Inferno

Is there any modern writer more controversial than Dan Brown?

The literati, by which I mean, inter alia, people who write about books for a living, always seem to be sundered into two “ne’er the twain shall meet” camps every time a new Dan Brown novel gets released. One faction invariably praises the book’s carefully crafted plot puzzles and thrilling set-pieces. The other excoriates Brown for his malapropism, terrible prose and willful attempts at passing off poorly-researched fiction as cast-iron fact.

Of Brown’s latest, a critic like Janet Maslin of NYT could write that “Inferno is jampacked with tricks … Mr. Brown winds up not only laying a breadcrumb trail of clues about Dante … but also playing games with time, gender, identity, famous tourist attractions and futuristic medicine”, while on the other end of the aisle, Peter Conrad of the Guardian could refer to the book obliquely as a “lie that expunges the truth and replaces reality with its own demented murk and noxious malarkey”.

I think that Brown’s detractors are off by a few degrees in their studied opposition to the book. Of course, I could say that to pile abuse upon the poor author swimming in his ocean of fat stacks is a somewhat fashionable attitude to take in those kinds of circles, but the real problem is in judging Dan Brown’s work by a set of rules to which it was never meant to be subjected – that is, as literature.

I prefer to think of a Dan Brown novel as the narrative equivalent of a novelty toy, the kind that with intricate mechanical parts that surprises you with hidden functions as you try to figure it out. Brown is at his best crafting complex narrative mazes that have more twists and turns than the Colorado River, where nothing is at it seems, where deception runs rife. Dan Brown’s premises are assuredly formulaic – a typical Brown book always starts with a murder, features a beautiful and mysterious woman, an exotic city layered with secrets, and escalates into a sequence where Langdon and his sidekick-of-the-week run from their enemies while engaging in a glorified art history tour to save the world. But within this formula, the micro-plot – the hijinks, conspiracies, twists and turns – are always varied and inventive enough to remain fresh in a “I can’t believe he pulled that off” kind of way. Brown sometimes uses cheap tricks to construct his web of lies – most commonly in odd plot contrivances that seem almost too coincidental to be believable – but he does so with a kind of cavalier glee that suggests that we’re not meant to take all this stuff too seriously.

Brown’s other great gift is in world-building. I suspect, though, that this world building ability really is at the heart of a lot of the criticism directed at him.

See, Brown constructs worlds just like our own, but not quite. It is a world slightly larger than life, filled with shadowy organizations, conspiracies and weighed down by the clammy hand of history. Brown’s forte is taking these elements and forging together a thematically cohesive world that makes the reader feel like they are privy to a great secret. It is a technique that I could call a narrative fallacy, a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Black Swan. The narrative fallacy in a Dan Brown novel is believing that the story Dan Brown weaves could perhaps be an accurate description of the real world – because he tells it in such a neat and cohesive way, backed with historical and art factoids of dubious provenance but are too esoteric for the average reader to question. The use of Robert Langdon, the ultimate symbol of suave and self-assured academic virility, acting as a vicarious authority figure who doles out all these sage truths, only compounds the effect.

I don’t blame art historians for accusing Brown of selling his books by telling his readers exciting lies, because that’s what he does. But Brown’s talent for spinning convincing narratives is not in question. It’s a skill he wields with aplomb – and to evidently great success.

As for Inferno itself, it’s a largely enjoyable (gasp – yes, I enjoyed it) ride with some admittedly shocking revelations and a conclusion that almost verges on science-fiction-esque in its potential ramifications. What I don’t like about the Langdon novels, however, other than the overly-functional prose, is that there is no character continuity. Langdon is not so much a character as he is a cipher – Brown’s puzzle-solving mouthpiece, who doesn’t change at all across books. Inferno doesn’t even mention his previous adventures, and you’d have thought that he’d be used to the heroics by now – but he still comes across as a little bewildered at being caught up in events in this book. And I don’t expect that the events of Inferno, world-changing though they might be, will affect whatever happens in the next book – continuity might hurt sales, after all – but I’m willing to be proven wrong.

