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Glasshouse (novel)

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Glasshouse is a science fiction novel by British author Charles Stross, first published in 2006. It is a loose sequel to his 2005 novel Accelerando, though it can be read as a "stand-alone" story.

Plot introductionEdit

It is the 27th century. The culture featured in the novel is what has evolved from the time of the last chapter in Accelerando, "Survivor" (full chapter here). Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy using the wormhole technology copied from the alien routers, forming a plethora of societies and 'polities'.

Robin, a male orthohuman, is recovering from a memory excision process in a rehabilitation centre. Though he remembers nothing of his past life(s), he suspects that he lived through traumatic times as a participant in the series of wars that raged many years before. Suspecting that he has been targeted for assassination by persons unknown, he agrees to sign-up with a radical, isolated social experiment that will attempt to recreate the forgotten "Dark Ages", the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

On being transferred to the polity in which the program is being held, he discovers that he has been given the body of a woman, Reeve. As the experiment unfolds, she begins to suspect that all is not what it seems, and that the founders of the experiment are engaged in a very sinister conspiracy. Slowly, she realises that her role is not as clear-cut as she originally thought, which leads her to question, and then struggle against the program.

Explanation of the novel's titleEdit

In the context of the novel, "glasshouse" refers to a military prison. The polity in which the bulk of the story takes place was formerly a high-security facility for war criminals. The term was first used to describe the glass-roofed military detention barracks based in Aldershot, UK, in the mid-19th century.

Stross also refers to the Glasshouse as a type of panopticon, a prison constructed in such a way that the guards in the center can see everything the prisoners are doing, but the prisoners can never tell if the guards are watching. Philosopher Michel Foucault used the model to represent the way humans tend to conform to and internalize societal ideals based on this kind of omnipresent gaze, an idea Stross exploits in the novel.

BackgroundEdit

Transport technologyEdit

T-gates : (Transporter gates). These are the ubiquitous point-to-point wormholes which link everything from polities that are light-years apart to rooms in habitats to each other. They are also used to enable one to access private storage spaces, even from clothing. Unlike the A-gates, traffic through these is instantaneous and unfiltered, though they can be fitted with firewalls at a variety of strengths.

A-gates : (Assembler gates). Nanotechnological arrays that can be used for creating all kinds of objects, goods, and substances very quickly, molecule by molecule, working from a wide series of templates. They are also used by the posthuman populace to create "backups" of themselves, redesign their physical bodies to whatever parameters they wish, long-distance travel between far-flung polities, and for medical purposes, making them, if they wish to be, virtually immortal. Military-grade versions exist which can be used to download polity-inbound traffic, analyze it for threats/contamination, reroute it to a DMZ, and then reassemble it if all is well.

Mobile Archive Suckers : Large spacecraft or mobile habitats which travel at slower-than-light speeds between the brown dwarf stars which most polities orbit. Self-contained and self-sufficient, fitted with their own A-gates, they are fueled by plasma piped-in by T-gate from nearby stars. Generally, the ships' systems are not connected to the galactic network at large. The crews and/or passengers can, if they do not wish to experience the long subjective timescales of travel by this method, disassemble themselves in an A-gate and "sleep" throughout the journey.

Population centresEdit

The vast majority of posthumanity lives in massive artificial cylindrical habitats, along with a few domed colonies on the planets, moons, and asteroids orbiting brown dwarf stars. These can be linked to each other by T-gates, creating a huge network of interconnected societies, known as the Republic of Is.

HistoryEdit

For a variety of reasons, posthumanity has forgotten the history of events preceding, during, and just after the singularity (the "acceleration") as it occurred back in the Solar System, from around 1950 to 2040. They refer to this period as the Dark Ages. Data-storage methods changed so rapidly that proper backups weren't made; much data was encrypted, or stored on perishable media; many individuals hailing from the period excised their memories too many times, creating a historical "bias"; and many "censorship wars" were fought, with computer viruses and worms changing or erasing what was left.

Censorship warsEdit

A long series of these wars plagued posthumanity, starting around 300 years before the novel begins, lasting for almost a century (two centuries, according to Yourdon). Censor factions used A-gates to propagate redactive worms throughout the Republic's networks, which targeted historical data and even memories of why the wars had started in the first place. Historians were singled out for annihilation. These events placed a great strain on the political cohesiveness of the Republic of Is - but worse was to come.

Curious YellowEdit

Persons unknown created a worm of enormous destructive capability - Curious Yellow. Like previous worms it used the A-gates to spread, but it also used the people who traveled with/uploaded to them as transmission vectors. An infected A-gate would surreptitiously delete swaths of personal memory from a victim, particularly memories associated with historical knowledge of pre-Republic times. It would then force a copy of its kernel into the victim's netlink (the Cyberware which everyone uses to connect to and communicate with the gate networks) along with some bootstrap functions.

The infected victim, upon encountering a "clean" A-gate, would then feel compelled to switch the gate into debugger mode, enter a set of commands, then upload him/herself, after which the gate would execute the infected boot-loader in his/her netlink, copy it into its working set, and thus become infected in turn.

