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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Jack Glass" by Adam Roberts (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: "Jack Glass is the murderer. We know this from the start. Yet as this extraordinary novel tells the story of three murders committed by Glass the reader will be surprised to find out that it was Glass who was the killer and how he did it. And by the end of the book our sympathies for the killer are fully engaged.

Riffing on the tropes of crime fiction (the country house murder, the locked room mystery) and imbued with the feel of golden age SF, JACK GLASS is another bravura performance from Roberts. Whatever games he plays with the genre, whatever questions he asks of the reader, Roberts never loses sight of the need to entertain. JACK GLASS has some wonderfully gruesome moments, is built around three gripping HowDunnits and comes with liberal doses of sly humor.

Roberts invites us to have fun and tricks us into thinking about both crime and SF via a beautifully structured novel set in a society whose depiction challenges notions of crime, punishment, power and freedom. It is an extraordinary novel"

Ever since "Jack Glass" has been announced as above, the book has been a "super high expectations" one due to the combination of an irresistible blurb and its authorship by Adam Roberts who keeps producing the highest quality sf in story after story and novel after novel. 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "Jack Glass" was one of the "cannot put down until finished books" and despite the occasional gruesomeness inside, I thought it had the same combination of inventiveness and exuberance that made Land of the Headless one of my most favorite sff books.  

 Stone, Splinter and By Light Alone are also comparable in quality with all being among the top tier books I've ever read, though they are darker and arguably denser and "less accessible" to casual readers - however much I tend to dislike this expression, sometimes it just seems to be appropriate - and Yellow Blue Tibia is arguably funnier though also lighter, but Jack Glass hits the "sweet spot" in being inventive, literate, full of sense of wonder and "easily accessible" so I would recommend it as a great introduction to Adam Roberts' whole body of work.

The first paragraph of the book is funny in so many ways:

"This narrative, which I hereby doctorwatson for your benefit, o reader, concerns the greatest mystery of our time. Of course I’m talking about McAuley’s alleged ‘discovery’ of a method of traveling faster than light, and about the murders and betrayals and violence this discovery has occasioned. Because, after all – FTL! We all know it is impossible, we know every one of us that the laws of physics disallow it. But still! And again, this narrative has to do with the greatest mind I have known – the celebrated, or infamous, Jack Glass. The one, the only Jack Glass: detective, teacher, protector and murderer, an individual gifted with extraordinary interpretive powers when it comes to murder because he was so well acquainted with murder. A quantity of blood is spilled in this story, I’m sorry to say; and a good many people die; and there is some politics too. There is danger and fear. Accordingly I have told his tale in the form of a murder mystery; or to be more precise (and at all costs we must be precise) three, connected murder mysteries."

From here Jack Glass gets going with its first part, In the Box, where seven men are dumped on an asteroid where they have to serve an 11 year prison sentence by making it habitable - they are given some tools and a start with a little air in a sealed cavern, but they have to keep digging, find water, grow food, make personal chambers...

In-between the work and reminiscences of the world outside, the pecking order is established and at the bottom there is Jac, a legless man, who has an obsession with shards of glass and Gordius, a very fat man who is a former "son/sun god" of a cult. Things happen.

The next two parts called The FTL Murders and The Impossible Gun are the heart of the story as they deal with the structure of power and revolution in a Solar System of trillions, with world building for the ages and great characters and style, though the events of In the Box are important for the up-close-and-personal look we get of Jack.

The author continues to pursue the themes from By Light Alone though in a more expansive setting; the Solar System is colonized to the hilt by orbiting asteroids where the teeming masses live in squalor, but where also the movers and shakers of the day live in unimaginable luxury, pampered by servants chemically doped for blind obedience. It is a harsh world for the poor and a fabulous one for the rich, though in the pyramidal structure under the Ulanov (!) clan, nobody is really safe.

Second in power are five genetically engineered clans - MOH, term explained in the glossary at the end of the book - of which the Argents are the information "ministry", led by the two "MOHmies" of our main heroine Diana, who close to her majority at 16 is sent to a clan estate in the gravity well of Earth together with her older sister Eva.

Bred for super-smartness and the future leadership of the clan, Diane is an expert in "practical" thinking, well at least as that is possible in her simulation upbringing where she is the ultimate master at virtual crime solving, while Eva is already on her seventh science PhD at about 21. And of course a locked room murder just happens on their estate.

Here is another paragraph that is funny but also tells us a lot about the book, Adam Roberts' take on things and more; this is super funny if you are aware of the author's reviews of certain hard sf novels...

"Put silly romance to one side, and take those three questions in order. First: who committed the crime? Narrowing the group of suspects down to only nineteen people already placed the solution in the 99.9+++th-increment. Even if you limited yourself to the population of the island (though, since the whole Argent group had only just landed, and had not yet interacted with any island natives, the murderer was massively unlikely to be found outside the group – but for the sake of argument) we were talking about 19 out of 102,530, which was the 99.998+th percentile. Eva had never reached such levels of near-certainty in any of her PhDs! It was ridiculous to ask for more. Trillions of people in the solar system, and Diana wanted to waste her time sifting through a group of nineteen? Let her. If Eva had been in charge, she would have treated all nineteen as guilty – and then either execute them all, or perhaps treat the group conviction as a technical mitigation and sentence them all to long prison terms."

However larger happenings are afoot as there is a persistent rumor about FTL being invented despite its provable impossibility and that is the wild card which could shatter the stability of the System; of course Jack Glass - who is regarded by many as a nonexistent mythical hero or villain - and other Ulanov opponents have been working for the revolution for decades, but FTL can change everything overnight despite that it is impossible. And as the information clan, the Argents are in the bull's eye...

So grand themes - the fate of humanity in both the "internal", what is a good society, what is the cost of overthrowing oppression, etc, and external, in the "are the stars for us or are we stuck here in our corner forever?", a hinted resolution of the Fermi paradox, etc - larger than life characters, even an impossible love story, lots of action, mystery and indeed a strong dose of Golden Age sf done with modern sensibilities and superb style and Jack Glass succeeds on all fronts. Maybe for the ending I would have wished a few more pages but I really did not want the book to end anyway...

I would also note that in addition to the text of the novel per se and the aforementioned Glossary, Jack Glass contains an interesting collection of "poems and ballads" that are indirectly related to its action, but add quite a lot of depth to the world building - so  even here and Adam Roberts found a way to be different from the usual info-dumping in sff novels as he does it through verse! A short quote too:

"The Interplanetary Rebel’s Hymn

You who govern Venus, where the disk is smooth and grey:
The Ulanovs rule your System—but you’re greater, far, than they!
Now as the laws are questioned and the police sloops blast and glide,
Mithras, lord of the planets, give strength to those who died."


To summarize, the last sentence of Jack Glass' blurb above "It is an extraordinary novel" is quite the understatement. A top 10 novel of 2012 for me.




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