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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review: Glasshouse

I'm a long time Singularity Skeptic, but I have no problems with the singularity as a science fiction concept. It's just that only Charles Stross and Greg Egan have had the guts and imagination to actually postulate and follow through on creating a world where nano-assemblers, unlimited storage and intelligence augmentation can happen, and create a compelling story out of it that is more than just a paean to the gods of Moore's Law.

In his latest novel, Charles Stross postulates a world where nano-assemblers have been perfected, along with the editing of human bodies and memories, as well as FTL-travel through gates. What is the biggest threat to such a civilization? It's energy sources are limitless, as are its ability to churn out material goods. Being a computer scientist itself, Stross postulates a virus/worm, one that insinuates itself using human beings as a vector, and exploits the very operating system behind the civilization.

The story revolves around Robin, a man who wakes up from his latest memory surgery (if you're going to live several thousand years, you're going to have to toss out memories once in a while) with surprisingly little recollection of who he is, except for a note to himself that he wrote (a suspiciously archaic medium for transmission of information). While in his recovery state, he meets an attractive woman named Kay, who sells him on the idea of joining an experiment, one purportedly designed to explore the history of the pre-Singularity civilization.

That civilization, of course, is North American suburbia during the 1990s, and Robin wakes up to find himself in a woman's body, subject to the suffocating rules thought up by those running the experiment in an attempt to simulate the social norms of the 1950s... Or so the reader thinks. As the plot unravels in a series of memory-recovery flashbacks and Robin/Reeve's investigation of her new-found milleu, we discover that the experiment is not what it seems, and Reeve herself is not just an unreliable narrator, but apparently has motives that are not quite revealed to even herself.

The book has several twists and turns, including an ending that's quite a bang, though perhaps the ending is just a bit too Hollywood for my taste.

This book has done something no other book has in recent years: it kept me up well past my bed-time reading. The book starts slow at first, but by the middle chapters Stross hits his stride: the pacing is perfect, the characters believable, and the narration hones to perfection. Charles Stross is definitely at the peak of his craft here, unlike many of his other recent novels. Perhaps the book I can think of most similar to this is Joe Haldeman's All My Sins Remembered, which if you've read that book, is extremely high praise indeed.

Highly recommended, and excellent airplane reading. Just don't expect to be able to put it down once you get going.

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