Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz, July 2012, 373 pages)
Jack Glass is an impossible book.
I’ve had this on my radar ever since it came out but it wasn’t until it won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel this year that I decided to read it.
Jack Glass is ostensibly a blend of Golden Age Science Fiction and Golden Age Crime – to which point this is a homage or subversion is up for discussion. I feel it’s both.
The opening line is one of the best opening lines I have ever read:
This narrative, which I hereby doctorwatson for your benefit, o reader, concerns the greatest mystery of our time.
It’s a Science Fiction novel. Set in the far future – humanity has travelled extensively in the Solar System and spread out as far as it can go. There are trillions of us now, a minority of the super wealthy who run things and a vast majority of super poor – it’s not even simply polloi anymore, it’s sumpolloi – who inhabit shanty bubbles across the System with nothing but the bare minimum for subsistence. Those who are really lucky end up working for the Clans and Corporations who run everything.
It’s a Crime novel. The story is divided in three interlinked parts: a prison story, a whodunit and a locked-room mystery.
Jack Glass is the murderer: we know this from the get go. There is a short – FANTASTIC – introduction that estates very clearly that whatever the crime is, he’s done it. So this is clearly a HOWdunit and a WHYdunit.
In the meantime: FTL! Faster Than Light travel – an impossibility according to the Law of Physics. Something that is both the epitome of Hope (imagine being able to travel even further afield, away from this horrendous reality and start anew!) and the possible end of all mankind (because new technology = undisputed potential for violence, exploitation and escalation).
The prison story opens the novel:
7 violent criminals are about to start their 11 year prison sentence on a far away asteroid. Their survival depends on them working together to make the asteroid habitable which is both about their survival and the point of their sentence: they are given the necessary tools to extend the one room they have been dumped in (an advanced substance locks them in and allows them some air), create new chambers, grow food after they dig and find ice. At the end of these 11 years, they go free, the corporation that dropped them there resells the now inhabitable asteroid, everybody wins.
If they can make those 11 years, that is. Because humans being humans, as soon as they are left there, a power hierarchy is established between the 7 individuals. 5 Alphas run things – the 2 at the bottom must take it. One of them is a fat whinny man who used to be a God but now is the butt of everybody’s jokes. The other is a legless man (in a universe where most inhabitable places are gravity-free, why would anyone even need legs?) called Jac who has an obsession with the glass pieces he finds embedded in the asteroid.
These two become the group’s the punching bag and also their sex playthings (they are regularly raped).
Needless to say: the prison story is also a locked-room mystery and to some extent a whodunit. We know something really bad is going to happen and we know that Jack Glass will do it because we have been told so. It is a case of sitting down and abiding time to see how exactly things will play out. This first part is perfectly horrible and suffocating in its unstopping violence. The violence and tension in this part could have been a huge deterrent for me to carry on reading hadn’t it been for the fact that the writing! Was so good! The obvious claustrophobic environment expertly replicated in the writing itself.
It’s impossible to escape this asteroid, we are told several times. But Jac needs to get away before the people who put him there realise who he really is.
In the end Jack does what Jack does best (the greatest criminal of all time, the biggest murderer the world has ever seen) and manages the impossible.
Then we move to the second part: The FTL Murders! This is a typical whodunit set in a “manor house” on Earth where the extremely wealthy and privileged sisters Diana and Eva are sent by their parents to celebrate Dia’s sixteenth birthday. They are the future of Clan Argent, genetically engineered to be master problem-solvers. Eva’s mastery of Science and Physics is equal to Dia’s mastery of virtual murder-solving. Both approach their subject in different ways – Eva is removed from any humanity whereas Diana’s approach is more sympathetic and humanised. Not that she has had any chance to actually be sympathetic so far as her privilege is so deeply ingrained.
The sisters are surrounded by their bodyguards, their servants and their tutor Iago all of whom receive hormone injections that hinder their sense of individuality and amplify their love for their employers. They would never EVER be able to hurt or be disloyal to Dia and Eva.
Which is why when one the servants is mauled to death (in a locked-room no less) no suspicion is raised about the safety of the two sisters. Instead, this becomes the perfect opportunity for Dia to apply her knowledge to a Real Murder.
It is painfully obvious to surmise who Jack Glass is in this scenario. But then again the WHO has never been the point. Things are not as simple as they look and the WHYdunit of this case is quite possibly the most important thing about Jack Glass.
Whodunit, Locked-Room, Prison Escape (yes, this too). The second part is all three at once as well.
It’s better not to say anything about Part III – a locked-room mystery that is most definitely a whodunit (even though we know it was Jack Glass!) and a prison escape – because it completely spoils everything else. But here is where things reach their climax, overall character arcs are revealed and motivations shift one more time.
How many times within the story we are told that things are impossible? And how many times have they been proved not to be? This is where homage meets subversion, I believe.
