Glasshouse

by Charles Stross

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The basic premise of Glasshouse reminds me of the old
joke about the fellow who joined the French Foreign
Legion to forget.  "Forget what?" he was asked.  "I
don't know," comes the reply, "I forgot."  In Charles
Stross’s novel, human civilization is living with a similar
memory lapse in the aftermath of lengthy censorship
wars—during which a mysterious power tampered with
people’s recollection the way a computer virus might
delete files on your hard disk.  
This malevolent adversary was
eventually defeated, but did so
much damage first, that no one
is quite sure what caused the
initial outbreak, or how much
knowledge has been erased
from history.

In
Glasshouse, a large-scale
scientific experiment is set up
to recreate the circumstances
that led to the censorship wars
—perhaps thereby uncovering
the now forgotten reasons for
the conflict.  Participants will
live in an isolated, enclosed community and adopt the
customs, technologies and laws of the late 20th and
early 21st century—i.e., the everyday world familiar to
the readers of Stross’s novel.  But once volunteers sign
on, they won’t be able to quit the project until it
terminates in 1-3 years time…or perhaps longer.

The set-up is rife with opportunities for ironic
commentary, and Stross takes full advantage of the
potential for confusion and dismay when members of a
future society confront the world we all know and love.  
"There’s something deeply disturbing about wearing
clothes made from dead animals," narrator Reeve
relates.  "There’s stuff called 'silk' that’s basically bug
vomit, and the idea of it makes my skin crawl."  Stross
also pokes fun at food, television, shopping, organized
religion, and almost every other aspect of society that
falls under his purview.  

The subjects in this experiment adapt quickly to the
demands of their new settings, some with perhaps
excessive enthusiasm.  A point system scores each
individual's compliance with the social rules of the
mini-polity, and points are tied to a financial incentive
—to be paid to participants at the termination of the
study.  Readers familiar with the
Milgram debacle at
Yale and the
Zimbardo prison experiment at Stanford—
the latter slyly referenced within the novel, and
apparently an inspiration for author Stross—will
recognize a similarly malign dynamic at work in
Glasshouse.  Even when the rules of a society are based
on dubious, if not dangerous, values, most individuals
ask few questions and do as they are told—and
apparently that aspect of human nature has not
changed in the future envisioned by our author.  

But, unlike say
1984 or Fahrenheit 451, Glasshouse is
not primarily a vehicle for social commentary nor,
despite the many humorous touches, an exercise in
comedic speculative fiction in the manner of
Douglas
Adams or Terry Pratchett.  The protagonist in Stross's
novel is challenged to a duel-to-the-death in the
opening pages, setting the tone for a futuristic
adventure story in which the occasional philosophical
or sociological trappings do not slow down the pacing
or detract from the action-oriented plot.  The narrator
Reeve not only tries to stir rebellion among the
"glasshouse" participants, but is also plagued by a
series of flashbacks from the censorship wars,
repressed memories of bloody encounters rising to the
surface—and ensuring that every few pages some
example of deadly combat appears in these pages.  

The experimental glasshouse turns out to be less a way
of exploring the past than a means for controlling the
future.  The key scientists running the experiment
have a long history of working with tyrannical regimes,
and their model community can potentially serve as a
blueprint for a new wave of oppression and social
control.   A small number of participants in the
experiment can sense this sinister plan and are
determined to resist, but how can they hope to succeed
when they are constantly observed, badgered and
bullied, and left totally unarmed?

The plot occasionally drags and runs into dead-ends—
long passages describe incidents (the laborious
construction of a crossbow in the garage, an escape
attempt via a ladder several kilometers long, etc.) that
aren't well integrated into the rest of the novel.  But for
the most part,
Glasshouse works both as an adventure
story as well as a musing on social norms and their
misuse.  Knowledgeable readers will also enjoy
deciphering the frequent allusions that Stross sprinkles
into his text—including a whole host of hints relating to
sci-fi writer
Cordwainer Smith.  These are so varied
and frequent as to amount to a behind-the-scenes
textual game played by the author of this novel.  

The overall theme here, namely that reality isn't as real
as we think, may be the most over-worked sci-fi device
of recent years—with everything from
The Matrix to
The Truman Show, as well as a host of Philip K. Dick-
inspired stories working endless variants on this
meme.  But Stross offers up a fresh, provocative angle
on the subject, one that inspires comparisons not to sci-
fi so much as to the old sociological debate on the
"social construction of reality"—promoted most
aggressively by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann
in their 1966
book of that name.  Perhaps we all live in
a Glasshouse of our own making, Stross  constantly
hints, while offering up an account of those who,
contrary to the old adage, respond by throwing as
many stones as possible.
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