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Book cover art by Rita Frangie (left).
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.

This Glasshouse isn't just glass. It's a prism that Charles Stross uses to split his storytelling into all of its component narrative colors — suspense, action, satire. It may be his best book yet. It's his most consistently suspenseful, and his funniest. It's got the trenchant humor of The Family Trade gene-spliced to the thrillaminute pacing of Iron Sunrise. It's set far into the same future as his wildly praised (except by yours truly) Accelerando. But whereas Accelerando seemed to strip-mine its future of humanity, and came across to me as cold and uninviting, Glasshouse presents its posthuman "network civilizations" as a never-ending Willy Wonka factory of phantasmagorical technowonders, as frightening as it is exhilarating.

By now, comparing Stross to Gibson and Sterling and the 80's cyberpunks is passé to the point of pure laziness, especially as Stross long ago established his own voice. But where the comparison still holds is in how Stross's best work gives that old SF sensawunda the same extreme makeover that books like Neuromancer and Schismatrix did in 1984-85. If you weren't around back then, it's hard to convey just how much of a "Wow!" feeling surrounded those books; the sense that, at long last, here was something fresh. At the time, it was a feeling SF hadn't offered readers since the late-60's New Wave. Now, after a similar passage of years, writers like Stross, Iain M. Banks, Greg Egan, Alastair Reynolds and Ken MacLeod have brought it back.

Glasshouse is a cracking thriller with a fine satirical edge that slices into the concept of paranoid surveillance societies, societies which, many fear, are becoming increasingly common in the wake of 9/11. There's nothing in the world that I know of quite like that which is depicted here. (Would you? chimes the conspiracy crowd.) But Glasshouse is a quintessential "if this goes on" cautionary tale with antecedents not only in the work of the usual suspects (Huxley, Orwell, Kafka, PKD), but in such recent sociopolitical paranoia entertainments as Robert Ludlum's Bourne trilogy, Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives and even that classic exercise in television mindfuckery, The Prisoner. (Stross loves this in particular. There's one scene that's a direct Prisoner homage.)

We know our protagonist only as Robin, and as the story opens he has just emerged from a procedure that has drastically edited most of the memories of his earlier lives. This, he learns, was done by himself. And a letter, actually hand-written, left by his prior self to his new self doesn't shed too much light on why.

As patients who have recently undergone memory redaction commonly go through drastic dissociative episodes before settling in to their new lives, Robin meets a "greeter," a woman named Kay who's modded herself with four arms. They become sexually involved. As Robin has no profession or life to fall back into, Kay suggests he volunteer as a paid test subject in an experiment designed to discover information about the most recent human "dark age" — our time now, just prior to the Acceleration. Most information from this period has been lost, not merely because of the era's faulty digital storage techniques, but also as the result of a conflict called the Censorship Wars. Malicious "cognitive dictatorships" unleashed a virus called Curious Yellow, that infected the assemblers people use to back themselves up. It selectively edited memories of a particular (and now unknown) historical event, using people themselves as disease vectors. Robin begins having flashes of memory recall, where he learns he was one of the soldiers in the fight that eventually contained Curious Yellow.

When Robin wakes up in the experiment, he finds he has been remade as a woman named Reeve. The goal of the experiment is to recreate early 21st century society and have subjects role-play in it, and this is where some of the book's funniest scenes happen. Naturally, a lot of the details about life today are hilariously wrong, and it makes you wonder just how much archeologists can construct about the distant past that's remotely accurate, and how much is way off the mark. Then again, certain details are disturbingly right, and seen through the prism of the glasshouse, made all the more disturbing at that.

Naturally, it becomes evident that there is something malicious behind the scenes. Groups of subjects are awarded points for certain behaviors, much like an RPG video game, and this leads to a few appalling occurrences and the rise of "score whores" who snitch on others to enhance their standing. Moreover, it appears that all the women are fertile; live childbirth is almost unknown to posthuman culture, and a frightening prospect, but what's even more frightening is wondering why the experimenters — and who are they, really? — apparently want to breed a generation of "dark age" humans....

I'm going to stop here, because Glasshouse is so full of delicious surprises and nail-biting twists and turns that I don't have the heart to spoil the experience. Suffice it to say this is a fantastically entertaining piece of both speculative fiction and suspenseful action storytelling. It cuts a merciless swath through many of today's more repugnant social mores; I thought in particular of the religious extremists in this country who'd love nothing more than to impose their inflexible dogmas on society as a whole under a blanket of "moral" proto-fascism, whose numbers not only include pandering anti-gay/anti-abortion politicians but pharmacists who deliberately refuse to provide women with legal health products. (In one ruthless scene, Robin/Reeve rescues a woman who's been brutally assaulted by her husband, and she is only praised for doing so because the rescue saved the life of the woman's fetus. The woman herself is irrelevant. It's frightening to know there are people who think like that in real life.)

Glasshouse gives in a little to convention near the end, as the story inevitably progresses toward a rebellion plot, but even here, Stross keeps the sweet little surprises coming. The book's only genuine blemish is one overt 9/11 reference that seems in dubious taste. But mostly, Glasshouse is an incisive look into societies that allow themselves, for whatever reason, to be guided not by cooperation and the greater good but by fear and mistrust. And if any lesson emerges from it, it's that if you live in a glass house, the first thing you should do is start throwing stones.