Posted by : atcampbell | On : February 19, 2008

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

13 people attended the discussion of Glasshouse by Charles Stross. Everybody but 1 person has read Stross before. 11 people started the book, about half of the people finished it.

Glasshouse is set in the same universe as Stross’ earlier far-future novel Accelerando. To quote an Amazon.com review, the protagonist Robin “is one of millions who have had a mind wipe, to forget wartime memories that are too painful — or too dangerously inconvenient for someone else. To evade the enemies who don’t think his mind wipe was enough, Robin volunteers to live in the experimental Glasshouse, a former prison for deranged war criminals that will recreate Earth’s “dark ages” (c. 1950 — 2040). Entering the community as a female, Robin is initially appalled by life as a suburban housewife, then he realizes the other participants are all either retired spies or soldiers. Worse yet, fragments of old memories return, extremely dangerous in the Glasshouse, where the experimenters’ intentions are as murky as Robin’s grasp of his own identity.”

Since all the characters participate in a full-time social experiment, the readers thought the setting resembled Big Brother, The Prisoner, and The Sims game.

One reader called this plot device Gulliver’s Travels. Just like an Englishman Gulliver traveled into the Lilliputian lands and put his experiences with them into a framework we can understand, a far future person (Robin) traveled into the past (our world) and told us how it looks like from his perspective. Robin / Reeve was more than a bit shocked by our reality, and it was amusing to see what shocked him / her. Stross does a good job to make the reader feel strange about things we’ve been taking for granted. For example, Reeve’s first look at the bathroom in her 20th century-style house makes her think that the bathroom has crashed, because all the appliances remain extruded. Apparently in the far future appliances retract into the walls when not in use. Some readers found this scene hilarious. Also, Robin / Reeve’s perspective made me feel abnormal to have an “ortho” body that can’t take different shapes, the way far future humans’ bodies do.

Not everybody felt that way, though. Some readers didn’t like it that the characters switched their gender “all the time” (twice, actually, but that was two times too many for some people), or were dubious that the characters would be as comfortable in the body of opposite sex as they were in their originally chosen sex.

Others liked the ramifications of gender switching. A reader said: “if I’m in the universe where bodies are malleable, and I fall in love with you, to what degree it’s mental chemistry and to what degree it’s physical chemistry? I found that thing highly entertaining.” She was also entertained by Robin / Reeve’s outrage at discovering that an orthohuman female body she was given had no upper body strength.

Some people who lived in the 50s were impressed how Stross got many things right about the 50s, especially considering he wasn’t alive back then. “He really nailed the small town, neo-Victoriana fundamentalist mind set of the 50s,” said a reader. “To me, the 1950s were not a time of jolliness and fun, they were time of being afraid of the government. And having a lot of nosy adults sticking their noses into my affairs”.

I don’t know about the 50s, but I can say that Glasshouse painted a very convincing picture of how an authoritarian state comes into being. The social engineering by which peer pressure works to support a dictatorship, causing even well-meaning people to become enforcers of an authoritarian government, was portrayed brilliantly. The “Church” in the novel serves no other purpose than to keep people in line, and a reader observed that that’s exactly what the purpose of real-life churches in small towns seems to be. The same reader also praised Stross for noting how certain parts of Christian liturgy can be very frightening to someone looking at it from an outside.

Some people said Glasshouse took them a while to get into. Some futuristic details, such as time measured in kiloseconds, megaseconds, etc., slowed down some readers’ progress. One reader was nearly ready to give up after having to interrupt the story again and again to convert megaseconds or gigaseconds into our conventional units of time (even though a conversion table is provided in the book).

But when the book got going, it became fun, people said. The ending was thought to be brilliant by some, and cheesy by others. One reader said the last 60 pages where everything changed blew her brain. “I thought it was really terrific,” she said. “I reread that whole section twice. I think it takes a real skill for a writer to pull a rug from under the reader.” Another reader wasn’t too impressed. She said “the end just made me laugh. How cheesy is this! It turned into romance. I was totally shocked and entertained by this. I think Stross has a really twisted sense of humor.” She refers to the twist at the end where a certain character sacrifices his / her life, and then it turns out that the character backed themselves up beforehand, so the whole idea of their sacrifice is turned on its head.

I liked the ending; I thought Stross struck a perfect balance between happy and realistic. The resolution is not what an optimist would expect, but neither does it end badly. One reader had an hypothesis, that the whole Glasshouse experiment might actually have been a front for a therapy session, because everybody in the Glasshouse was very damaged from the war. That’s an interesting idea, since it would explain the cheesy ending, but I’m not sure the rest of the book supports it.

–Elze Hamilton