When a set amount of gates in a network became infected, they would begin communicating with each other and create privileged instruction channels which could be used by shadowy controllers with the correct authentication keys to control them remotely. They could defend themselves against attack, build and direct weapons to selected targets, and netlink to any number of T-gates.

Eventually, the republic crumbled under the pressure, converting into a series of isolated, heavily firewalled polities.

Curious Yellow is derived from the remark of Lord Rayleigh in 1871, "Sir John Herschel even thinks that our inability to resolve yellow leaves it doubtful whether our vision is trichromatic or tetrachromatic..." It takes a soft materialistic approach to the Problem of Minds in a human society that has taken a rational approach to the subjective human senses. It is also derived from a paper on worm design by Brandon Wiley: Curious Yellow: The First Coordinated Worm Design.

RecoveryEdit

However, there were those who fought back. A variety of militia groups formed, among them the Linebarger Cats, who specialized in esoteric strategies and psyops. They formed and acted on a plan to "repurpose" the worm, rewriting its code as an "immune system" and introducing it, slowly but surely, into the A-gates. Millions died as the worm fought back, but they eventually succeeded.

After Curious Yellow's destruction, a number of Quisling dictatorships formed, using hacked versions of the worm to spread in an attempt to form separatist dystopias, populated by brainwashed populations led by sinister "cognitive dictators". But these were mopped-up one-by-one, and the galaxy returned to a semblance of normality with the firewalled polities building "clean" A-gates to carefully re-integrate. The Invisible Republic became one of the largest new networks.

Plot summaryEdit

Template:Essay-like As far as the participants are concerned, the YFH (Yourdon-Fiore-Hanta) polity is probably situated in an orbital habitat which used to be a secure, heavily firewalled military prison (a glasshouse) after the war, for the treatment and "de-programming" of serious war criminals, making it an ideal choice for such an isolated social experiment.

Reeve believes she has signed-up for a period not exceeding 3 years. She is part of a cohort of 10 vounteers, who are all expected to partner with a member of the opposite sex, as was the practice in the Dark Ages. There are, initially, 20 cohorts. Participants get points for staying in dark-age character, and individual scores affect the cohort. Collective accountability and peer pressure is the order of the day; "bad behaviour" is discouraged. Pregnancy, the barbaric method of dark-age child production, is encouraged, much to Reeve's horror. Of course, modern technology is not allowed.

Reeve constantly wonders if she "knows" any of the other volunteers, particularly Kay, who was also going to join the experiment. However, people keep quiet about their pasts, and, of course, everyone wears a new body, even a new gender. As the experiment progresses, Reeve becomes concerned about the "tone" of the scenarios, in particular the church meetings all must attend on Sundays. She also begins to experience a series of dreams, in which flashbacks from her past lives are revealed.

For something to do, she applies for, and gets, a job in the library, where she meets Janis, who becomes a confidant. Fiore, one of the sinister leaders of the project, often visits the library repository, a room which is always kept locked. Reeve finds a way to make a copy of Fiore's key. Later, two people are hanged after mob violence, encouraged by Fiore, erupts after a church meeting. Reeve, and her "husband" Sam, begin to seriously doubt the validity of the experiment. They also realise that neither of them can hear the other saying the words "I love you", which makes them think that during the A-gate upload which placed them in the polity, their mindstates were subtly altered. She also begins to experience strange "whiteouts" in which she can't remember what she's done.

Back at the library, Reeve uses the copied key to enter the repository. It contains many boxes of sheets of paper which she thinks may be a hex dump of the Curious Yellow worm. Opening a trapdoor, she goes down and discovers a military-grade A-gate. She places a small cine-camera in a discreet location to record what Fiore does when he's inside. In a later visit, she recovers the camera, and while watching it, she realises that Fiore had programmed the A-gate to begin a time-delayed copy of himself, knowing someone had been in the room. She catches him emerging, kills and dismembers him, and feeds the parts to the gate. During this event, her mind blanks again, to the extent that she suspects that her mind is carrying unknown coding.

She decides to try to escape. Using a previously noticed door in the side of a road-tunnel, she climbs a shaft; thinking that she is in a small section of a habitat, she hopes to find a neutral place from which she can contact the outside world. Eventually she finds out that the polity is actually situated within an MASucker which has only one heavily-guarded T-gate and is on a voyage which will not end for almost 200 years. Falling ill, she wakes back in the polity hospital. Treated by the sinister Dr. Hanta, she is told that the polity's population is going to be increased to that of a small city. Cured, she returns home, but both she and Sam realise that her mind has been altered by Hanta to be more amenable to the polity. Back at work she meets Fiore, who, it turns out, is really her. After she killed Fiore a few days before she backed herself up in the A-gate and used Fiore's physical parameters as an overlay to make a copy (she "blanked" at the time, and didn't remember). Discovering that Janis is Sanni, Sanni forces a merge of the two instances of Reeve, which removes whatever Hanta did to her mind.