I give this book: 3.5. out of 5 blonde wigs

Read if:
– You know better than to believe the stuff Brown writes
– You don’t mind pedestrian prose
– You like the literary equivalent of a roller coaster

Don’t read if:
– You have a low threshold for suspension of disbelief
– You are an Art Historian

The Autumn Republic (Powder Mage #3)

Some books are made for train rides.

I must admit, I tore through The Autumn Republic perhaps a little too fast – I was done in about three days, and this was only reading on the commute to and from work. This final installment in the Powder Mage trilogy is every bit as fast-paced as the previous two books, with the added – and tantalizing bonus of having all the plot lines converge into their inevitable conclusion.

As far as trilogies go, the Powder Mage series has all the predictable variations in quality. While the first book was fresh and inventive, and the second book an overly fast-paced bridge novel, this third book is a bit of a synthesis of the two. It improved upon the frenetic and slapdash feel of the Crimson Campaign while bringing the series to a dramatic high not seen since the final pages of Promise of Blood. I’d order it second best in terms of quality, with the first being Promise of Blood and the third the Crimson Campaign.

As far as endings went though, McClellan constructs a competent, but oddly perfunctory, denouement. The conclusion of the story was foreordained. There was no way our characters could lose in a fashion that could serve as a fitting capstone to the series. As such, they had to win, and the winning conditions were quite clear. Adopest had to be retaken, Kez defeated, and the gods vanquished. With that ending in mind, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots from the end of the second book to the end of the third. It was just a matter of the telling. In a sense, McClellan’s less frenetic pacing was crucial to the success of this novel – knowing the inevitable ending, we need to enjoy its telling more than we need to know how it ends. Thematically, McClellan also sets up a strong character arc – one that involves handing the torch – which culminates in necessary character deaths. In that sense, I also read the book with some trepidation. Reading scene after scene and expecting one of McClellan’s signature sudden character-killing moments contributed to the dramatic tension of the story.

The Autumn Republic ends quite satisfactorily. I wouldn’t call it a particularly great ending, but it is one that ties up most of the main plot strands. Some things, like the conveniently overpowered magic demonstrated by some of the characters, are never quite explained, leading to a vague sense of unease at the contrivance of the plot. But McClellan is promising a sequel series, so perhaps some of the finer points of worldbuilding, especially with regards to the people of the mysterious Ka-Poel, will be addressed in future books.

McClellan’s strengths are in his ability to create compelling fantasy worlds, and his ability to tell a rip-roaring yarn, even if the telling has its share of rough edges. But this is no epic fantasy, it is more of an impressionist painting than a painstakingly crafted work of realism. It can be enjoyed on its own terms, as a wild, imperfect, but always entertaining ride.

I give this series: 4 out of 5 magic walls

Transistor

As far as I’m concerned, the are-video-games-art debate is a ridiculous one. There are many terrible video games, of course, just as there are many good games that don’t qualify as art. But one of the ways a thing can be considered art is if it elicits a certain emotional response from the viewer. Transistor, for its rather prosaic name, is both a great game and a work of art rolled into one slick and beautiful package.

Let’s talk about gameplay first. Transistor is an isometric RPG, where the player controls Red, former singer turned wielder of talking techno-sword, as she roams her city fighting enemies called the Process while searching for the people who nearly killed her. Transistor’s gameplay is mostly centered around combat, using a variety of base skills that can be combined together to compound their effects in unique ways. There are about 21 or so abilities, and every ability can be compounded with another. And I mean every. Every ability can also be deployed as a passive ability, each granting a unique passive bonuses during combat. The player must choose what abilities to install given a limited number of ability slots. That leads to a staggering number of builds and play styles, representing an almost emergent form of gameplay. The combat system is innovative, deep, and refreshing, and encourages the player to constantly switch around their builds, so that the combat doesn’t get stale. The combat system is also a hybrid of turn-based and real time combat. Your character, Red, can enter into a kind of “planning mode” to plan and execute a series of actions, or you can sling your abilities around in real time, although your enemies will likely not give you any quarter – in real time they pack a mean punch. This combination of strategic and tactical combat, in both the planning and ability match-up senses of the word, leads to a highly satisfying and replayable gaming experience.

