In the 27th century life is very different – copied alien wormhole technology has allowed humanity to spread through the galaxy, allowing the creation of polities, somewhat akin to modern nation states. Robin’s in rehab, recovering from memory excision – he senses that he chose to erase painful memories from decades of war, and suspects that he’s at risk of assassination, though he doesn’t know why or who would want him dead. His only refuge seems to be participating in a research project attempting to recreate an almost forgotten period, the Dark Ages at the turn of the millennium. But once Robin awakes in the program polity he (now a woman named Reeve) suspects that the researchers running the program have a sinister agenda. Though Reeve tries to question the experiment and the dangers of this recreated life, she quickly discovers doing so is highly risky – the subjects are potentially under constant surveillance, and Reeve has no way of knowing who to trust.
Stross has created an integrated and cohesive history for his universe, details of which are thinly spread throughout the novel, so that the reader constructs a (not always reliable) picture of events through the reading. Much of the novel’s world building incorporates new imagined technologies (like transport and assembly gates), the aftermath of decades of cyber wars that included viruses, worms and radical censorship that erased the vast bulk of historical records and even memories of why the wars started in the first place.
I was less interested in this aspect, comprehensive and intricate as it is, than in the personal story of Reeve, though it is of course tied in with the larger narrative. The experiment opens with twenty ten-person cohorts, divided into male-female pairs who have separate homes and whose lives are designed to replicate late twentieth century (western) mores, including a strong emphasis on peer pressure and conformity, reinforced by compulsory weekly church meetings where points are awarded or deducted from pairs according to their performance and behavior over the previous week, with an emphasis on staying in character – points affect the group as a whole, reinforcing social pressure to behave appropriately.
It was this aspect of Glasshouse, which reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale and other novels set in totalitarian regimes, that most interested me, as Reeve explores the tension between conformity and her worries about the ideology of the experimenters. As the consequences for ‘inappropriate’ behaviour ratchet up and the stakes become higher, Reeves also begins to have flashbacks to her life as Robin.
Glasshouse is complicated, intricate, and I’m sure I missed much of the import of the novel, but I enjoyed what I understood. I haven’t checked but I feel certain Stross has set other novels in this universe, and the world building is so complex and developed that it would be wasted on just one excursion. And, when I work myself up for it, have a clear mind and time to take it slowly, I’ll search for them, but for now I need something a little more accessible. – Alex