Glasshouse by Charles Stross, reviewed by Mike Phelps

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Glasshouse by Charles Stross

Reviewed by Mike Phelps

What makes us who we are? This is a question asked many science fiction authors. Charles Stross asks this question in his 2006 novel Glasshouse, a book full of questions. Are our memories the key to us? What if they are lost or taken? Do our body, our sex or our personality make us who we are? Stross explores these questions with characters living in an artificial habitat in space. Although it is sold to them as an archeological experiment, some of the subjects learn the “experiment” has a much darker purpose.

Stross does an impressive job of world building. Not with fantastic alien cultures like the ones created by Frank Herbert in his Dune Saga. Stross accomplishes his task with atmosphere heavy on tension and distrust in a far future where wormholes have been harnessed, people can choose alien bodies and your memories can be wiped. Much of the story takes place inside the isolated habitat where participants are expected and conditioned to live roughly as mid-twentieth century Americans. Stross takes the opportunity to unkindly critique the lifestyles and mores of these barbarians from a “dark age” who ate pizza, practiced religion and believed that killing the unborn was wrong. Another issue is the pop culture references made by the main character. He uses expressions from the “dark ages” like “resistance is futile” and “let’s roll.” Perhaps the reader to believe that this character, who has led many lives, lived during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, doesn’t remember it, but retained the references? None of this is explored in the book. The social commentary and popular culture references are the weakest parts of Glasshouse, but they are by now means fatal to this engaging thriller.
In the end the characters are able to decide their own fates. They can change their names, their bodies and their memories so when everything is said and done what are they? What about DNA, childhood and other experiences? How much do memories and experiences shape our personality even if the memories are wiped away? The characters never talk explicitly about the existence of the soul, but they all seem to have abandoned faith as a relic of the “dark ages.” What then? Believers think the soul makes one everlasting and unique, but if there’s no soul and no memories of who you used to be then what? The answer in Glasshouse seems to be the ability to reinvent themselves over and over. This would either be a form of practical immortality or its own kind of hell.

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