Aesthetically, the game excels in most fronts. Visually, Transistor’s techno-Victorian style and striking color palette are worthy of praise in their own right, but it is Transistor’s surprisingly affecting narrative that steals the show. It is common for indie games to have highly abstracted and sparse plots due to their budgetary and manpower constraints, but Transistor manages to tell a lot of story from very little. While the main narrative conflict is a jumble of techno-babble nonsense, the star of the show is really the game’s only talking protagonist, Red’s sword, which contains the disembodied consciousness of her lover, transmuted into the sword after he leaps into its path (yeah, yeah, I said it was nonsense, didn’t I?). Your character, Red, has had her voice stolen during an assassination attempt on her, and the talking sword becomes the de facto narrator of the entire game. His dialogue is clipped, restrained, sometimes deadpan, sometimes world-weary in a film noir kind of way, sometimes wistful, sometimes funny, and often tragic. The sword – the Transistor of the game – is really the conduit through which the substrate of the story is delivered – the surprisingly well-crafted portrayal of the relationship between Red and her lover. To be able to express so much given so relatively little is one of the cornerstones of the game-as-art.

Transistor’s other great artistic claim to fame is its soundtrack, written by Darren Korb and with vocals by Ashley Barrett, who sings many of the songs that Red, a famous singer before she lost her voice, sings in the background of the game. In many ways, Transistor deals in the theme of agency – to say more would be to reveal the plot MacGuffin – and the loss of Red’s voice echoes that similar loss of agency as a singer, but ironically empowers Red in the process through symbiosis with her lover, to impel alternative acts of agency (such as killing threats to the city). The aural experience, coupled with the ability to have Red hum along with whatever background music is playing at the time, is assuredly also an aesthetic experience.

Transistor is a simple and understated package, combining good gameplay elements with a strong unified aesthetic and a good love story, albeit one set against a weirdly contrived and ambiguous plot. I got a good 12 hours out of it. If you’re in doubt over whether games can be art – try Transistor. It’s a good short game that speaks of the elegance of which the medium is capable.

I give this game: 4.5 out of 5 Youngladies

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Sometimes, even campy spy thrillers can have hidden depths.

Now, Kingsman: The Secret Service doesn’t claim to be anything more than disposable popcorn entertainment. Such films have their place in the cinematic pantheon, and Kingsman happens to be very good at what it does. It’s two hours of high-octane action, with amazingly well-choreographed action sequences that remind me of Edgar Wright’s frenetic camera work. As a super-spy film about a super-secret group of highly-trained operatives operating at the ‘highest level of discretion’, it is also wonderfully camp in a way that good-naturedly mocks the stolid seriousness of the more recent Bond films, complete with outlandish spy gadgets and eccentric villains. While the plot might not be particularly innovative, it is still very serviceable and self-consciously avoids many of the tired cliches of similar spy films, while gleefully lampooning others. If Kingsman becomes a franchise, it could well fill the campy-spy-thriller niche left behind by such gems as Austin Powers and the earlier Bond films. This debut is by any standard superior to anything ever featuring Pierce Brosnan, for example.

***SPOILERS***

Kingsman , however, hides within its violent, popcorn-popping stylishness surprising depth. I’d describe it as an almost Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy against politicians and the global elite, the 1 percenters of the world. The main villain, Richmond Valentine, is a flamboyant, lisping billionaire who plans a cull of the world’s population in order to stave off the effects of global warming. He does this by way of giving everybody on the planet free SIM cards that, on a certain signal, sends out auditory signals that cause people to become mindlessly aggressive and attack everything on sight. To the elite, he offers them implants, installed in the back of the neck, that render them immune to the signal, but contain a tiny bomb that acts as leverage against them, and invites them to his mountain sanctuary to hide as the rest of humanity turns upon itself.

So our Kingsman heroes rush in to save the day, naturally, and hack into the villain’s mainframe computer to stop him from sending out the signal that will turn everyone into deranged killers. But, in doing so, they issue a command to detonate every single implant installed in Valentine’s collaborators.

This follows with a scene where we see the heads of world leaders and the global elites all over the world explode and disappear into firework-like puffs of multicolored smoke, in eerie synchronicity, played to celebratory, triumphant music. In the end, Valentine’s paranoia has caused the deaths of all the world’s elite, paving the way for the final showdown between our hero and Valentine.

