Jack Glass is Adam Roberts’s thirteenth (non-parodic) novel. Out of that total, there are only three I have not read, sheerly due to having lacked time immediately upon their release and then being perpetually swamped thereafter by the constant influx of newer material. I can adduce similar personal statistics about only a few other contemporary SF novelists. This is proof of how highly I rank Roberts. And I just plain-old enjoy this guy a lot. I think his fiction represents some of the best work being done in our 21st-century genre.
And yet I seem to be in a distinct minority among fans and critics. (Thank goodness Roberts has an editor at Gollancz who apparently loves him and accommodates his impressively metronomic release of one novel every year.) I don’t know his sales figures, of course, but my sense is that most of Roberts’s books slide under everyone’s radar, consumer and reviewer alike. The only time Roberts seems to get extra attention, unfortunately, is when he does a blog post criticizing some aspect of the field. Certainly, if you check out his list of awards nominations, compiled here by our own industrious Mark Kelly, you’ll see Roberts has been drastically ignored by peers (no Nebula nominations) and fans (no Hugo nominations).
But why? His work is always elegantly written, thought-provoking, suspenseful, ingeniously speculative and deftly plotted. He knows the history of the field inside and out (having written a big critical history of our lineage). He honors mainstream fiction as well. I find his characters eminently lifelike, his tone droll and acerbic and yet not insensitive to common human passions. In short, he seems the very model of a modern SF writer.
But here’s why, paradoxically, I think Roberts turns people off or does not attract as many partisans as he deserves.
First, he never repeats himself. Yes, fecundity of ideas and settings, once a virtue in our field (I still regard it as such), is now a vice. In an age of sequels and franchises, the singleton-book man is disdained. Each new Roberts novel demands a fresh approach from readers, and some are just disinclined to make that effort.
Second, the Big Idea is paramount in Roberts. I do not say his characters are puppets or cardboard—far from it. But they definitely live their fictional lives in patterns imposed by the organizing speculative conceit, which, one senses, comes first for Roberts in his hierarchy of composition. And yet, other Big Idea books in SF have been fan favorites. Consider something like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Not just a Big Idea, but a Big Dumb Object.
But the difference between Clarke and Roberts, which amounts to my third point, is optimism versus pessimism, triumphalism versus tragedy. To be more precise, Roberts has that patented British sensibility, first identified I believe by Brian Aldiss some decades ago, of humanity’s innate fallen condition and likely imperfect fate: an attitude and tone which alienates many US readers. Christopher Priest has been tarred with the same brush.
I won’t pretend that Roberts’s newest book, Jack Glass, is a drastic departure from his oeuvre—thank goodness, it’s not!—but it does offer, I think, many surface enticements which might lure in readers who have avoided Roberts previously.
In a small preface, an enigmatic narrator informs us that we are to read a mystery in three parts—or perhaps three mysteries that add up to one larger story. (And consequently, you will not be getting detailed plot accounts and spoilers from this review.) So right away, we have a bit of a formalistic challenge, something Roberts enjoys giving us. But readers need not quail, for Roberts’s first section, “In the Box,” will pull you in by your eyeballs and not let you go.
Our hero, at this point known only as “Jac” is a criminal sentenced to an unimproved asteroid with six other cons. Their mortal mission: render the asteroid livable with the most primitive of tools over the next eleven years of their sentence, or die trying. The insane, killing existence that follows, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat scenario, is grim, gripping and unpredictable.
Up next is “The FTL Murders.” Our focal character this time is sixteen-year-old Diana Argent, spoiled rich girl visiting Earth from her outer-space habitat. When one of her servants is killed in a seemingly impossible situation, she puts her Nancy Drew ambitions to work. But unbeknownst at first to Diana, the infamous Jack Glass figures somewhere in the picture, as does the ever-bubbling warfare among the ruling houses of this future solar system. The possible invention of an FTL mechanism adds further fuel to the fires.
“The Impossible Gun” picks up the adventures of Jack and Diana on the run through the solar system, as they seek to restore her as the scion of Clan Argent and save humanity from the species-threatening dangers of the FTL mechanism.
In an Afterword, Roberts explains that the seed of this book was his desire to marry Golden Age SF with Golden Age detective stories, and at this he succeeds superbly. (A retro-looking ambition and triumph he shares with John Wright.) The reader will be kept continually intrigued and baffled. But I think that we can narrow down his templates even further, to some1950s genre masterpieces, rather than to those of the less sophisticated 1940s. After all, was not the first groundbreaking marriage of detection and SF Asimov’s two robot novels from that decade? And in fact, Jack Glass is almost pure Fifties-style fun. The first section recalls the work of Alfred Bester and Tom Godwin. The middle section is clearly Roberts’s take on Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars. The bubble habitats where trillions of underclass humans live recall Leiber’s “The Beat Cluster.” And the stratified sociopolitical hierarchy that all good men must rebel against can be found in a dozen books of the period, from James Gunn to Jerry Sohl.
But sheer pastiche, however entertaining and glossy, is not Roberts sole ambition. He also displays entertaining linguistic playfulness with his new glossary and slang and with Diana’s speech patterns. Finally, a very 2012 perspective is layered on, in both the cutting-edge speculative technology and its uses, and in the socioeconomic subtext. It’s unarguably the ninety-nine percent versus the one percent in Roberts’s future scenario, making this book highly topical.
Regaling us with a fast-paced adventure that conceals deeper messages beneath a gaudy scrim of ideation—that’s Roberts’s forte, which should, in a just world, appeal to all savvy fans.