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Glasshouse by Charles Stross

I have to preface this by admitting that I’m a Stross fanboy. As much as I love well written prose and poetic turns of phrase and those perfect, telling details, I’m also a sucker for Big Think SF, even when it isn’t carried in the most excellet prose possible. Not that Stross isn’t a good wordsmith. He’s too smart to write badly, but if there’s music there, it’s the harsh, angular music of out of control technology, the strange beauty of found sound and ripping synthetic bass. That said, this is his fourth written-to-be-a-novel novel, and he’s improving each time. I don’t think that he’ll ever be a Wolfe or a Swanwick, but he’s getting much better as time goes on, and I have confidence that these big ideas will eventually be contained within some powerful prose.

This novel starts off with a massive infusion of the strange. A post-person, prosaically named Robin, comes out of memory redaction confused and lost, more missing than someone would usually go for when they need a new start on things. It seems that there’s been a war, and that people all over are forgetting things the only way they know how, which is having big chunks of the war edited out of their minds. The setup seems a bit idiot-plot to me, they early romance too easy and the fact that people are trying to forget a war where their memories were mauled against their will by editing their own memories is strange to me. I’d personally think that a cult of sacrosanct personalities would spring up, trapping people with orthohuman mental architectures to stagnate under the tonnage of their accumulated memories for centuries to come, but I’m not the one writing it and that’s not what the story is about.

So. There’s a story here, where Robin gets caught up in an experiment gone wrong, or rather an experiment aimed wrong gone right. He becomes she becomes Reeve, and things just get stranger from there. We get the whole war in these lovely flashbacks throughout the book. Stross seemingly paid a lot of attention to structure and voice in this, as he would have to because it is not a human novel, as we think of them. The voice changes here and there as the personality of the teller is changed by the body that he/she wears and by some externalities that I’ll not ruin for you. Suffice it to say that it’s very interesting and quite odd in places. You often hear sensawunda mentioned when people are talking about Stross and his stories and books, and this is not done for no reason. He’s very, very good at managing to tell interesting stories about people whose experience we can barely comprehend, since they’re so far out of the standard human experience, which is something that I always enjoy. There’s a thought through quality to it as well, which is something that I really appreciate, even if I don’t strictly require it. He’s put a lot of thought into these things, and it pays off. The book veers from deadly serious to quite funny, often in the space of a sentence or two, but at least Stross has the sense to have his characters tell bad jokes when there’s something really awful going on, to highlight the fact that levity cannot defeat all.

I was following Stross’ blog at the time he was writing this novel, and he knocked the damn thing out in less than a month. I bet his hands hurt after that one. But it also means that there’s a continutity of thought and purpose here that’s lacking from Accelerando, his other outing in this future history. Not that anything can hang together when you’re not sure that the narrator is the same from scene to scene, since identity is so utterly mutable. I think that it also makes for a more cohesive novel, since Stross was likely able to stuff the entire thing inside of his head, so the interconnections are denser and more intricate. There’s a lot going on here, and he more or less manages to keep all of the balls in the air. It doesn’t say as much as Accelerando tried to, but it says what it says better. Of all of his novels so far, I think that this one is the most successful, barring The Atrocity Archive, which isn’t a novel, by length, but is pretty wonderful and funny and has just come out recently in trade paperback and you should get that too.

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