Glasshouse by Charles Stross
Reviewed by L. Timmel Duchamp
16 October 2006
In the "post-Acceleration" universe of Charles Stross's latest novel, post-humans live in polities, widely scattered through space, that are physically constructed and linked with charmingly inventive SFnal ingenuity. One such polity is the Glasshouse, formerly a Houdini-proof panoptic prison. Glasshouse tells the story of what happens when three (unsympathetic) war criminals, posing as researchers conducting a social experiment, lure hundreds of subjects into agreeing to be locked up without civil rights and incommunicado in this closed polity. In fact, as the reader soon figures out, the experiment's subjects, many of whom, like the narrator, are themselves (sympathetic) war criminals hoping to escape their pasts through erasure of their memories, are not genuine experimental subjects of genuine researchers.
The narrative begins in the apparently safe and controlled Invisible Republic but shifts quickly to the closed milieu of the Glasshouse, where a set of artificially imposed conditions are added to the social assumptions, ethical and ideological values, and intellectual concepts the inmates of the Glasshouse possessed before they entered it. To understand the significance of events and behavior that occur within the Glasshouse, the reader must first grasp how the world outside the Glasshouse works. And so the narrative helpfully gives readers a pleasurable taste of post-humanity's privileges, thereby establishing a baseline for what the loss of such privileges will mean to the story's narrator, Robin (who becomes "Reeve" when he wakes up in the Glasshouse). The reader can infer that these privileges include assured immortality, absolute civil rights, apparently free access to unlimited material resources, and extraordinary freedom of choice.
The visible key to most of these privileges is the individual's access to "A-gates" or "assemblers" and "T-gates" (SFnal gimmicks reminiscent of Star Trek "replicator" and "transporter" technology, except that Stross's narrator gratuitously provides a plausible explanation). "There's one in every rehab apartment," the narrator informs us, and continuing, reveals that he's writing for us pre-Acceleration humans reading this back in the Dark Ages rather than for his contemporaries: "used for making copies of furnishings and preparing dinner as well as deconstructing folks right down to the atomic level, mapping them, and reassembling them again."(p. 39) Assemblers can reproduce any thing or person for which they are provided a template, so that anything that already exists or that can be imagined and designed can be effortlessly "copied" or "assembled." For humans this means that injuries can be repaired, the body (and therefore the mind) can be "edited," and the entire assemblage "backed-up," so that whenever an existing copy of the body takes a mortal hit, the body can be reassembled from the most recent back-up. (The metaphor is fairly straightforward; anyone who used a personal computer back in the days when back-ups weren't automatic and incremental will grok all the possible complications of rogue copies and all the risks of loss one is subject to under the regime of non-systematized back-ups.) Significantly, the narrator does not indicate whether individuals pay a fee to use the A-gates much less provide any information about their larger economic implications.
The extent of Robin/Reeve's sense of privilege is made clear when, on waking in a physiologically weaker (female) body in the Glasshouse without any memory of having consented to be stripped of his civil rights and other post-human privileges, he concludes that his current self (meaning, apparently, selected parts of his brain but excluding his musculature, skeleton, and reproductive and endocrine systems—a definition of "self" with which most philosophers would take serious issue) has been made from a pre-consent back-up. Granted, his first thought is "Someone tampered with my backup!"(p. 41) But the very next sentence dismisses the possibility: "And then the double-take: I am the backup. Somewhere a different version of me has died." Only when he realizes that his ordinary cloth leggings (which should have been copied) are gone does he suspect: "I've been well and truly hacked." The narrator then compulsively showers, riffing on the "ugly crime" of identity theft. After the shower, though, when he reads a message labeled READ ME NOW from the directors of the so-called "experimental polity project," he decides it's more likely he consented than that he has been hacked. He then oscillates between "weak-kneed relief that I'm not a victim of identity theft and apprehension at the magnitude of what I've signed up for."(p. 43)
The narrator apparently has enough faith in the system to conclude that he did consent. In the face of losing all his civil rights, losing access to his net-link (which one might think would traumatize him far more than the possession of a female anatomy), and feeling panicked by the contract he apparently signed: still he thinks it less likely that he was hacked than that he—meaning another copy of himself—did consent, even if this particular copy of himself is an unwitting and reluctant party to the arrangement. Imagine a fifty-year old person making a decision for their thirty-year old self and imposing it retroactively from the future: that would certainly give a new meaning to the concept of consent. In our actual, pre-Accelerated world, one's older self is constrained by choices made by their younger self, rather than the reverse. In this case, we don't know how much older the post-backup Robin was when he imposed consent on the copy of himself made when he was (hours? days? weeks?) younger. But the principle is the same: the privilege of being able to make copies of oneself at will comes entangled with the obligation to be retroactively legally bound by everything and anything that one's copies agree to, including the forfeiture of all of one's civil rights. The post-human individual, then, can be spread over multiple, often non-communicating independent sites that nevertheless constitute a single identity and whose acts are mutually binding.
