and loose with a number of conventions. It’s less Space Opera and more Chivalry in Orbit. The front cover tells us point-blank that this is “The Story of a Murderer”. So, not a page-turner then, you might think – we haven’t even opened the cover and he’s given it away! But what keeps you reading is not the who, but the why, and the how. Seemingly against the odds, a most improbable love story is beautifully rendered, and issues of politics, psychopharmacology and the nature of thought itself are raised.
Before we go any further, let me give the obligatory spoiler warning – I’d find it impossible to discuss the book fully without giving away some major plot points – look away now if you want to be surprised.
Jack Glass is a story told in three parts. Part I – In the Box is preceded by an introductory passage in which the unnamed narrator addresses the reader, telling us that “This narrative, which I hereby doctorwatson for your benefit, o reader, concerns the greatest mystery of our time.” We get an inkling that, like doctorwatson, our narrator is full of admiration for her/his subject, in this case Jack Glass, that amalgam of seemingly irreconcilable personas, “detective, teacher, protector and murderer.” Into the ongoing debate about whether readers can enjoy a book if the protagonist isn’t likeable, Roberts throws down the literary equivalent of an FTL gauntlet: You will see this character doing horrid, gruesome things, and yet by the end, you will view him with some sympathy. Not everyone will agree that this is successful, but I’ll admit that in my case, I was largely won over. I particularly enjoyed the narrator’s voice, and was a bit sorry that she/he doesn’t address us directly again until the end of the story.
Did I mention? Horrid, gruesome things. Part I is incredibly bleak, and it is a brave authorial gambit to begin there, stuck on an asteroid with a group of male prisoners. If the “A Golden Age Story” on the title page makes one think of Arcadia and the pastoral, this is instead a lengthy excursion into the picaresque. It is not this choice, however, that gives me pause about this section, but some qualms I have about its length and the box conceit.
The novel is set in an age of space travel where humanity has spread throughout the solar system, now called the Ulanov System after its all-powerful ruling family. We watch as seven male prisoners are deposited on a distant asteroid to serve out an eleven-year sentence. Politics is one topic of discussion; we hear that the commercial firm responsible for imprisoning them makes a profit from their labour; the hollowed-out asteroid will ultimately be valuable real estate. Later conversations revolve around System economics and are, to my leftie ears, quite refreshingly clear-eyed and a progressive assessment of How Things Tend to Work.
The concept of life in a sealed cavern inside an asteroid has a certain geeky fascination, and time is devoted to explaining how this might be possible. The sealed-in prisoners have been given only the bare necessities: a fusion cell, air scrubbers, a lightstick, spores that grow into a food called ghunk, drilling equipment for hollowing out the asteroid. The environment is hostile – rocky, dark and bitterly cold – and it is a constant worry that one error will cause them all to perish. A crisis ensues when they can’t locate a seam of ice in the rock and nearly run out of water.
The seven prisoners are a varied crew, serving sentences for a range of crimes. One of them, Jac, has no legs and is suspected of being a political prisoner. A friendship of sorts develops between Jac and the rotund Gordius, revered as a globe-shaped god by his people but convicted of murder following the traditional ritual killing of his father. There is endless arguing and hostile banter between the occupants as they struggle to set up their living arrangements, and soon there are regular sexual assaults on Gordius and “Legless Jac.” As time passes, Jac seems obsessed with small bits of glass that occasionally form during the mining process. Gordius believes Jac is creating a window through which to signal a passing ship, and pleads with Jac to take him along. Jac clearly has something in mind for the pieces of glass: “he took a few likely looking shards: two handsome sicklemoons in brown-green…”
Eventually, the disgruntled in-fighting reaches a fever pitch; even Gordius and Jac have a vicious fight in which Gordius loses an eye. Then there is a coup. The plan was to kill E-d-C, but when the dust (and airborne blood droplets – no gravity) settles, Lwon, one of the ‘alphas’, is also dead. Finally, we learn why Jac was hoarding glass: in a quite astonishly violent rampage he uses the glass to kill the remaining prisoners, even Gordius, and after some demonically creative handiwork with the organic material to hand, fashions a primitive powered space-suit and escapes into space.
For all its imaginative virtues I did at points find Part I heavy going; I’m not sure that readers will be invested enough in this world or in Jac to sustain interest throughout the lengthy exposition. Also, I had trouble with the conceit of “the box” – I couldn’t set aside my nagging discomfort about this – is an asteroid that much like a box? Yes, the prisoners are enclosed in it, but beyond that… It didn’t resonate. But that is a minor quibble.
Part II – The FTL Murders, is a different animal all together, and it is very, very good. We are introduced to a new cast of characters (with the exception of Iago the Tutor aka Jack Glass) who have come down to a future earth from “the uplands” for a visit. There are some really delightful ideas to ponder here, and Roberts makes them convincing and entertaining. The high-born sisters, Diana and Eva, future leaders of the Argent Clan, along with their large entourage of bodyguards and handservants, struggle to adjust to gravity, sometimes to comic effect. Strangely, their tutor Iago seems to stoically resist making any concessions to the oppressive phenomenon. Only later do they learn that this is because of his high-tech artificial legs.
