Monday, 13 April 2015

Glasshouse by Charles Stross

I have had such a complicated relationships with Charles Stross books, in that I have often wanted to like them more than I actually have. A few of his most out-there post-human Singularity books I have enjoyed, while understanding very little of them. The Atrocity Archives was the first book of his that I enjoyed, start to finish.

And now there's Glasshouse. This one, my friends, this one is both post-human and entirely understandable. Plus, it's creepy as fuck, and packs in a lot of present-day and recent-past gender politics in ways that made it actively uncomfortable to read, in the very best possible way. It's strange to say that that's a compliment, but it is. He manages to break down mid-to-late 20th century sexist attitudes without ever glorifying them or having any wistful nostalgia. It's disturbing, but also deeply satisfying, that Stross nailed them so elegantly.

Robin, the main character, in a male body (designated ortho male, which means no elaborate modifications to the basic structure of the human body), has just come out of a memory erasure, so he's not too sure who he used to be. He starts a relationship that is immediately more serious than it should be, just before he gets recruited into a giant psychology experiment, billed as a way to recover attitudes from the late 20th century.

Human settlement, however, is recovering from a war that no one quite remembers all of - someone infected the A-gates with a virus that systematically eradicated certain thoughts as people were reconstructed by them. (If I understand correctly, T-gates move things from place to place, A-gates reconstruct things on a molecular level.) Including who started the war. Robin, he eventually discovers, was part of the resistance that eventually broke humanity free from this memory scourge.  (or should I say she? On the experimental world, he's in an ortho female body. It's confusing, it should be, and I was delighted.)

The idea of thoughts that can't be thought, and brain viruses, creepy enough, right? Just wait. The experimental world tries to replicate 1950s gender norms, and Stross is inexorable in cataloguing them, as well as the insidious ways in which they are self-regulated and spread. There are artificial ways of promoting them in the experimental society, but he also draws attention to the ways in which these resemble the ways in which patriarchy has been so pernicious a social construct, and upheld by both men and women.

The longer Robin goes in the experiment, the more of his previous memories he recovers, and the more the new place he is seems very, very wrong. Including some returns to the worst forms of human violent expression. It's a difficult book, and the subject matter is not glossed over. Again, it was uncomfortable to read, but in a good way. This is the sort of thing that should be faced head on, in all its ugliness. To try to pretend that it doesn't exist is, well, then you end up with something like Cherie Priest's books that insist her alt-Civil War isn't about race.

More than that, I understood the whole damn book. I didn't flounder like I did in Accelerando or Singularity Sky. Maybe I'm getting used to his style, maybe he's finding ways to make his prose more accessible, but either way, I like this book a ton.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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