I think this scene was meant to be satisfying and cathartic, and your mileage might vary, but the movie’s set-up was meant to convince viewers that these people were all in on the plan and therefore despicable for even countenancing such a horrific plot. But the specifics of Valentine’s scheme itself are oddly reminiscent of a kind of Marxist interpretation of structures of power in nation states in the real world. Valentine wants to use signals transmitted from ubiquitous mobile devices to cause people to fight and kill each other for some imagined greater good. In the real world, during times of war, political leaders use rhetoric and propaganda, transmitted through the free and public organs of the state’s broadcasting infrastructure, to galvanize their people to fight and kill other people for the greater good of the state. Valentine’s plan is outlandish and diabolical, but it hits surprisingly close to home. No wonder the exploding heads scene has such cathartic power. It is the comeuppance of the detached elite who would send common people to their deaths to prop up the power structures that sustain them. Furthermore, our hero Eggsy is the antithesis of the Kingsman agent of old – a working-class kid who nevertheless has talent, picked up from his ‘common’ existence to become an elite agent in the James Bond vein – and his rise represents a kind of rise of the common people against the aristocratic power structures of old. This is assuredly a film about class warfare, with co-opted and educated members of the working class as vanguards of the revolution.

Of course’s there’s further irony in that Hollywood is one such propaganda organ, and by consuming this fare, we might as well be subscribing to the extant power structure, as a means of venting the vox populi upon the catharsis of the film, thereby reconciling them to their drudge as capitalist cogs. But that’s too meta and critical-theory-esque a rabbit hole to go down for this review.

The other thing worth discussing is the film’s treatment of global warming. The villain does what he does presumably as an extreme, last-ditch solution to anthropogenic global warming. What I find problematic about this is that while the protagonists save the day, the film doesn’t actually treat with the underlying problem of global warming. Global warming is a McGuffin that propels the plot, but in the end, it is discarded and never actually discussed as a real problem. In ignoring global warming as anything other than a convenient plot device that motivates the villain, it is trivialized. Now, obviously this isn’t a problem, given that this film isn’t a treatise about global warming or anything so weighty, but it does disturb me as being a possible part of a greater narrative that dismisses concerns over global warming as the preserve of paranoid doomsayers who would countenance any action, no matter how extreme, to resolve it.

***SPOILERS END***

Two more random notes: The villain’s name is Valentine, and the film was released in time for Valentine’s Day weekend. Coincidence?

Also, the film was adapted from a comic book in which Mark Hamill, as himself, is kidnapped by terrorists at the start of the comic. In the film, Mark Hamill has a cameo where he plays a professor who is kidnapped by Valentine at the start of the film. That they got Mark Hamill to feature in the film as a crotchety and timorous British climatologist (using a variation of his Joker voice) is weirdly awesome.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 grenade lighters

Lexicon

Ah, that rare beast – as elusive as a Griffith: the intelligent thriller.

A thriller is, more often than not, disposable entertainment. Fast-paced, easy to read, full of action and tension – a self-contained and complete narrative package designed for consumption on a plane or bus ride. As such, they are not known for being sources of thematic or literary depth. The main payoff of the thriller is in knowing how it ends.

As such, when a book like Max Barry’s Lexicon comes out – with a healthy sprinkling of interwoven thematic elements on the pervasiveness of surveillance, control, and free will – critics begin to marvel at this odd creature, this unlikely marriage of the cerebral and the visceral – the intelligent thriller.

Lexicon is undoubtedly a very good marriage of the best of those two traditions. On one hand, it is the perfect thriller – fast-paced, unputdownable, and full of twists, cliffhangers and tantalizing puzzles that keep you reading. Barry’s prose style is perfectly tuned to the needs of this kind of narrative – always snappy, maintaining a constant but not overly hurried pace, eschewing description and other orthogonal-to-the-story fluff. The narrative also does a great job at maintaining the precarious balance between excessive exposition and needless opacity. No character sits around and talks in excessive depth about the minutiae of the world and characters. On the other hand, information and worldibuilding nuggets are doled out at appropriate and natural moments in the narrative in a way that never leaves the reader completely adrift and confused. There is great craft involved in this balance, and Lexicon is one of the few books I’ve read in the speculative fiction tradition that nail it.

