Novel Review: Glasshouse

It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.
– Sally Kempton

The prolific Charles Stross‘s work includes groundbreaking SF, the Lovecraftian Attrocity Archives, a fantasy trilogy, and a good deal of shorter fiction and non-fiction.

Glasshouse connects to his Hugo-nominated Accelerando in somewhat the same fashion…

…that Iron Sunrise does to Singularity Sky. The earlier novel runs wildly with brilliant ideas as it establishes a possible future. The follow-up takes that future as the setting for a somewhat more conventional story. Whereas Iron Sunrise seemed a small step down from Singularity Sky, Glasshouse is one of Stross’s best to date– and has also garnered a Hugo nomination.

Title: Glasshouse

Author: Charles Stross

ISBN: 0-441-01403-8

Available from and


Seven-hundred years from now, post-singularity human society has fragmented, largely due to the Censorship Wars. Humans can remake their bodies, back up their minds, and duplicate themselves endlessly. However, a techno-virus called Curious Yellow has been unleashed, erasing select portions of human memory and attacking historians, in particular.

A former battalion, Robin/Reeve finds him/herself hiding in an experiment to recreate the Dark Ages before the singularity, the period from 1950-2040. Once there, our protagonist suspects the experiment has another, chilling purpose.

High Point:

The experiment, a voluntary Matrix, brilliantly satirizes our society. The experimenters make (often hilarious) mistakes, but their version of our world is satirically perfect. Within days, we’re experiencing gender-stereotyped behavior (regardless of the subjects’ original sexes). Within weeks, we have the first incident of domestic violence. The experimental society takes turns amusing, depressing and brutal, and Robin/Reeve finally concludes that the experimenters are either “trying to generate a psychotic polity, or the people in the society they derived” the model from “were off their heads”(197). Many inhabitants of that society will find themselves nodding in agreement.

Low Point:

I wish Mick had not been so entirely deranged. Had he been a more typical violent individual, certain actions that followed would have had some interesting moral ambiguity, and the satiric point would have been cleaner.

Stross’s innovative novel becomes a predictable thriller in the final chapter, a little too pat and clichéd. True, the ending provides a certain satisfaction, but it’s not on the same level as the rest of the book.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6. The book features some highly original uses of material familiar to SF readers. Many writers address technology, computers, and the possibility of duplicating consciousness. Few understand these matters as does Stross.

Imagery: 6/6.

Story: 6/6 We have a far-future techo-thriller, an SF mystery, and a satire, blended into a coherent whole.

Characterization: 5/6. The central character has been handled deftly. Stross understands how multiple identities work, and his fanciful far-future technology reflects on the current interface between humanity and our computers and on human behavior generally. The social controls in the glasshouse recall actual societies as much as they do the artificial environments of games and Reality TV. For example, the section where our narrator begins to accept the glasshouse society should be considered. Granted, her brain has been tampered with, but she nevertheless does recall circumstances from the reader’s life.

The villains have few dimensions. The book would have been better if even the incidental complexity attached to Dr. Hanta had extended to some of the other antagonists.

Emotional Response: 5/6.

Editing: 5/6. Stross writes well. In places, his dialogue does not quite ring true. The response by his readers to his frequent nerd in-jokes will vary.

Overall score: 5/6 The book entertains and never forgets that the demands of the story should take primacy. At the same time, Glasshouse distills many ideas worth discussing. In addition to thoughts on identity and society, Glasshouse has other thematic concerns. One of the book’s epigrams quotes Adolf Hitler, who asked in 1939, “Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?” If one understands that quotation in the context of history, one understands why history matters– and gleans why this novel’s Black Hats want so desperately to erase it.

In total, Glasshouse receives out of 37/42

Glasshouse has been nominated for a 2007 Hugo Award.