Hugo Review: Glasshouse

April 18th, 2007

The second in my series of Hugo nominated book reviews for this year, Glasshouse, by Charles Stross

Robin doesn’t know a lot about his past. That’s partly because he just had a lot of it erased, and partly because of the Curious Yellow virus that had infected the teleport gates and wiped a lot of memories from everyone. Now he’s in the Glasshouse, an experiment aimed at understanding the ancient history of the old dark ages, 1950-2050. But all is not what it seems – for a start, someone is trying to kill him. And now some of his memories are starting to come back.

This is a very strong novel. The ‘science fiction’ elements mainly take a back seat, and tend to not drive the plot particularly. In fact, you could probably transpose a very large part of the story into a contemporary setting (absent a MacGuffin or two) fairly easily. What you couldn’t do is transpose what was (for me) the most fascinating part of the book, the treatment of the mid-20th century society from a far future perspective. There have been a few versions of this in different stories over the years (Heinlein for instance), but normally in the context of time travel. It’s interesting to see a take on what elements of society might be thought of as normal, which will be misunderstood, and which will be understood but abhored.

The main character is a strong, interesting and well rounded person, and Stross paints their motivations and development well. There’s one section in particular (which I won’t spoil for those who want to read this) where the strength of this characterisation actually becomes an important point in understanding the novel.

However, the main character is fairly isolated for the majority of the novel, and this means that the secondary characters are not as well developed. The motivations of the villains, in particular, are never well explored.

One note that worked well for me, but I suspect may disappoint others, is the number of dangling plot threads. A few different things are hinted at in the background of the story as being important, but some of these never really go anywhere. There is a deeper mystery hinted at in the novel that is not really addressed, let alone solved, in the course of the story. For me, this added to the richness of the world-building, but your mileage may vary.

Immediately after I put this novel down I had thought it was a very strong contender for the Hugo, but after thinking about it for 24 hours or so I’m not as sure – while it’s strong and interesting, it’s a bit light in the philosophical issues that seem to help a lot in winning the Hugo. It would certainly be a worthy winner, and a lot depends on the other three novels yet to be read.