This achievement is doubly impressive when one considers that Barry is, in effect, engaged in creating a “magic system”, so to speak. The book starts in medias res, with the reader knowing nothing, and Barry builds upon that tension to introduce a world in which there exist clandestine forces that are able to control people with mere words – special words that, when processed by the brain, short circuit the brain’s defenses and causes the victim to become susceptible to whatever order the wielder of the words gives – kind of like the biological equivalent of a drop_table SQL injection. There is a scientific gloss applied to the practice, and the specifics of it are described in some detail. This is a well-defined system of magic with historical depth and verisimilitude, as the misuse of the power of words is made the explanation for the various “Babel” events that occur in myth – basically a Poet, as these practitioners are called, create empires with their power, is overthrown, and their peoples begin to speak different languages to prevent another Poet from rising and controlling them again. It’s a relatively novel magic system and one that is used to good effect.

Underlining this narrative and magic system is that uncomfortable question of free will, which is dealt with in the end of the book. What is free will if a single spoken string of words can turn its victim into a puppet who thinks that the command arises out of their own desire? In the absence of clear neural stimuli, what is free will if merely a bundle of stochastic inputs? It’s not an easy question to answer, of course – the book tries, in a way that I won’t spoil but that I find not very satisfactory. But he tries.

Interspersed with this are more down-to-earth concerns about surveillance, especially self-reported surveillance, the kind that you volunteer freely to the state just by doing things like updating your Facebook profile, or agreeing to install security cameras as deterrents against terrorism. The magic system is a kind of metaphor for this, insofar as Poets learn what words to use to control people by profiling them with questions that sound like they came from a particularly pointless Buzzfeed quiz. People, Barry says, are in effect giving away the keys to the fortresses that are their minds freely to these information-collecting and gathering algorithms. Foucault’s discipline of the modern state, anyone? But in all seriousness, I doubt Barry is using the book as a libertarian pulpit, as the theme here is inserted very unobtrusively. But it’s there, and, although perhaps a little trite, is a good example of how speculative fiction can use its world-building to draw the reader’s attention to real-world social and political conundrums.

I must confess, though, that I may have had inflated expectations of this book. I bought it purely on account of the many glowing and enthusiastic reviews were placed on its cover, from big names like Cory Doctorow and Hugh Howey. The book itself, while a fun and at times thought-provoking read, did not quite live up to the lofty expectations I’d unwittingly set of it. The novel has its flaws – it’s perhaps too short, the ending is slightly rushed, some plot elements don’t quite work or are inadequately explained, and Barry’s sparse prose can sometimes make it less than clear what is happening. It reminds me of Grim Fandango in that that was a similar, highly venerated product that I didn’t quite enjoy as much as I expected to. I just think it may have been a little too lightweight and true to its thriller roots than the kind of fiction toward which I am usually drawn.

Minor quibbles, however. In the end, Lexicon is that kind of book I’d like to see more of – politically aware, intelligent mass market appeal speculative fiction. Barry has in Lexicon written something of great reputational value to the mainstream.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 barewords

Aces Abroad (Wild Cards #4)

Too many cooks can spoil the broth.

This post chronicles my general thoughts about the first few Wild Cards books, given that I’d read the first three before starting this blog and didn’t have the patience to go through them again to get to Aces Abroad.

For the uninitiated, Wild Cards is a unique authorial collaboration. It is an science fiction alt-history series premised on the introduction of an alien virus to Earth right after World War II. The virus, known as the Wild Card, kills 90% of those it infects, in grotesque, monstrous ways. It turns 9% into Jokers, giving them unfortunate deformities that vary from Joker to Joker. To a privileged 1%, called Aces, the Wild Card bequeaths superpowers ranging from mind control to flying.

The series kicks off in 1946, and chronicles this alternate history all the way to the present day. Each book is written by a team of a few writers, who usually take charge of certain character POVs. The series features an ensemble cast of various characters, both Ace, Joker and natural, and follows them through the decades as history runs its course amid the new social, institutional and cultural gulfs caused by the aftermath of the virus outbreak.

