Sibilance is always great, isn’t it? Jack Glass is Adam Roberts’ venture once more into the Uplands and beyond for the setting to this triptych of whodunit murders, but with a twist – we know who’s done them. The clue’s in the title (not the post, the book).Classic SF and classic crime fiction are wedded together with a rather thrilling honeymoon as we explore three scenes – an asteroid, a country house and a sealed “locked room” mystery. These angles create the landscape of a universe redolent of his past work Gradisil. In similar fashion, Roberts weaves the carpet under our feet with his dry, amusing commentary. It happens from the first line in: “The prison ship was called Marooner. The name had nothing to do with its colour.”
The first third is effective by the sheer claustrophobic nature of the setting and the results on the character dynamics – seven prisoners have been, well, marooned on an asteroid, sentenced to make it safe for habitation. If they can attempt this, they will be picked up and returned safely. There is a catch, of course. You have to survive the sentence of 11 years. Your tools are limited, you’re sharing a space with hardened criminals and yes, you’re on an asteroid – hardly the Ritz, is it? The battery that provides them with heat runs low, the food (a punnet of biscuits, believe it or not) and water runs thin when it comes to dousing their tongues under the scraps of ice that crop up – all the best conditions for tensions to break out. Sexual strands are strained as well as the peaks and troughs of will and hope. Through the cacophony of panic, terror and strained laughter is our eponymous character – the calm and astute observer. He is called Jac and we keep our eye on him, and rightly so, even though he is depicted as quite a charming person and a good listener. Because of course, someone who weaves a tapestry Penelope style at a time like this does seem rather suspicious:
He tucked the piece of glass away under his tunic. If they didn’t find ice soon, it wouldn’t matter, and none of it would matter, and nothing would matter ever again. That thought was almost restful. The thought hardly disaffected him at all;although it did disaffect him a tiny bit, in the Will at the heart of his being.And he wanted at least to have finished his window. His miniature little window. Tiny little window. (Roberts, p75)
Such tautologies of the focus of this window, as fragile as the orbit of shanty bubbles can only mean Danger! Danger! in both my presight and hindsight state of affairs.
I’ve been considering the difference between absurdism and SF for a thesis chapter – and the dialogue between Jac and Marit can blanket the tension just a little with back story, a sense of rationality of why they are here, a trail of back story. Mo sets the tone for the whole picture – what is scarce is expensive, and what is abundant is easily disposable. Supply and demand, that old ABC of economics. In this case, it’s unfortunately the human race, who we find out exist in billions – with the class chasm so vast that the disenfranchised live in shanty bubbles in the earth’s atmosphere – environments packed to the brim full of people and, as the name suggests, is fragile and delicate and requires either replacement or constant repair, or else be hurtled into the merciless empty space beyond. A chilling prospect. Jac constantly reassures the cry of panic until finally the time comes – and as his name sake suggests, the glass is his tool of choice, in a rather chilling way of putting his money where his mouth is. In a truly terrifying way, he carries out Mo’s premise, intricately using their bodies in order to make their escape (I won’t spoil too much – just read it!)
This first third is an amazing insight into the world just through word of mouth of the characters, their ideals, their society and virtues. I’ve noticed as well that the “eye for an eye” theme is used here in a somewhat similar fashion to Land of the Headless, but that’s something I need to revisit in time (this is in fact an eye stalk or one of the convicted’s ordinators, I *think*).
So, onto the second and third segments of the story. We’re not done with this universe yet. However, we now see it from the Earth itself with the genetically created superhumans (they did remind me of powerpuff girls, which I do love) – Diana and Eva, created to solve puzzles and mystery to the highest degree of accuracy (that should be on their business cards if they had them). We are given a delightful dramatis personae of the two Argents and their tutor, Iago *hmmm* and assorted servants, doped with CRFs to ensure their loyalty and prolonged servitude. That is, until one of the house servants is murdered. A similar weapon used in the first segment as a bit of a knock up is used here – a metal cudgel of some sort. Of course, this will be anything but clear cut (glass? geddit?) but we have a crack team of crime investigators – or in this case, Diana. Even though the MOHsisters are close, their differences lie in their priorities – Diana being one involved with human affairs and emotions, whereas Eva can see things more objectively, in a more detached way. This is reflected in their dream like excursions – redolent of Stapledon’s Starmaker, where through the dreams of Diana in particular, we are given several little hints as to what might be going on.
