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July 10, 2006

Glasshouse

Posthumans play at 20th-century lifestyles—but their fun soon fades, because the stakes turn out to be life itself
Glasshouse
By Charles Stross
Ace Books
Hardcover, July 2006
335 pages
ISBN 0-441-01403-8
MSRP: $24.95
By Paul Di Filippo
After the Acceleration, everything was different. The Republic of Is spanned the stars, linked by wormhole T-gates that made stepping across light-years as easy as rolling off a log. (In fact, the separate "rooms" of your "hab" might in reality exist in different solar systems, although to the occupant they seemed merely a doorsill apart.) A-gates were nanoassembler machines—"anything boxes"—that allowed for the timely creation of any substance, device or living creature imaginable, with the input of raw feedstock.
This is a novel that embodies the best characteristics of stringent SF, proving that there's plenty of life in the old genre yet.
 
This meant, of course, that humans were now immortal: Step into an A-gate and let it map you for an endlessly renewable backup template, then rebuild you into any type of body on file. But not just physiology was changed. The human mind became infinitely malleable as well. And when confronted with undesirable memories or character flaws, people could choose to get wiped and rebuilt.

That's the state in which we first encounter our hero Robin, who actually lives in the era following the demise of the Republic of Is, a collapse due to a nasty memetic virus called "Curious Yellow" that infested the T-gates. He's just emerged from a drastic wipe and is trying to find his new place in life. After surviving a duel of honor and striking up an impulsive love affair with a four-armed woman named Kay (also a recent patient of the identity-reindexing clinics), Robin decides to enter a paid experiment to give some meaning to his life. The isolated habitat being run by three scientists—Yourdon, Fiore and Hanta—is dedicated to recreating the Dark Ages—the 20th century in all its primitive aspects—for study purposes. Robin—and Kay—sign up for three-year contracts.

When Robin awakes in the simulated "Urth" village, full of "zombie" android extras filling the utilitarian roles, he's been rebooted as a woman and renamed Reeve. There's no sign of Kay.

His small number of fellow human subjects are a mixed lot, some greedy and evil, some kindly and charitable. Reeve is immediately forced into a "marriage" with a fellow named Sam and sets about trying to live the life of an average housewife circa 1950 (or is that 1990?; the experiment designers are a little hazy ...). But Reeve soon discovers that the trio of manipulators running the experiment do not have pure historical research in mind. They are seeking to re-create and improve upon the extinct Curious Yellow virus and unleash it on the universe once more.

That's when Reeve's missing memories start to kick in, and she learns that she's the only one who can stop the threat.

Everything old is new again

What does it mean to work in the long lineage or tradition of the great SF of the past? Does it mean churning out endless fanboy pastiches that push a reader's buttons with commercial exactitude? Certainly not! By my lights, the best SF writers engage in an intellectual dialogue or multiconversation with their past models, acknowledging and honoring their achievements while simultaneously extending them. Thus, a new work of credible and bold SF will echo older books while at the same time speaking in its own voice of new insights and possibilities.

That's what Charles Stross does to perfection in this new novel, which I suppose might be considered a loose sequel to his Accelerando (2005), although I don't believe offhand that there are any explicit links, except for the whole posthuman vibe. His book conjures up numerous allusions to past classics while at the same time being utterly accessible and stimulating to those who might not know his landmarks.

We note with glee and various shocks of recognition similarities to John Varley's Eight Worlds scenario, with its "steel beach" environments and sex changes and identity backups. (And having a minor character named "Alice Sheldon," the real name of James Tiptree, reinforces Stross' intention to mess with gender issues.) The collapse of the Republic of Is has Asimovian overtones. Robin's initial state of amnesia and danger recalls the opening of Zelazny's Amber books, an already acknowledged influence on Stross. The husband-wife secret agent team of Sam and Reeve bring Heinlein's "Gulf" to mind. The memetic wars are straight out of John Barnes' recent work. Robin/Reeve's former life as a "tank" immediately brings Laumer's "Bolo" stories to mind. Life in the simulated Village known as the Glasshouse certainly makes one think of the television show The Prisoner. The polymorphously perverse normality of our future citizens is pure Delany. One of Niven's "variable swords" makes an appearance. And so forth.

But these allusions are all mere subtext. The surface narrative is pure Stross, an organic, overwhelming assault on all stale conceptions of the future. Stross' language is tart, innovative and flowing. His characterizations are engaging and believable. His plotting is zippy and propulsive, with flashbacks mixed in at just the proper intervals as Reeve's memories resurface. His tone is light and comic yet has a certain gravitas. (The way the 20th-century simulation reverts to a Lord of the Flies arrangement is chilling.) This is a novel that embodies the best characteristics of stringent SF, proving that there's plenty of life in the old genre yet.

After seeing the 20th century through the eyes of Stross' protagonist, the reader will find it hard to feel superior to, say, the Victorians. We're all on the same primitive level in the eyes of the Accelerated cultures. —Paul