It would be so easy to take this book at face value and to simply say: Jack Glass is a lot of fun. The author is clearly knowledgeable about the genres he is writing. The elements of Science Fiction are just super cool even if they require a LOT of suspension of disbelief (the impossibility of certain things, the outlandish conclusion to part one).
That said, to take this book at face value is doing it a huge disservice, I think. But this is also where things become not only less fun but also potentially problematic once you really think things through.
The point is: the fundamental premise of the story and the very foundation of this cosmos are based on ideas that are so depressingly uninventive, old and downright boring to me: that humans are fundamentally bad and that things will always be shit apart from a few pointed individuals who will try to bring the Revolution to the rest of the humanity. Jack Glass and to some extent the narrative would like you to believe he is one of those (HE is not, of course. Dia is).
Basically, the universe is a prison of our own making and we are all trying to escape: the biggest locked-room/prison escape of ALL TIME .
In part one, we are constantly faced with the worst of humanity. We ourselves are locked in the story with a bunch of characters that are so violently and abhorrent bad they are almost caricatures. If there is one thing this book is almost TERRIBLE at is in writing some of its characters – most of them are only skin-deep.
Each part uses their “mystery” as fodder to explore the make-up of this future. We come to clearly understand its economic, social and political systems which place no value on human life because there’s so many of us. At the same time, Jack Glass continuously brings up the idea that there is an elemental importance and uniqueness of each human life – interestingly though he makes that point by exactly reinforcing the idea of valueless he is trying to dismantle. But that’s ok: I don’t really think we are to sympathise with Jack Glass at all. I know I didn’t because the degree of his sociopathy is incredible as is his extremely narcissist personality (seriously, it is all about him)(which might well be The Point).
I have to say this: some things make no sense to me.
The prison sentence on the asteroids is presented as an “elegant business model”. Really? In a universe where people obviously need new places to live urgently, it is a good business model to wait ELEVEN YEARS for each new habitable asteroid? Given the evident advanced technology, I am pretty sure it would be more logical to use that than prisoners to excavate asteroids little by little.
The question of what to do with the prisoners then would only be a question to follow the very premise ( people= valueless) to its logical conclusion. That this is not done sounds like a contradiction to me.
Similarly, certain ideas are info-dumped and hammered through and things are explained point-blank to Dia, a character who is supposed to be the cleverest person ever. Granted that this could be an attempt to question genetically engineered cleverness. But to be honest, I don’t think this makes sense given the portrayal of said character – it became clear that things were regurgitated for the reader’s benefit.
Why are people so far out in the future still doing the same shitty things , still being shitty to each other and also still talking about Shakespeare and quoting Sherlock Holmes? Are we not going to progress any more than that?
The tone of each different part changes and it is amazing how they suit the point-view narrator. I loved Dia’s point of view. BUT does this even make sense from a writing perspective given it is ONE character who is narrating it to us? Shouldn’t all parts sound the same?
Diana Argent made this book. She is an awesome character and to me, the book is all about her. She is geeky and knows her own importance as an individualistic, privileged member of an important Clan to start with. But as her arc progresses this viewpoint changes into growth and understanding of her importance as an individual who is also a part of a larger universe, literally.
My own interpretation is thus:
Jack Glass is not the main character of this story although he is the main character of this novel (only because the person doctorwatsonning it is clearly biased).
This is the biggest gotcha of Jack Glass.
I am inclined to doctorwatson this novel myself and deface the cover by replacing JACK GLASS with DIANA ARGENT.
I really just wish that Jack Glass and Diana Argent were not so SPECIAL in a universe composed of trillions of people.
Although I had severe misgivings about the rest of the novel, the ending made it all better. It is as perfect as an ending can be because it perfectly suits the different strands of the novel and is extremely cynical as well as hopeful (which is kind of weird, I admit) .
Like I said in the beginning: Jack Glass is an impossible book. It is super fun and inventive but has a supremely boring foundation because it is so pessimistic. But the ending is so hopeful!
It is both a huge triumph and a big failure! At the same time!
In other words: I liked it but I also didn’t. I highly recommend it: let’s talk about it.
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 travelling 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.
But I intend to play fair with you, reader, right from the start, or I’m no true Watson. So let me tell everything now, at the beginning, before the story gets going.
One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. I can’t promise that they’re necessarily presented to you in that order; but it should be easy for you work out which is which, and to sort them out accordingly. Unless you find that each of them is all three at once, in which case I’m not sure I can help you.
In each case the murderer is the same individual – of course, Jack Glass himself. How could it be otherwise? Has there ever been a more celebrated murderer?
That’s fair, I hope?
Your task is to read these accounts, and solve the mysteries and identify the murderer. Even though I have already told you the solution, the solution will surprise you. If the revelation in each case is anything less than a surprise, then I will have failed.
I do not like to fail.
Rating: Impossibly, I think I am actually going to give this a 8 – Excellent
Reading next: The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton
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