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Beth Meacham, David Brin

Glasshouse

Glasshouse - Charles Stross [a: John Scalzi|4763|John Scalzi|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1407277112p2/4763.jpg] claims to be a gateway drug into science fiction literature, I suppose he may well be but I believe Charles Stross is almost the opposite of that. Stross is deservedly one of the most popular active sci- fi authors today but readers not familiar with the genre may find him a little bewildering. His target readership seems to be those who are quite au fait with the common tropes of the genre and also some computer programming terms. Those “in the know” love the science he puts in books like [b: Accelerando|17863|Accelerando|Charles Stross|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388240687s/17863.jpg|930555] and [b: The Atrocity Archives|101869|The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, #1)|Charles Stross|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1439096114s/101869.jpg|322252] while the likes of me struggle. I certainly had problems understanding much of these two books but less so with [b: Singularity Sky|81992|Singularity Sky (Eschaton, #1)|Charles Stross|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1386924988s/81992.jpg|1192005]. It did occur to me that his fiction is probably not for me but I keep coming back to try again because I like his wit and imagination, plus he is a great guy and very approachable to readers in online forums and such. Today I am happy to say I have finally found a Stross novel that I absolutely love and works completely for me. It is Glasshouse.

This Hugo nominated novel is set in the 27th century when our 21st century is viewed as part of “The Dark Ages”, presumably pre-singularity (called “the acceleration” here). Most of the book takes place in a sealed experimental environment where participants sign up to reenact life in the 21st century for research purposes. The protagonist starts off as a man named Robin who has part of his memory deleted for reasons unknown, presumably to forget some traumatic experience that he wants to do without. After he signed up for the isolated social experiment he backs himself up and his backed up personality wakes up inside the experiment as a woman called Reeve who has no idea why she has chosen to change her gender. She soon settles down to a married life of a nuclear family as part of the experiment, but begins to feel that the “experiment” is not really an experiment and some very disturbing things are going on.

Io9 calls Glasshouse “One of Stross' most challenging books”, I have not read enough of his books to confirm or deny this but I do find it to be his most accessible book so far. Certainly some tech expositions still go over my head but they never impede the storytelling. Whenever I don’t feel inclined to Google the programming terms I was able to gloss over them and enjoy the story. I do hope many more Stross books are like this, and I intend to find out.

I don’t remember any of Stross’ characters from his other books that I have read but I doubt I will forget the main characters in this book. This is particularly true for Robin/Reeve whose experience and character growth is unlike anything I have read before. The book is surprisingly feministic in tone after Robin becomes Reeve. Stross seems to have a lot of empathy for the trials and tribulations of womanhood. The emotions, the interactions with other women, the social pressure etc. are all convincingly portrayed (I hesitate to say accurately portrayed as I am not of the gender). Interestingly once Robin’s backup is activated as Reeve we have no idea what becomes of the original Robin, but with all these backups and restores we don’t even know whether the original Robin ever appears in this book. As for Reeve, she has to be one of the most unreliable narrators ever (I won't tell you why though).

Of course regularly readers of Charles Stross are probably not exactly looking for books that deal with feminist issues, I imagine the cool tech to be his main attraction. Glasshouse is stuffed to the gills with cool sci-fi tech. The posthumanism reminds me of both [b: Altered Carbon|40445|Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)|Richard K. Morgan|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1387128955s/40445.jpg|2095852] and [b: Permutation City|156784|Permutation City|Greg Egan|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1287341300s/156784.jpg|1270567]*, the memory editing is similar to PKD’s short story [b: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale|6561374|We Can Remember It for You Wholesale|Philip K. Dick|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1245689437s/6561374.jpg|857342] (filmed a couple of times as “Total Recall”). However, this is not a derivative novel, the sum of the different influences make for a very original book which is mind blowing, thought provoking and even poignant at times. The wilds ideas and amazing tech are underpinned by a surprisingly touching story of a loving relationship.

Glasshouse is definitely the best Charles Stross book I have read so far and I hope that even better ones are in store for me.
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* Unlike the virtual world featured in Permutation City, the social experiment of Glasshouse takes place in an actual physical environment where the activated digitized personalities are stored in human bodies.