Here’s an interesting specimen. What’s to be made of Adam Roberts’ BSFA-award winning novel Jack Glass (Gollancz, 2012)? Jack Glass is part murder mystery, part golden age science fiction, without being wholly either. Ranging the vastness of the solar system, from meteorite prison cells to a future Earth, Jack Glass is an engaging play on the tropes on the tropes of crime and sci-fi novels, with cogent social commentary thrown in.
Jack Glass is a murderer, among other things; that much is clear from the start. But whom did Jack kill? How? And why? Jack Glass is presented in three parts, each a mystery with its own unique character: “One…is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery,” the narrator tells us, “[u]nless you find that each of them is all three at once.” (Original emphasis.) Each mystery is an entry in the “faster than light” (FTL) murders, as they’re known to Jack’s universe, their name inspired by the technology that inspired them.
The action spans the solar system. Part I drops Jack–and the reader–quite literally, on an asteroid, with no escape. The story moves to Earth in Part II. Here Roberts introduces the reader to Diana and Eva Argent, teenage scions of an elite family that serves the Ulanovs, and to their “tutor,” Iago. (It is not giving anything away to note that Iago is already known to the reader.) A servant is murdered on the Argent estate, and Diana inserts herself into the investigation. Finally, in Part III, Jack and Diana take to space. The reader is treated to a tour of the cosmos that renders the squalor of Dickens’ London pale by comparison.
Readers will enjoy the novelty of Roberts’ premise and the sheer delight he takes in language. Iago, Diana thinks, is “as old as a druid. He was ancient as chaos and old night.” (I detect hints of Bradbury here.) Later, as Diana and Jack travel from one space colony to another, Roberts tells us, “[a] large crowd surrendering to its own ecstasy in zero-g is a striking sight.” I’m hard pressed to disagree, and harder pressed to recall the last time an author surprised me with a turn of phrase as pithy as it is accurate in its observation of human nature.
Jack Glass is not perfect. After a promising start in Part I, this reader had difficulty getting into the rhythm of Part II, in which the principle FTL murder is committed and the conventions that will characterize the rest of the story are established. Diana Argent, from whose perspective Part II is mainly told, is a spoiled teenager, and that is partly the point–but knowing that doesn’t make it easier to read. There is a great deal of exposition in Part II, a significant lull in the action, that breaks the flow of the narrative. Roberts corrects course in Part III, although, here, he makes use of a deus ex machina to resolve the predicament in which Jack and Diana find themselves. (In Roberts’ defense, this ploy fits the plot.)
Jack Glass is an homage to detective fiction and, further, to golden age science fiction. Readers will find here the tropes they would expect of classic sci-fi, from “faster than light” travel to space colonies–all tempered by twenty-first century social commentary. The cosmic poor, for instance, eke out an existence in “bubbles,” eating “ghunk” (an organic protein soup, apparently) and suffering the trauma of regular exposure to solar radiation. Thankfully, Roberts’ references to the material that inspired him do not detract from his narrative–and I say this as a reader unfamiliar with classic science fiction.
The pleasure Roberts takes in language and his source material makes Jack Glass a joy to read, even if it is hobbled at times by his narrative decisions. The referential nature of Jack Glass should not put off readers unfamiliar with golden age sci-fi, and may, indeed, inspire them to read more deeply in the genre. Jack Glass is recommended for SFF neophytes, lovers of good prose regardless of genre, and those hardened sci-fi readers who can appreciate an ironic second look at their beloved classics.