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

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