Oh, and the series helmsman and creative editor, marshaling the various authorial inputs into a coherent narrative, is George RR Martin, of ASOIAF infamy.

That was what drew me to this series, and the first three books didn’t disappoint. The first and second books (Wild Cards and Aces High)are a little different from the third book – they’re collections of loosely-related short stories, with multiple narrative paths per character, and is written in a more historical mode, expanding on the world and its inhabitants. The third book, Jokers Wild, is more properly s mosaic novel, with a conventional three-part structure, buildup, and a primary antagonist of sorts.

The first two books do a good job of weaving together a historical narrative of an interventionist America that used its aces to affect geopolitics, while its large Joker population was facing discrimination, abuse and injustice of the sort that would not be too unfamiliar to those who experienced the black civil rights movement. The virus’ effects are a perfect foil by which the books can examine the common themes of the Cold War – American exceptionalism, and human rights being at the forefront – in a speculative fiction setting. The team was made up of stellar talents – Walter Jon Williams, Roger Zelazny and GRRM among them – who created some of the series’ most iconic and well-loved characters.

So, how does Aces Abroad fare in comparison?

I think it’s safe to say that Aces Abroad is probably the weakest Wild Cards book so far, to a considerable degree. It’s mainly because it’s so inconsistent this time round. The first three books had the benefit of tight editing, ensuring that the story and characters flowed well both within their internal arcs as well as across arcs. Aces Abroad, on the other hand, feels unfocused and inconsistent, in terms of characterization and story. The book takes place in 1987, and a UN delegation of Aces, Jokers and politicians have embarked on a world tour to investigate the conditions faced by sufferers of the Wild Card virus in other countries. This premise is in itself somewhat of a weak justification upon which to hang the book’s main selling point – taking the series out of its New York-centric setting and into the wider world. The result is a confusing mishmash of styles and a book made out of poorly strung together series of vignettes of varying quality, hinting at a number of plot developments that never actually play out in the book, but will ostensibly be saved for later volumes.

Some of the stories in this collection are surprisingly poorly written and can hardly be counted to the level of quality shown in previous volumes. They feature uneven characterization and betray a lack of understanding of the established motivations of the characters that they feature. Some of these stories are throwaways, adventures involving various characters in various stops on their world tour, which play upon that sense of the exotic to provide traction for the plot. The result is usually a story that plays up cultural stereotypes to show up a contemporaneous social problem encountered by that culture, whether post-colonialism of the Australian Aborigines, Japanese xenophobia, South African apartheid, or Middle-Eastern religious fundamentalism. Many of the stories lacked proper pacing, and relied on a lot of expository, info-dumping dialogue to propel the story forward. I had the constant sense that the writers were just trying to finish their stories within the word limit so that the collection could move on to the next stop on the world tour.

There are some redeeming points, though. The chapters by GRRM, which are written from the perspective of a Joker delegate and series regular Xavier Desmond, provide a kind of thematic or narrative glue to the collection, are probably the best thing about the book, even if they are somewhat inadequate to give the book a sense of unity. Some stories are well-written and stand up on their own – I’m thinking Beasts of Burden and Blood Rights, two of the earlier chapters. And of course, the book seems like it is setting the stage for another mosaic novel featuring major antagonists and crises – I won’t name names, however.

All told, however, this is still probably the weakest Wild Cards novel to date, an opinion shared by many readers of the series, who, unlike me, have actually read the rest (I’m reading them as they get re-published, about once a year). I can only hope this is just a blip, and not a slow, gradual decline, because that would be a waste of a very good narrative universe.

I give this book: 2.5 out of 5 butterflies

Jack Glass

While it doesn’t quite reach the level of brilliance displayed at times by his other work, Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass is a competently written and intelligent science fiction novel that also suffers, but to a lesser degree, the flaws of the former.

