Review: Glasshouse, by Charles Stross

I picked up Glasshouse in my local Borders a couple of days ago (yes, we still have Borders here). It was the only Stross they had, but I was overjoyed to find any — I’ve been on the lookout for one of his books for five years. Ironically, it was published five years ago, and has only just made it to these shores.

(Yes, I could order through Amazon. But transcontinental post & packing rates are not to be sneered at. And I like bookshops.)

I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed a science-fiction novel in a very long time.

I don’t mean that it whiled away some free hours, giving me some nice escapism, I mean genuine delight. Glasshouse is extremely intelligent, tightly written and, in places, very darkly comedic. Like all the best SF it’s something of a social commentary of our times — which is where the dark humour comes in. In many ways, it reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s more paranoid and better-written pieces, and I regard that as very high praise. Was Stross channelling A Scanner Darkly when he wrote this? With a touch of The Forever War?

There are subtle pop-culture references throughout. Pop culture? Make that geek culture, with a hefty dose of history nerd thrown in (yes, I got why the tank’s username was liddelhart, and it gave me a little grin — a shared gag between author and reader).

The basic setting is transhumanist. Humanity travels through the stars through gates which record and destroy the body and mind, reassembling it at the destination through nanotech.

A censorship war has taken place some years before the novel. Someone released a virus into the gates which selectively edit people’s memories. Now there are large chunks of history missing.

Our hero is one of the anti-censorship warriors, now retired, but he appears to have excised parts of his memory himself. And then he gets an offer to take part in an archaeology experiment: to live life as it was in the dark ages of the 20th-21st century, a period little is known about.

Cue main round of dark comedy as our hero wakes up as a desperate housewife. Stross lays bare the ridiculous rules of modern society mercilessly and wittily, but never forgets he’s telling a story.

All is not as it seems, however, and here’s where the Dickian mind-fuck begins. When memories can be edited, how can we ever be sure who we are? What we’ve done? Why we’ve done it? Or if we really control our actions? When we can change our appearance, our sex, our species at will, how do we recognise each other? When I can assume your body, how do people know whether it’s you or me they’re talking to?

When Stross postulates authentification protocols as the absolute foundation of future society, transhuman society should the singularity come to be, he is very, very convincing. And still the memories disappear.

Glasshouse delighted me on its own merits. It’s a brilliant work. Having read it, I will have to bite the bullet and use the online ordering system Stross made possible (in an earlier life he was a pioneering internet programmer – you can read about this on his website here) and order some more of his books.

But it gives me an extra delight. You see, Charlie and I were at school together.

We weren’t schoolfriends, or much more than nodding acquaintances. He’s got a couple of years on me, and sixth-formers do not hang around with snotty third-years (American terms: seniors do not hang out with junior high-school students).

I first became aware of him on a school trip to Italy – Marina di Ravenna. Charlie was the older boy in our dorm-style hotel room, presumably to be the responsible one. I don’t know how effective this was: that holiday was the first time I got drunk. It’s amazing how two glasses of wine will affect a 12 year old. I have vague recollections of Charlie draping a duvet over his shoulders like a cape, making ghostly moans and trying to freak my wine-sozzled brain by crying: “I’m a scary Jewish vampire!”

What I remember far more clearly is the drawing he was working on at that time. It was an intricate pen-and-ink image of some kind of two-headed demon, made up of alternating black-and-white rhomboids, against a background of black-and-white rhomboids on a slightly different base. You had to squint to see the figure of the demon in it. I was hugely impressed by this picture – hell, if I can remember it 30 years later, you’ll realise the impression it had. I wonder if he still has it?

A few months after that holiday, me and my schoolmates discovered a game called Dungeons & Dragons. It fitted in perfectly with our home-grown Mazes game, which we played in the back of class, and I took to it like a duck to a wetland  sanctuary. A few months after that, we discovered Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and it was when I flicked through a copy of the Monster Manual I recognised what Charlie had been drawing: Demogorgon.

Demogorgon

Demogorgon, from my copy of the 1st edition Monster Manual. Game stats blurred in some vague attempt not to infringe a trademark and claim Fair Use…

I realised Charlie was a gamer. I think I got a dose of hero-worship. I knew he was smart from our time in Italy (hey, I’m smart, Charlie’s Really Smart). I thought he was pretty cool, too. But his cousin Rob, who was in my class, never gave me the way in to Charlie’s gaming group (and if Rob had tried, sixth-formers don’t hang out with snotty third-formers, do they?)

I seem to recall Charlie was a Warden, though I may be wrong. Our school had an odd two-tier structure of schoolboy enforcers (yes, it was a single-sex school). The Wardens were the low-grade version, who wore a little badge like the Wombles symbol, which gave them their nickname. They were allowed to dish out lines. (The high-grade enforcers were the Prefects, who could give detentions and wore black academic gowns – yes, kids, like Harry Potter.)

Anyway, if Charlie was a Womble, that would help explain why I was reluctant to approach him without a friendly introduction. My self-image at that time was of a heavy-metal renegade, a maverick, an outlaw. Hell, it still is. And rebels are wary of The Man.

(Having read Charlie’s version of his academic and subsequent career on his website, I am chuckling at the image of him discovering he was ever thought of as The Man.)

Either way, after that holiday in Italy, I barely swapped a dozen words with Charlie. Five years ago, I heard him mentioned as an up-and-coming writer on a gaming fan site; a bit of google-fu confirmed it was the same Charlie I remembered. We traded an email – he thought he remembered me vaguely. And I’ve been after his books since. In bookshops, see, because I like books.

And damn you, Charlie, Glasshouse is so bloody good, I think that dose of hero-worship is recurring.

Next time I’m in Edinburgh (hell, next time I’m back in the UK), I think I’ll have to try and introduce myself. I can buy a hero a pint at least.

As a side-note, it’s a matter of record that Charlie contributed some monsters to the first edition Fiend Folio. I didn’t realise this at the time — being a free-thinking rebel (yeah, right), I’d already decided that the DMG, Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual were enough. The Fiend Folio was, I reckoned, over-egging the AD&D pudding. I picked up my copy dirt cheap years later.

The slaad were his own invention, I think, and still a major part of D&D’s bestiary at least until 3.5. They certainly gave me much grief in Baldur’s Gate 2. I wouldn’t know if they’re in 4th edition.

1st edition Fiend Folio

Charlie’s githyanki on the cover of my Tippex-splattered 1st edition Fiend Folio.

The githyanki made the cover. For them and the githzerai he was inspired by George RR Martin’s novel Dying of the Light. And that gives us another gaming connection… is it time to play Six Degrees of Gary Gygax?

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