What, the reader must wonder, could possibly induce any post-human to sign away their privileges and rights for three years and agree to accept any body and social regime that might be imposed on them? In Robin's case, he initially assumes he agreed to the arrangement because he believed someone was trying to kill him (presumably because he's a historian) and being locked up has a chance of bringing him personal safety. But what about the other participants? How can the reader account for their willingness to subject themselves to the regime? Or, only a few pages later, for their eager compliance and collaboration with a regime of oppression and fear that inevitably leads to frenzied mob killings and other cruelties? The narrator seems to find his fellow subjects perfectly explicable. "Satisfactory remuneration" with bonus points reinforcing desired "behavior," he believes, is the reason the participants are either enthusiastic collaborators or tepid conformists.
Say what? Since all the material needs and desires of post-humans can be supplied by the ubiquitous A-gates, what difference can "credit" make to them? From time to time the narrator recalls the "30,000 ecus" he has stashed away: and each time he mentions this I'm baffled. We never see the narrator (or anyone else) paying for anything in the Invisible Republic—not for having a new copy of his self made when the old one gets killed in a sword fight, not for eating dinner out, not for seeing his therapist, not when "buying" drinks. The narrator never once offers us a sign that food, drink, recreational drugs, clothing, "privacy bowers," rehab apartments, therapy, or even medical repairs or replacements cost money. (Or points. Or "credit.") And so I assumed that the expression "I'm buying" was meant to signify for the reader a centuries' old anachronism that for some unknown reason happened to hang on in the language, just as the narrator's use of the expression "a warning bell went off in my head" that I first took for a literal description (this being science fiction) was intended to signify an archaic metaphor still kicking around in a world without such things as "warning bells." Still, I waited for the narrative to give me a clear signal, just in case I'd gotten it wrong. So when in a discussion of the supposed experiment Robin's therapist notes, "They run a money system and provide work, so you have to work and pay for what you consume; it's intended to emulate a pre-Acceleration scarcity economy,"(32) this confirmed my assumption that "I'm buying" was not to be taken literally. The implication of such a discursive comparison is that in the ordinary world of the Invisible Republic, there is neither a money system nor a scarcity economy, since the imposition of such things in the "experiment" would not have been mentioned if there were. And yet, references to money abound. On p.3: "a failed business transaction"; on p.4: "the penny drops"; on p.5: "I'm buying"; on p.16: "hard sell"; on p.17: "informational economics"; on p.18: "paid handsomely" and "credit"; and so on.
Ideally, the reader should be able to grasp the significance of these usages within the context of the novel's world-building: that's how science fiction narrative is supposed to work. But this narrative sends us mixed messages: on the one hand, money doesn't matter; on the other hand, money matters so tremendously that people are willing to collaborate in persecuting and even killing their fellow inmates in the hope they will be rewarded with money bonuses sometime in the future. So which is it? Can the narrator's possession of 30,000 ecus (a sum that remains a cipher throughout) be balanced against our never seeing him (or anyone else) pay for anything while the story is set in the Invisible Republic, especially given that after he's entered the game, which has a fake money-economy and pretend jobs, the narrator frequently mentions paying, buying, and purchasing goods and services as he never did before he entered the game?
This is not an academic question. Repeatedly, we see characters submitting to repression simply because they are worried about their "scores"—about how much "bonus money" (clearly distinguished from the Monopoly-like money the characters use to play the game, since the polity lacks a real economy) they can rack up in the next three years. And when Robin (now called "Reeve") discusses the need for collective resistance with Sam, the latter says, "It all depends on how they balance the relative convenience of making other people uncomfortable against their own future wealth." What, the reader needs to know, constitutes wealth for these characters? Presumably not access to the A-gates, since all of the players already had that before entering the game. Because of the ubiquity of access to A-gates in the world outside the game, I just could not believe that the characters were motivated by greed. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the great revelation about what the other participants were really up to, "whoring after points"—or even a hint at what "wealth" could possibly mean in a world of assured good health and unlimited access to material goods and physical mobility and no need, ever, to work. But the shoe, alas, never did drop.
