Prometheus

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Volume 25, Number 3, Spring 2007

Glasshouse

By Charles Stross

Ace, 2006
Reviewed by Chris Hibbert

Charles Stross’s Glasshouse takes place in an advanced post-nanotech world where the primary means for long distance travel is cellular deconstruction, data transmission, and reconstruction. In addition to that, you can edit your body and mind before reconstruction, allowing you to modify your basic body type or gender, remove signs of aging, or edit your memories. Unfortunately, this also means that anyone who controls the gates can control what comes out the other end.

Robin, our protagonist, is one of several people going through rehab—apparently their most recent life left them with some mental trauma, and the editing at their last reconstruction wasn’t as complete as it should have been, so they are getting used to their newest selves and learning to integrate into mainstream society. Since someone seems to be trying to kill Robin (who has strong self-preservation skills and instincts, but doesn’t remember why), the choice to accept an invitation into an anonymity-enforcing experiment in recovering information about a lost historical period makes sense. The historical period is ancient earth; really a Hollywood-based view of 1950s-1990s America, but with many details elided, and the entire period mixed together in one giant mish-mash of the experimenters’ guesses about why the stereotyped sex roles could co-exist with various anachronistic technologies and mores.

“In order to study the emergent properties of the society” the experimenters are constructing, the subjects are constantly monitored and rewarded with points for remaining in character, and lose points (both individually and for their cliques) for arbitrary behaviors the experimenters want to discourage. Some of the participants quickly adopt the point system as their primary driver of value, while Robin and a few others find unseen ways to fight back. Eventually, Robin discovers a cell of others who want to stop the experiment and/or escape.

The story is well-told and interesting, with both action scenes and psychological studies of the characters. The conflict is engaging, and the elaboration of the background (I haven’t given it all away here) is rolled out in a plausible sequence. The exploration of how modern society will look to far-future societies is entirely plausible, with or without intentional culling of the historical records. Stross’s characters have a believably accepting attitude to gender- and bodyplan-switching, and their reactions to an attempt to impose a cartoon interpretation of 1950s gender roles is convincing.

There aren’t any obvious governments, but several factions are struggling to become the de facto monopolists on political control and the use of force, either locally or throughout the connected polities. The idea that societies that can communicate as easily as they do throughout the Invisible Republic might still maintain distinctly different political systems is interesting. The implication that it might be stable as long as no one manages to subvert the gates that enable cheap commerce is intriguing.

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