From its first pages, Glasshouse is a novel that flirts with disaster. Author Charles Stross is quick to embrace the proud science fiction tradition of using a dreamed-of future to critique contemporary culture. It's a time-worn formula, and one that's frankly played out, but Stross is highly aware of his genre. For every trope, there is an inversion. For every pitfall, there is a point to be made by skirting the edge. Glasshouse is part tightly-written techno thriller and part wholly human cultural critique, unafraid to ask big questions and take unexpected twists.
At first glance, Glasshouse seems like a straightforward instance of science fiction as parable. Set in a far future, post-scarcity society (which possibly links it to Stross's earlier novel Accelerando), Glasshouse plays fast and loose with the ideas of gender, humanity, and identity. Tired of being male? Weary of being a biped? Step into a booth, back up your memories, reassemble yourself on the molecular level, and enjoy your new life … at least until the novelty wears off.
Robin, the protagonist, is an ex-military man constantly on the run from his disgraceful past. As part of his unit, Robin was responsible for unspeakable war crimes, and in his latest effort to forget his past, he literally sealed away his memory at the novel's beginning. Next, Robin plans to run and hide, enrolling in an isolated social experiment aiming to recreate an early 21st century society. Robin will be assigned a new identity, including a random gender and societal role to play out.
Already, Glasshouse is dancing with danger. Playing the amnesia card to start the narrative and then introducing a setting seemingly engineered by the author as a critique of contemporary society is a combination that could easily run afoul. Instead, Stross steers the plot and stokes the intrigue with a deft hand. Glasshouse tempers its social commentary with the rapid pulse of a thriller, unfolding itself by degrees. In a setting punctuated by plot points about memory-deleting computer worms and omnipresent wormhole technology, the book balances intrigue with a character development-driven exploration of contemporary life that's alternately amusing and jarring.
Participants in the experiment have no small difficulty adjusting to a 21st century existence. Everyday rituals, so familiar to us—socializing at a coffee shop, purchasing and preparing food, monogamy—are each put under the microscope in turn. As the plot proceeds, the experiment progresses from uncomfortable to slightly sinister. Nothing inside the experiment is what it seems, and while the walls may hide the 27th century universe beyond, they cannot completely keep it away.
Real-world psychology serves as a major influence on the ideas behind Glasshouse, particularly on the experiment that gives the book its name. Of those real world influences, nothing looms larger than the infamous Stanford prison experiment. While that study ended in disaster, the questions it raises about power dynamics come to life in new ways in Glasshouse. The complex interplay of gender roles in 21st century society with the participants' 27th century moralities and mindsets creates unpredictable results. Part of the fun—or discomfort—comes from seeing our familiar, yet forgotten present assert itself over everyone, nature dominating nurture until the entire system reaches a breaking point.
What makes Glasshouse work is that Stross tackles big ideas about modern-day culture and society, but he is every bit as relentless in making his characters address themes of identity, memory, trust, and forgiveness. Robin must ultimately discover what kind of person he is, his true self laid bare by the experiment's confines. He must come to grips with what he has forgotten and put his past to rest in the novel's bizarre, brilliant finale. Even as the narrative veers from an almost unrecognizable future to a grotesque parody of the present and back again, the real, unmistakably human drama at the core of Glasshouse draws the reader in.