The novel also has problems figuring not only what Stross indicates he believes to be gender-switching but also a clear picture of how gender is constructed in the narrator's world, which only compounds the reader's difficulties in making sense of the behavior and motives of the novel's characters. (What other reason could Stross possibly have for naming one of the Glasshouse's inmates "Alice Sheldon," a name that means nothing to the characters, except to nudge and wink at the reader?) Consider Robin/Reeve's first interaction with other new inmates after waking in the Glasshouse. Reeve enters a room and finds nine other inmates, five with physiologically male bodies, and four with the female physiology that has been imposed on him, also. The male bodies are dressed in one style, the female bodies in another. All they know about the game they've been thrust into is the farrago of nonsense they are told about "the Dark Age," viz., "Euroamerican" culture—as though such a homogeneous culture has ever existed—from 1950—2040, with an emphasis on the decades before 1980. (Curiously, although Robin is a historian, he never evinces any concern with the inaccuracies of the "simulation" [mixing, for instance, "Fair Trade beans"(p.80) with a supposed prohibition on women wearing non-high-heeled shoes or pants with pockets], inaccuracies that immediately call into question the cover-story that the inmates are participating in an "archeological" experiment.) After listening to a lecture about the rules of the game (the "simulated" society, as the "researchers" call it), the inmates attend a reception. At once, without instruction, all but one of them separates into gender-segregated groups. Why? Is this what people in the world outside the Glasshouse do when they are thrown together with strangers? It's not what I've ever seen adult strangers in the US do. (Children and adolescents, of course, are another matter. But although Robin's cohort of inmates displays the moral sense of children, they otherwise behave like cowed, conformist adults.) Since such behavior isn't hard-wired into humans (nor presumably into post-humans) and because Stross doesn't provide a baseline sense of gendered behavior and values in the world outside the Glasshouse, the reader has no frame of reference for understanding this odd behavior. And in any case, because we know that at least one of the people in the room—our narrator—has only been physiologically female for an hour or so and thus cannot have any consciousness of being gendered female, the plausibility of such unprompted, collective behavior is strained even further. It is at this point of the novel that my ability to suspend disbelief was seriously challenged.
But I'm a resourceful reader who wants, more than anything, to make the fiction I'm reading work. So I decided that perhaps Stross was playing a deep game, that perhaps all ten newbie inmates had been indoctrinated in such behavior before waking in the Glasshouse. And when, a few paragraphs into the scene, Jen—the bosses' perfect tool—plays the role of the ambitious woman-on-the-make (straight out of a Hollywood production), I felt certain of it. But as Reeve's resistance grew, the assumption could not hold, though I did continue (mistakenly) to assume that Jen was a ringer, largely because she has access to a drug from outside the Glasshouse.
I also found it hard to understand why the male inmates, at least some of whom are presumably unused to high levels of androgens in their blood, evince none of the behavior one would expect of men in a new, uncharted situation—establishment of the alpha In the group, for instance, or sexual display. Significantly, the most aggressive person in the cohort is Jen, whom we can guess was previously male and whose previous gender-conditioning seems to make up for a sudden loss of testosterone. Gender, as we know, is hinged to sex but neither identical to nor inevitably determined by it. Gendered behavior is often a mix of training and biology, though it seems likely that much of it is produced through constant, largely unconscious performance that is self-reinforcing. Many women cry when they are angry, rather than confront the object of their anger. Is this behavior hard-wired into females? It seems doubtful, since females are trained from early childhood that it's unacceptable to show anger. But until the biochemistry of sex differences is more thoroughly elucidated, the answer can only be a matter of opinion (however well-informed).
Above all, gender is a system for making meaning. As Sherryl Vint notes, "Simply creating a world in which the gender or sexual orientation of a body can easily be changed is not sufficient to dismantle the authority of gender as a category of social discrimination." Although in the world of the Invisible Republic individuals may switch sex at will with no muss, no fuss, gender still means something to the narrator (though since the novel's socio-cultural world-building is such a muddle, it's impossible to say what).