Compared to Yellow Blue Tibia, Jack Glass is somewhat more conventional, but that isn’t saying that much. The novel is self-billed as three whodunits, or perhaps one whodunit strung into multiple parts, taking place across a far-future solar system where most economic activity is driven by law enforcement. What distinguishes Jack Glass is that the ‘who’ of the mystery is told to the reader – it is the title character, Jack Glass, famed throughout the Solar System as an inveterate murderer. The three parts of the story are three murder mysteries – a prison story, a locked-room problem, and a classic whodunit – and although we know Jack Glass is the murderer, we read to find out how, and for what reason, the murders were committed.

This triptych is the structural core of the story. Although all three form a coherent narrative, they are also structurally distinct. Each is a self-contained story, with beginning, climax and end. It is almost like a collection of three short stories that take place in the same universe, with the same characters – but linked by a deeper conspiracy, if you will, that underlies the three murders and provides context for them.

It’s an interesting structural feature, no doubt, and a relatively original take on the conventional mystery. I’m hard pressed to try to find a deeper significance to the structural choices that Roberts has employed, however – it strikes me more as an interesting experiment in narration than anything else. There is a story – we know that a murder will happen, and that Jack Glass did it. But the story sets itself up to try to exonerate or otherwise question the role of Jack Glass in the murder. But ultimately, the reveal is not that he is the murderer, but how and why he did it. The three stories are just variations of the sequence of events in that classic tripartite of who, why and how. In the first part, for example, the murder takes place at the end with the who in plain sight, but the why is obscure until the second story, while the how presents a mystery to the characters in that story, as a form of dramatic irony, for the reader knows, in grisly detail, how the puzzle unfolded. In the second part, the murder is in the beginning, but the how and the why are revealed long before the who. In the last story, the murder takes place in the middle of the chronology, while the why, how and who culminate in a sort of little climax that caps off this story, and the book.

Therein lies the rub, however.

Roberts, I think, based on my admittedly limited experience, has trouble with endings. Yellow Blue Tibia had a rushed conclusion that failed to be satisfactorily resolve the central narrative elements of the story. Similarly, while each of the encapsulated stories of Jack Glass have their own, neat little endings, the book doesn’t. The larger narrative arc – of fomenting revolution against the autocratic order of the day – is unresolved, as are a few other plotlines. It’s almost as if Roberts is trying to tell us that his literary experiment is more important than actually wrapping up the main plot in a satisfactory fashion. This could be ameliorated if Jack Glass was known to be a first part book, but it doesn’t seem like it is. At least, I’ve not been able to uncover any rumors of sequels. To end the book the way it was ended is a little bit of a waste.

It’s a waste because the science fiction world Roberts has created as a backdrop for his mystery triptych is a well-realized one that could have been taken much further than it was. This universe is a literal police state, with strict hierarchies of power and influence, where corporations have metastasized and become our overlords, where human lives are peddled for profit. It’s a universe where trillions of humans live in poverty in transparent space habitats, living off algae, water and sunlight, where crime and poverty is the main driver of economic output, both as law enforcement and prison labor. Jack Glass is the one rogue whose criminality is not controlled – it roams free, beyond the sight of the Solar System’s masters – his criminality is proscribed as being outside the system. That kind of conceit has loads of potential, but it never really sees the full flowering.

In terms of writing, Jack Glass is nowhere near the tremulous perfection of Yellow Blue Tibia
. It draws from the style conventions of Golden Age science fiction, in its neo-Victorian manners and stark income disparities, its hard-sf tropes and larger-than-life characters and conflicts. The dialogue is often stilted and formal in deference to these tropes, although Roberts uses an odd future-y childish patois to color the expostulations of the deuteragonist, the rich heiress self-styled master detective Diana. There isn’t the same degree of eloquence as the wry prose employed by Skvorecky. It’s not crucial to support a narrative like Jack Glass, but it is certainly missed.

It’s really again quite hard to blame Roberts for not living up to the promise of his plot. If anything, that’s a good problem to have. I think I would like to see him invest time to write something of a longer length, something that combines the best of his literary sensibilities and rootedness in grand space-opera conventions in a narrative spanning great and small, banal and profound, funny and sad. He’s shown us flashes of his brilliance, but nothing on the level that could be a magnum opus. I, for one, would welcome such a thing.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 FTL Drives