Jack Glass is an intriguing science-fiction novel where the science is so inextricably woven within the story that sometimes you forget that it’s there. This story is a futuristic Roman empire where the empire is the solar system, the Ulanov’s are Caesar and the disparity amongst rich and poor is starker than that of Palermo Viejo and Villa 31 of Buenos Aires; villas miserias indeed. The vast majority of the population of the solar system live in bubbles that inadequately provide sustenance while failing to protect inhabitants from UV. Adam Roberts’ gift of world creation lies in the very air one breathes. His fleshing out of the idea of living most of your life in low to zero-g and coming to earth is palpably believable. By the time I was deeply immersed in the time on earth, I felt the constant, almost unbearable weight of gravity. The on-going effort just to breathe, let alone move, was mine. I was exhausted at how unyielding and relentless gravity is, the unbearable brightness of the sun and the viscous nature of the air itself. Pulling multiple g’s during ship acceleration or simply dealing with movement in zero g was equally well described. The farcical nature of hyperdrive (or Warp, for the Trekkies) is well analyzed while looking at faster than light travel. Great science, reflected through its practical use and woven into the story is a hallmark of Mr. Roberts’ writing in this novel. All this brilliance pales in comparison with his understanding of people, both individually and societally. The interplay of politics and people, what drives us individually and as groups, is beautifully played out and drives the narrative. That’s not to say there aren’t fights, chases, cool spacecraft and general action and mayhem. However, from the moment prisoners are left to fare for themselves on an asteroid to examining the lives of one of the most powerful families, people and their interactions are what matter.
The story is basically broken down into three main parts: the time spent on an asteroid by seven criminals, the time spent with a wealthy family getting used to gravity on earth and preparing for a birthday celebration whilst solving a murder mystery and time spent on the lam running from Lex Ulanova, the law within the solar system. Each period has a distinctly different rhythm to it along with a different set of players, but the thread of a crusade runs through them all. Do let me warn you, however, there are some particularly nasty things that occur on the asteroid amongst the prisoners and we get a lovely description of all the floating blood and gore from some zero-g fights. Jack Glass is not for the faint of heart; despite its being a great book, it may not be for everyone. Nicely enough, it does not revel in all things gruesome nor does it wallow in the details of death.
What are some of the things I love about Jack Glass?
- Mr. Roberts makes you really believe his world. I feel as if I’ve visited those bubbles, the earth and rode in the Red Rum. It all seems so natural and real while it is, in fact, quite alien.
- I believe in his people. While there are unique and special features about some of them, and they certainly have an environment I have never experienced, yet I can identify with their struggles, challenges, and efforts. They live very different lives and have very different talents, yet they are flesh and blood.
- I love his writing. His dialog fits well within the overall story and characters. His narrative has movement while simultaneously providing lots of detail which allow you to become fully immersed in the world the story and the people. His phrasing is great but always subservient to the story itself. It never brings attention to itself allowing, instead, the characters and the world to flow out of them.
- To say that Jack Glass has interesting characters is akin to saying Star Wars has interesting special effects. These characters are often way out there, while others are absolutely accessible to us. These are people we understand.
- One of my favorite lines of the book was a chapter beginning with: “This is what happened. Pay attention.” Now that’s some big brass ones for an author to tell his reader to wake up and actually follow now. Got to love that sense of, ahem, confidence.
What are some of the things of which I’m less fond?
- Without invoking the specter of spoilers, there is a rather unconvincing love story. Part of this has to do with things not being as they appear numerous times throughout the book, so you’re on your guard and more skeptical than you might be in other books. I’m partly skeptical that the proclaimed love is real. Also, my gut reaction while reading about said love was: “Seriously?”
- While Mr. Roberts has a true ending and he brings it together relatively well, he clearly leaves an opening for future books in a series. That’s fine and maybe it’s indicative of how much I love the book that I feel a little like “Hey, didn’t we just get started? There’s so much left to this story, to character development and to the relationships that I really want to live into it just a little bit longer and can’t quite come to grips with it ending.”
Would I recommend Jack Glass? Absolutely, to any adult with the warnings given previously. Would I read a sequel to Jack Glass? Absolutely. Will I read more of Adam Roberts’ books? Absolutely, in fact, it’s likely to be his Campbell nominee, Bête. I highly commend Jack Glass your reading pleasure. I think you’ll find it fruitful reading not only for the simple enjoyment of it and it’s ability to pull you out yourself for the time that your reading and living in this provocative world, but also for insight into honest reflection and conversation. Within all the subterfuge, within this complex world of politics and relationships, there is authenticity. Jack Glass pushes Diana to look at a thing for what it truly is; this seems to be highly prized by Jack even when he’s misleading others. Indeed for one 16-year-old girl, much of this novel is getting her to the point of being able to do just that.