There are numerous little touches that tell us this is the future, technology has moved on – windows can be commanded to appear in previously opaque walls, there are smartfabrics, some people look up information on a device called a bId (Biolink iData) which is something like an internal data port. There is the Ideal Palace, or IP, a private worldtual that Diana and Eva use frequently for work and recreation. There are crawlipers, which help those unused to gravity walk more easily. One of the most interesting ideas, which resonates in our era of medications that influence affect, is the use of CRF, a drug administered to staff members of the elite households to ensure their loyalty and affection. It becomes significant later that Jack Glass, as the sisters’ tutor Iago (arch-villain) is not required to take CRF by the sisters’ parents, despite them being fully aware of his past life.
The sisters are MOHsisters, with two MOHmies (Mommies! Genius) – I didn’t read any of the glossary entries until I’d finished the book, but it was clear even without them that genetic tinkering had given these sisters abilities suited to their roles as future leaders of the Argent Clan, the information guild. Roberts does a better job than almost anyone I’ve read at making a feminine-centred society sound unremarkable; it isn’t forced, it’s just there. Diana has a crush on a girl from another clan, the concept of female-male relationships is seen as a bit out of the ordinary, and Diana exclaims ‘goddess’, not ‘god’.
The breezy, irreverent quality of Diana’s internal monologues is superb – she is the epitome of a lively, intelligent, entitled teenager – with added problem-solving abilities and attitude: “A problem to be solved! And who was better at solving problems than her? (Nobody! Her problem-solving is second-to-none: intutive, human, chaologic — it’s what she was bred and raised to.)” Roberts contrasts Diana and her intuitive abilities with her older sister Eva, the logical one, who is doing yet another PhD in astronomy. Interactions between the two sisters are like the bicameral mind imagined by Wodehouse. Throw in a healthy dash of the Mitford Sisters and the heroine of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and you’ll have some sense of the tone. Diana is constantly playing with words and people’s names: “Sisterissima Evissima,” “You love me, don’t you, Eye-ah-go?” and “No. Wavey. Way.”
The action in Part II revolves around the murder of Leron, one of the sisters’ handservants. It seems clear that the murderer must have been one of the other servants, since no one else could have entered or left their quarters. Diana, an avid consumer of virtual whodunits, is giddy with excitement and determined to solve the case herself. Such is her status that the local police agree to this. We learn that the sisters’ problem-solving ability is contingent on dreaming. “Dreams have utility. Dreaming was central to what the girls did, not because of what the dreams contained, but because of what the urge to interpret sparked inside them.”
Soon, rumours begin spreading (via ‘gossipoppers’) that someone has developed Fast Than Light technology. This is pooh-poohed on factual grounds by Eva, but it becomes clear that even rumours of such a thing will cause upheaval in the System and strife between the clans.
The sisters are then visited by a tough-as-nails agent of the Ulanovs, Ms Joad. She tells the girls that the murder IS in fact a much bigger deal than they realize; far from being a matter of one servant murdering another, it involves that infamous criminal Jack Glass, and, yes, FTL. Ms Joad relates how Jack Glass was sent to serve his sentence on a distant asteroid, but had (impossibly) escaped. Ms Joad stresses how evil he is. Even Diana is amazed: “The say he has hey-ho murdered more than a thousand people,’ said Diana, with a touch of awe in her voice.”
Diana continues her “investigation” and ultimately realizes that Leron was killed by Sapho, another handservant, after suffering abuse at his hands. What she doesn’t realize is that the stage for the crime had been set by (Jack Glass!) It becomes clear that this feat of problem-solving has marked Diana out as the chosen leader of the Argent Clan, pushing Eva to one side.
Events move rapidly from this point. Suffice it to say that Ms Joad returns and does some killing of her own, the island comes under heavy attack, and the two sisters flee separately. Iago and Sapho go with Diana, (who now knows Iago’s true identity) and what ensues is a trip through the System as they run from whatever forces are pursuing them. This is very well-drawn – we see a variety of settlements in floating spheres, some in poor shanty settlements, others in more desirable orbits. There are revolutionary gatherings, unfamiliar religions (the Hindu Christ) and more. There are RACdroids whose purpose is to provide a reliable account of events and contracts. Ms Joad reappears, employed now by Eva, who has betrayed Diana.
The climactic showdown that is the central action of Part III – The Impossible Gun involves an encounter between Jack/Iago and his one time comrade and now foe, the policeman Bar-le-Duc. The infamous policeman is killed, in and we have a third murder mystery, eventually unravelled with the help of a RACdroid. We learn that the revolutionary Jack Glass does not kill for fun but always in the service of a greater cause; he knows that FTL does exist, and fears that the entire system is in peril if it falls into the wrong hands. This is his motivation, always. The only exception is that he was willing to sacrifice himself (and his mission) to see Diana safe and free, because he loves her. When he tells Diana of his long-standing love for her (and it is a chivalric, noble love) it is beautifully judged: moving, funny, sad. He sends her to safety, and he and Sapho (who is our narrator) remain together.
I know there is much more to discover here – how could there not be? There are jokes I haven’t mentioned – Iago’s retreat named Dunronin, and more. I can’t do it justice, and I highly recommend that you read it yourself; it will be time well spent.