Reeve discovers that her "true" mission was to infiltrate the polity and gather intelligence. Previous attempts by the Linebarger Cats failed, as their agent's memories were probed by the polity's leaders who then killed them. This explained the effective memory-wipes that Robin/Reeve had to endure. The 3 polity leaders were Curious Yellow a sleeper cell who were planning to use the 200-year journey to breed a population that would, at journey's end, re-infect the galactic network by uploading through A-gates and vectoring a new, hacked version of the worm, thus re-starting the war. Eventually Reeve, Sam, and Janis succeed in their mission to thwart the polity leaders, and the ship's journey resumes peacefully.

Characters in GlasshouseEdit

  • Robin / Reeve Brown : Male rehab patient / Glasshouse volunteer & "housewife".
  • Kay / Sam Brown : Robin's girlfriend from rehab / Reeve's polity "husband".
  • Gwyn : Duellist.
  • Colonel-Professor "Bishop" Yourdon, Major-Doctor Fiore, Doctor Hanta : War-criminal founders/controllers of the YFH polity.
  • Jen, Alice, Angel : Score-whores.
  • Janis / Colonel-Doctor Sanni : Polity librarian; Reeve's co-worker / Linebarger Cats staff-officer.

Major themesEdit

Self-concept, self image, the "self", peer pressure, conformism, problem of other minds, redemption.

Allusions/references to other worksEdit

  • The Curious Yellow worm.[6]
  • Jeff Noon's book Vurt. Curious Yellow is a "vurt" that kidnaps the main character's sister and which most of the book's plot surrounds.
  • John Varley, SF writer. (Ref; see [8]).
    Varley was one of the reasons the novel was written in the first place.[9]

Awards and nominationsEdit

TriviaEdit

  • "Glasshouse appeared, almost fully formed, in my head between 2:30 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. in the afternoon of March 23, 2003, while I was at the pub nattering with a friend. I held it off for all of two weeks or so, until April 8th, when the compulsion to start writing became too strong to resist, and the first draft emerged in just three weeks of obsessive 12-hour days." (SciFi.com interview with Stross, Sep 2003).

Release detailsEdit

File:Stross-Glasshouse-PB.jpg
Country Publisher ISBN number Cover Release date
US Ace ISBN 0-441-01403-8 Hardback June 2006
UK Orbit ISBN 1-84149-392-9 Hardback July 2006
UK Orbit ISBN 1-84149-393-7 Paperback March 2007
US Ace ISBN 0-441-01508-5 Paperback June 2007

Also available as an eBook, in PDF & LIT format, from various sources.

External linksEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. "Linebarger Cats" mentioned throughout. Orbit PB, p.343/4 : "At first we live off the capital freed up by the Cats' liquidation; later we supplement it by setting up a variety of business fronts. (If you've ever heard of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, or Cordwainer Heavy Industries, that's us.)"
  2. Orbit PB, p.54, "... the age of emotional machines, as one Dark Age shaman named it".
  3. A minor character in the novel is named "Alice Sheldon", which was Tiptree's real name.
  4. Quotes from the novel : "Welcome to the Village" ; "Be seeing you!". The cohort to which Reeve belongs is designated Number Six.
  5. A "hymn" that is sung in the YFH polity's Church of the Nazarene (Orbit PB, p.182).
  6. "Curious Yellow is a design study for a really scary worm: one that uses algorithms developed for peer-to-peer file sharing networks to intelligently distribute countermeasures and resist attempts to decontaminate the infected network". (Stross's blog, Fri, 25 Oct 2002, posted at 18:47).
  7. From the poem :
    "He took his vorpal sword in hand....
    One, two! One, two! And through and through
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
    He left it dead, and with its head
    He went galumphing back
    ".
    The Vorpal blade is a weapon, able to cut space and time, featured in the novel.
  8. He is name-checked in the novel; Orbit PB, p.214.
    "I'd been reading up on the Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram's studies on how to make ordinary folks commit atrocities. And I got this crazy idea: what if you ran the Zimbardo prison study protocol in something not unlike Varley's Eight Worlds universe, with gender roles instead of prisoner/guard roles?". (Stross interviewed by Asimov's magazine, 2003).
  9. "... Of late he's changed pace and stride, but in the 1970s he was a couple of decades ahead of the rest of the field. I was so annoyed by his latest novel, Red Thunder - it's basically a Heinleinian juvenile, a good example of the type but fundamentally less impressive than the work he's capable of - that I sat down and wrote a Varleyesque short novel myself". (SciFi.com interview with Stross, Sep 2003).
  10. Hart wrote The Tanks - A History of the Royal Tank Regiment and its Predecessors: Volumes I and II (Praeger, New York, 1959).
    During Robin/Reeve's time with the Linebarger Cats as a cyborged "tank", his callout sign was Liddellhart (Orbit PB, p.245).
  11. A quote from the short story is printed at the start of the novel.
  12. "Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?". This is quoted at the start of the novel, and on p.337 (Orbit PB). (text).

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