Like in all good crime fiction, we are left to absorb like a thirsty plant all of the clues that are scattered, only to find out which ones to discard in order to have at the truth. We need to find out how the murderer entered the house in the first place, with the novums of the House AI, the servants drugged up to the nines, as well as the concept of altering gravities from the uplands to the Earth, as well as FTL (Faster than Light travel) to throw into the mix. Now we know, thanks to Einstein, that this is not possible – but of course, the potential of SF is its reaction, its bite-back, not necessarily the dental print of its attacker and the evolution of its choppers. In this way, look at how well the two genres get on. Of course, this requires some rather masterful prose writing to mesh the two – AND give it bang for its buck as opposed to existing as simply crime fiction, and I believe Roberts has done this justice. The dream sequences add to the mystery – it can be a little convoluted at times, but I love working out puzzles. Give me one of those puzzle blocks and I won’t read that manual – I just won’t put the damn toy down.
But what I find is so clever about this is the actual outcome, despite all of these novae (novi?) thrown at us. Iago, like a servant doing his Positronic Man sketch down a treat, especially when he holds Diana’s clothes as she swims and the perpetual calling of Miss, rightfully earns his moniker, shall we say. He’s one of my favourite characters in the Shakespeare canon and rightfully so. The dialogue here is artfully done, which is in my opinion the true human disguise.
I’m not going to spoil everything, so I won’t go into that in too much detail!
What I do want to go into, though, is the complex character of Mr Glass himself. This is the portion that rendered me breathless. He protects Diana (OK, fine, I’ll spoil it! I’ll change May contain to Will contain) to the very end, with a contract that endangers the billions of lives in the universe. He/Jack/Jac/Iago has the FTL weapon – the invisible gun – with the explosive potential to wipe out everything as we know it. He protects her despite everything. I was thinking of some potential reasons for this – Diana is the FTL weapon, she is one half and Eva is the other, *anything* but this. Of course, as we know he is the killer, we think of him as ruthless, calculating and cold. We see him under many guises – automaton like, a Jeeves like companion to the boisterous Diana, a Phoenix Wright to a hapless Maya, intent on finding the culprit of the crime. But this… I was not prepared for this:
“Why was that worth giving yourself up for?” She pressed. “Are you saying that stupid contract was worth putting the entire System at risk? The lives of trillions?”
He made as if to speak, but swallowed the words. Then he ran the palm of his hand over his bristly hair, and closed his eyes. Finally he said “yes.”
“Have you lost your mind? The entire population of humanity – the whole System? Trillions of lives, in exchange for my safety?”
Iago said: “because I love you.” (Roberts, p361)
You know that scene, where the cat’s organs get eaten in Kafka by the Shore? Smacked me in the chest, just like that – but this time it was of a positive reaction. Amazing – and it felt totally left field for me, which maybe it shouldn’t. This character that we have seen, a sheepdog leading lambs to the slaughter, seeing people as mere units of currency to be bartered about, comes out with that!? In true crime novel style and in SF style are we exposed to estrangement on so many different levels here. There’s a quote from Flaubert that sums up this kind of love – it’s a subject that I can never write about without some sort of cover up, some snideness, some cynicism, but here’s a secret. I am actually quite soppy inside (Urgh! That hurt! Owch!). Anyway, it’s this:
Love is a springtime plant that perfumes everything with its hope, even the ruins to which it clings.
Yes, I do love that particular quote, it’s one that I hold to my heart quite dearly. But hey, it’s a weird frame for it. We’re not supposed to feel sorry for Jack, we’re supposed to boo him and tar him with feathers in true pantomime fashion (well, probably a bit more than that). What Roberts excels in is seeing the whole story – how the topias in his worlds can be flipped, characters can change their facets like a Rubix cube, and the carpet that he so intricately weaves is simply whipped away. These of course are elements of the perfect crime story and so it’s not such a surprise that he carries off the formula well. I’ve also noticed in the way he writes about love – about the male desire in a myriad of ways, from platonic to sexual to worship and adoration. Gradisil and her husband (and later on, her children)’s dynamics are amazing to watch, as is the protagonist in Land of the Headless for Siuzan to the lassez-faire attitude of George to his wife in By Light Alone. I admit that I haven’t read New Model Army yet, but it’s been one I’ve wanted to get my hands on for a while – which I also can’t wait to review.
Jack Glass has been nominated for two awards I believe this year so far: the BFSA and the Kitschies. A very worthwhile candidate indeed – it’s light and accessible, but with many sweet layers – a delightful pastry of a novel.