In the case depicted in this novel, at least two individuals wake up to find they've been saddled with bodies of the opposite sex. Yes, opposite: for in Glasshouse, people apparently come in only two, clearly-distinguished sexes, or else in no sex at all. (But who can be surprised by that, given that people bored with the same-old, same-old choose to manifest in archaic forms like unicorns and those full of adolescent rage as they recover from memory excision engage in deadly sword-fights? Originality is apparently not a strong suit of post-humans.) One's consciousness of gender doesn't change when one's sex changes abruptly, without either desire or preparation; one simply continues to make meaning as before—until the unconscious assumptions determining that meaning are challenged. I assume that explains why when "Reeve" and "Sam" pair up as allies (and not because they feel sexual attraction), Reeve continually displays typically masculine behavior and "Sam" typically feminine behavior. Reeve, for instance, reacts with flagrant, edge-pushing defiance to dress prescriptions, which Sam nervously tries to restrain. Yes, as Reeve, Robin experiences a flood of hormonal emotions and has to have a good cry (though the hard-wired "nesting" instinct curiously passes Reeve by). But almost immediately he sets out to make the body as strong and hard as he can, in order to recuperate, as best he can, the privileges of the male body. Whatever female identity means to Robin and his culture never comes clear.
Note, I refer to Reeve as "he," not "she." Not once was I able to think of Reeve as "she"—even when Reeve is menstruating. And because an unconscious sense of gender is acquired through socialization and not through dictatorial fiat or a lightning switch in sex, my continuing perception of Reeve as male and Sam as female struck me as apt. Presumably it's no accident that "Reeve" is not a particularly feminine name and "Sam" could as easily refer to "Samantha" as to "Samuel." What did not strike me as apt, however, was the inexplicably (archaic) gender-coded behavior attributed to the other characters, or their willing helplessness in allowing the beating, rape, and torture of a woman by the man she is paired with, or the author's (probably) unconscious default to the stereotypes and norms of his own (rather than his characters') culture, or the apparent cultural homogeneity of people who have lived in different times and places (thus giving us the impression that post-humans transcend difference—besides all speaking the same language).
Why is it that the man who beats, rapes, and tortures the woman he's paired with has been put into a working-class body and given a working-class job and has a working-class mentality? Where, in the Invisible Republic, would a twentieth-century beer-drinking construction worker even fit? Surely the fellow (or gal), on waking in his new body, didn't suddenly become the stereotype for the lower-class drunk who breaks his wife's jaw and keeps her chained to the bed? Or are we to believe that the propensity to beat and rape women is a genetic disease that manifests only in lower-class men (though there seem to be no class cues in the Invisible Republic)? An unconscious default to stereotypes is the SF writer's worst enemy. It wreaks havoc with socio-cultural world-building and makes readers like me grumpy as hell.
And why does a narrative unfolding in a world where group sex and group marriages are commonplace work so hard (if covertly) to assert the primacy of the heterosexual pair-bond? The narrative embraces the logic of destiny when it neatly arranges for Robin and Kay not only to be paired but also to each have their sexes reversed. (How much more interesting a story it would have been, had only one of them had their sex changed...). Like stereotypes, norms from the author's world projected onto a fictional world that supposedly embodies different norms undermines SFnal world-building. In both cases, the stereotypes and norms from our world show up as archaic and implausible in a world supposedly richer in alternatives.
The physical world-building of Glasshouse—that is something else. Reeve's speculations about the physical construction of the Glasshouse and later his explorations of its dimensions were my favorite moments in the novel. In Stross's deft hands, "T-gates" are great fun, and I'm sure that if they existed in real life, we'd all be wearing shirts made of them, too. I only wish the rest of his world-building had matched the ingenuity of his physical structures (and that he'd omitted most of the flash-backs, which were clumsy and unnecessary).
I want to conclude by noting that the very narrative structure of Glasshouse induced me to read it as a Gedanken experiment. For Glasshouse implicitly poses the question of whether, in Stross's portrayal of "Accelerated" humanity, post-humans are inherently superior—evolutionarily fitter—than pre-Accelerated humans. That is, are differences between humans and post-humans merely those of privilege? And do the privileges of Acceleration make post-humans more fit for survival when said privileges are stripped from them and they are placed in unfamiliar and perhaps even life-threatening circumstances? Or less fit?
