Saturday, 22 June 2013

Jack Glass

Adam Roberts
Gollancz (

I’ve been staring at Jack Glass for over an hour, trying to find the best way to start this review. There’s little point in summarising the plot, because the plot is just another postmodern cog in the cunning little machine that Adam Roberts has so intricately assembled. This is a clever book, but it’s a little too distanced and mechanical in its cleverness to ever quite manage to qualify as enjoyable.

Jack Glass is science fiction, I can say that much; SF of the old fashioned kind. In its author’s own words, the novel is a collision of ‘the conventions of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction and ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction, with the emphasis more on the latter’ (Acknowledgements, p.372).

Perhaps you’re curious about the precise definition of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction. Perhaps you’ll visit the Wikipedia article, and find it described by the author of The History of Science Fiction as valorising ‘a particular sort of writing: ‘hard SF’ linear narratives, heroes solving problems or countering threats in a space-opera or technological-adventure idiom’.

The author of The History of Science Fiction is Adam Roberts.

Roberts clearly knows a lot more about Golden Age SF than most; his novel seems to be assembled of oblique nods to genre classics, and if I got a quarter of the references I’d be surprised – leaving me with a vague sense that the author is sticking his tongue out at me from just beyond my field of vision.

Nonetheless, it broadly conforms to its author’s own definition – strange, that. The setting is a plausible-seeming space opera, and Roberts pays scrupulous attention to keeping his science as hard as possible. He does a good job of extrapolating the sociological implications, too, and the hints we’re given of Roberts’ future society are interesting.

From the brutal extrapolation of privatised prison labour which sets the scene for the first act, to the countless philosophies and religions and pathetic rebellions among the scattered sumpolloi that make up the bulk of oppressed humanity, Jack Glass’ setting is all too easily believable, and painted on occasion with a delicately warped sense of humour. Take this hard-done-by merchant complaining of society’s binding laws, the Lex Ulanova:

“That’s the thing about the Lex – it even regulates the bounds of illegality. So: we are taxed not from 100% of our gross, but from 143%. To take into account our supposed involvement in the black market.” (p.283)

But for all that the third of the novel’s parts draws back to consider large-scale social problems, from humanity’s potential self-destruction, the injustice of the ruling Ulanov dynasty and questions of moral relativity (as well as special relativity), the primary focus of Jack Glass is on the narrative mechanics of the traditional mystery.

Because before it’s an homage to Golden Age SF, Jack Glass is first a deconstruction of detective fiction – which combines nicely with the ‘problem-solving’ aspect of that definition I mentioned earlier.

The novel itself is the puzzle – less a whodunit than a whydunnit, or a how. All of which the narrator makes clear in the introduction, as they lay out a challenge for the reader:
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. (pp.1-2)

The tone of that introduction is superior, condescending; it’s like being set a test by a teacher who thinks you’ll fail, and the natural reflex is to jerk against it and solve whatever it is we’re supposed to solve, dammit. That’ll show them.

But Jack Glass is, I think, primarily an intellectual exercise. It’s a little too pleased with itself, and a little too pleased with its clockwork mysteries, to the point where it forgets to provide a beating heart beneath the artifice. And it’s hard to care about the characters, particular when they’re presented in a faux-naïve style which quickly becomes maddening: 
“’It would require someone of great strength to lift such a thing,’ was Deño’s opinion. ‘Even assuming they were acclimatized to the gravity.’
This was self-evidently true. So do you know what Diana thought? She thought: since that suggests that the murderer is a person of great physical strength, the murderer will actually be a very weak individual. Diana knew murder mysteries, you see. She had played a thousand Ideal Palace whodunits. A thousand, at least! (p.109)

The conceit waxes particularly strong in ‘The FTL Murders’, the second and longest part of the book and the part of which Diana is the focal character. That seems sensible enough, given the protagonist’s lack of worldly experience, but even in the most horrific sections of the first act – and it gets plenty dark – there’s a touch of that same mad childishness.

It’s a necessary omission, though, in order to keep the eponymous Jack even slightly sympathetic – the naivety of the narrative voice renders even the most horrific actions almost quaint. Murdering, de-boning and hollowing out your fellow man so you can wear him like a skin-suit is more the stuff of video nasties than of your typical protagonist, but Jack’s actions are presented in such a clinical, unjudgemental fashion that they seem almost reasonable. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Besides, as the structure of the novel makes clear, this version of events is potentially doubly sanitised: by Jack himself, though it’s possible he’s not the type; and by his faithful chronicler, who has made it their mission ‘to tell his story. To tell his story to you.’ (p.367)

Whether you’ll care to hear it is debatable. You can only tease your readers for so long before they’ll grow tired, as becomes readily apparent in the third part of the novel. Roberts departs from the linear narrative his own definition of ‘golden-age’ SF requires, in order to start playing around with chronology – appropriate, given the nature (and the solution) of the mystery.

And while the structure and solution of the mystery is a genuine dash of genius, our heroine Diana’s talent for intellectual problem-solving manifests itself in an unfortunate, frustrating fashion – as a prolonged series of interrogatives. Diana primarily, but all the characters ask themselves the same couple of questions over and over. How? Why? How? Why? It’s all to little avail, until Diana’s ability to decode a heavily allusive dream finally allows her (but probably not the reader) to figure it all out – by which time the point has become rather moot anyway.

Jack Glass is endlessly inventive and undoubtedly clever, with some interesting things to say about the nature of crime and punishment, but in its incessant game-playing it tippy-toes across the line between amusing and annoying. I imagine it was more fun to write than it is to read; certainly it’s more fun to write about.

This review was originally written for