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Brilliant, precision-cut Glass
on 19 October 2015
The sub-title on the beautifully-designed cover says ‘The story of a murderer’, while the inner title page describes the tale as ‘A Golden Age Story’. The acknowledgements at the end go further and say that the Golden Age referred to is both that of science and detective fiction, with the book an ingenious and original combination of both genres. If these descriptions suggest a confusion of identities that is perhaps appropriate given that the book is formed of three interlinked novellas about the titular criminal, assuming he is a criminal and not a revolutionary. It all depends on point of view, initiated if not clarified by a narrator who offers to ‘doctorwatson’ the story for us. Even this narrator’s identity is not made clear until the last page and, as with much of the book, not what one expects at all.
For example, the genteel detective stories that inspired the book seem very far away from the opening instalment, in which a group of criminals work out their sentences excavating the guts of an otherwise uninhabited asteroid in order for it to become the habitation of the very rich. This section of the book is visceral, horrific and wholly unpredictable. The point of view character becomes ‘Jac’. Is he the titular Jack? He seems very passive, possibly because he has no legs and does not seem much of a threat to anyone. The convicts’ stories and personalities become clearer as they work, but it seems hopeless; the men are trapped for the duration of their eleven-year sentence with only the technology they have been left with to keep them alive. Despite this hopelessness, which is so well described you wonder what’s going to happen in the rest of the book, Jac appears to be working towards something… The denouement is as outrageous as it is unexpected but is pure SF.
SF is often about how the impossible might become possible but ‘Jack Glass’ weaves that idea into the fabric of the story itself, especially in the second segment, ‘The FTL Murders’. In this story, a servant is murdered and the ‘detective’ is one of two sisters in a family bred to process data. There is a vein of dark humour running through the stories like black ice in the first tale’s asteroid; in ‘The FTL Murders’ this manifests as the girl’s delight at having a ‘real life’ murder to solve. If the servants are dosed up with loyalty drugs and everyone is too weak from living off-world to wield the murder weapon, how on Earth (literally) did it happen?
Gravity is an important image in the stories; its absence or presence used in a variety of inventive ways; one chapter is even called ‘Gravity or Guilt?’ while one of the cults worships black holes. Religion plays a big part in the various conspiracies, based as it is on what is believed, which of course brings us back to what is possible and what isn’t. It also takes the ‘locked room’ murder mystery scenario and enlarges it into a universal model; that if faster-than-light travel was discovered and with it the means to escape the limitations of our galaxy, so too would the capacity for destruction. That this theory is expounded in relativistic terms as if it too were the final scene of a whodunit somehow makes it even more mind-expanding. The investigation unwraps a deeper conspiracy, involving rebellion against the ruling clan, played out against evidence of the wreck of alien civilisations, which let’s be honest you don’t get with Miss Marple.
The last section is called ‘The Impossible Gun’ and investigates the death of a famous policeman. This death was recorded on a robot, thus objectively verifying the facts of the case. However, as with the previous murder the death appears to make no sense. Now it is time as well as gravity that is called into question, again phrased in weird religious terms via a chase through various habitats such as 'Red Rum 2010'. That ‘Red Rum’ is ‘murder’ spelled backwards hints that even the text itself is chronologically unreliable, despite its presence on the page and our by now intense association with it. ‘Serendipity favours the angels’ says Jack Glass but who does he mean, really? The novel suggests that laws, of belief, science, politics or whatever are determined by how they can be broken rather than enforced. The hero’s motivation, when we learn it, is a great example of this duality and a satisfying end, although perhaps not for him…
Adam Roberts has written a masterful blend of genres that for all its joyful cleverness is also hugely enjoyable. Recommended.