When I first realized that the narrative implied these questions, I had to wonder if in attending to them I might not be reading more into the novel than was actually there. But the ironic distance that Stross imposes between the narrator and the reader allows the reader to understand nearly at the outset of the narrator's internment what it takes the narrator most of the book to grok, and reinforced my sense of watching an experiment in progress. By the time I'd finished reading the book, the style of the narrative had settled the matter for me. Although the narrative is in the first-person, the author nevertheless speaks directly to the reader—over the narrator's head, so to speak—when he puts lines like "Welcome to the Village"(p.79) into the mouth of a character and then has his narrator describe a setting that might almost have been lifted whole from the Patrick McGoohan show, The Prisoner. The characters—including the narrator—don't know the show, any more than they know why the "Curious Yellow" virus has that particular name, what "Fair Trade" coffee beans are, or that Leonard Cohen's "First We Take Manhattan" is not a hymn of the Church of the Nazarene.
It is this delight in loading Glasshouse with in-jokes that mean nothing to his characters that creates an ironic distance between the narrator and the reader. Who, after all, can resist in-jokes? I laughed out loud when I read "Welcome to the Village"—likely because the set-up of the Glasshouse reminded me of the fake village in The Prisoner from the moment the narrator woke up (which may have something to do with why readers are likely to be so far ahead of the narrator) and because that scene assured me that I hadn't imagined the resemblance.
The answer to the first question—are differences between humans and post-humans merely those of privilege?—is Yes. The author's underlying assumption seems to be that great technological change will not significantly alter human psychology or "human nature." Technology will make war more vicious and terrible, not eliminate it; and even with the magic of A-gates available in every apartment and bar, people will still be greedy for money. As far as Stross's post-humans being more or less fit than humans: on being immersed as participants in a game with arbitrary, authoritarian "rules," Stross's post-humans behave pretty much the way real-world children and adolescents have been known to behave in classroom simulations designed to teach them how abusive situationally absolute power becomes. Although the narrator (and most of the participants) have decades (if not centuries) of experience of every sort of political abuse one could imagine under their belts, for weeks he and his allies behave like naïve, helpless children, unable to imagine opposing a regime of illogic whose sole carrot is the vague promise—for those who play the game like obedient little children—of some unspecified "money bonus." The one ingenious thing that the narrator's privileges allow him to do is figure out the spatial construction of the Glasshouse. Is there a lesson in this? Are we perhaps supposed to conclude that privileges make people weak? That's a lesson I wouldn't buy, myself. Privileges usually create a sense of entitlement, so that their loss typically provokes rage and the urge to fight tooth and nail to get them back. Frankly, I chafed when the narrator wasn't, on waking, as smart and resourceful as McGoohan's Prisoner.
My frustration with the narrator's slowness of wit leads back to the central triangle of the novel: the relations obtaining among the narrator, the reader, and the author. The novel puts the narrator under glass for the reader to observe; although the narrator continually explains the physical aspects of his world to the reader (via the classic hard-SF info-dumps, in which the speaker explains what no one living in their fictional world would need to be told), he also continually makes unwitting allusions that expose the fact that he knows less than the reader and author do (about Alice Sheldon, Fair Trade coffee beans, the Linebarger Cats, Curious Yellow Virus, "First We Take Manhattan," "Welcome to the Village," and so on), allusions that constitute in-jokes shared by the author with his readers at this expense of the narrator. The effect of such irony would have been a good deal more subtle had the novel been written in the third-person. But because it is written in the first-person, the author seems to be saying to the reader, you and I both know we're smart; if we were in those post-humans' shoes, we wouldn't take most of the book to figure out what the villains were really up to. Of course Stross doesn't say this: but it's the attitude informing the novel's narrative structure.
Not all readers will object to Glasshouse's inadequate socio-cultural world-building or its in-jokes shared by the author and the reader at the narrator's expense. The novel's physical world-building is fun, and for those looking for that kind of fun, Glasshouse will be a pleasure to read. But for those who want a narrative with a well thought-out world exploring interesting questions about gender-socialization, identity, and memory, Glasshouse will be a frustrating read occasionally relieved by the momentary play of ingenious SFnal devices.