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Jack Glass
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 373 pages

Jack Glass
Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is in the English Department of Royal Holloway, one of the 8 larger colleges of the University of London. He received his MA from Aberdeen University and his PhD from Cambridge University. Salt was his first science fiction novel.

Adam Roberts Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Anticopernicus
SF Site Review: Yellow Blue Tibia
SF Site Review: Swiftly
SF Site Review: Land Of The Headless
SF Site Review: Splinter
SF Site Review: Splinter
SF Site Review: Gradisil
SF Site Review: The Snow
SF Site Review: The Sellamillion
SF Site Review: The Soddit
SF Site Review: Swiftly
SF Site Review: Stone and Polystom
SF Site Review: Jupiter Magnified
SF Site Review: Stone
SF Site Review: The New Critical Idiom: Science Fiction
SF Site Review: Park Polar
SF Site Review: On
SF Site Review: Salt

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Adam Roberts explains in afterword to Jack Glass that, "The impulse for this novel was a desire to collide together some of the conventions of the 'Golden Age' science fiction and 'Golden Age' detective fiction, with an emphasis more on the latter than the former." While perhaps odd that he doesn't mention Isaac Asimov, who was doing precisely this during the actual Golden Age, Roberts does succeed at the task he sets for himself which is both complement and criticism.

While ostensibly a novel, it reads more like three connected novellas, with their own distinct mysteries and tone of voice that are linked to, (or "docwatsoned," to use the enigmatic narrator's great invented term) "the greatest mystery of our time…FTL." Roberts is, of course, poking fun at the Golden Age SF staple of faster than light travel, which despite being theoretically impossible is nonetheless fictionally imperative to most any space opera. Some of the smaller puzzle pieces are easy to guess, some you can't possibly anticipate. If Golden Age detective fiction provided hints, however misleading, about a solution, Roberts has little use for such tradition. It does, however, make for a more shocking "reveal."

Such is the situation with the opening tale, "In the Box." Convict Jac (no mystery as to who he might be), is sentenced to an eleven year sentence to the interior of a frozen asteroid. The expectation is that he and his fellow inmates will either manage to survive, in which case the corporate prison overlords has a terraformed property to market, or they won't, in which case no one will miss them and there's no investment loss. Despite their psychopathic tendencies, the jailbirds make successful progress towards self-preservation. However, the legless (not an impediment in a near weightless environment, but the reason for this won't be clear until much later) Jac needs to escape. Not just because he is low man on a brutal totem pole, but because he fears his captors might discover who he really is and come back for him (who he really is being one of the multiple mysteries). This requires some out-of-the-box thinking that is particularly gruesome, with anti-hero self-justification that is more Dexter than Dashiell.

Suddenly we shift from the harsh Darwinism of the prison yard to an adolescent adventure yarn in the next, and longest story, "The FTL Murder," which substitutes a precocious and spoiled Nancy Drew whodunit for sodomy and sadism among criminals. "A month before she turned sixteen, Diana got involved in a real life murder mystery. It was... was... was too exciting." Talk about a shift in perspective!

Vacationing with her ruling aristocratic family and tutor Iago (ominous symbolism there) on Earth (where it is so inconvenient to have to get used to living with gravity again, particularly for the less than disciplined Diana), the mystery here is how a household servant could have been killed, and, moreover, why anyone would want to kill him (don't even try to guess), though the legendary Jack Glass serves as a kind of round up the usual suspect bogeyman. There's also a bit of sibling rivalry going on between Diana and her more accomplished sister, Eva. And some kind of power play among Diana's family and other ruling families, the reason for which leads to a possible solution to Fermi's paradox and flight by Diana and Iago.

All is explained in the concluding story, "The Impossible Gun," including the true identity of Jack Glass (remember, this is supposed to be about a character who seemingly disappears less than a third of the way through, though you've probably already guessed long before the denouement that he's in clear sight all along), his motivations for murder and why basically he isn't such a bad guy after all.

This is all very clever and in keeping with Golden Age conventions (such as trying to sound smart by throwing in classic literary references such as the aforementioned wink to Shakespeare which, if you really think about it, doesn't quite work) that is simultaneously its major flaw. If you have affection for a period in SF literature characterized by scientific-sounding preposterous notions mixed with social criticism in which one dimensional characters resolve plot points through various deus ex machinas, then you'll smile throughout out this. If you don't, then you may not get the joke, or care to.

Copyright © 2013 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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