July 16, 2013

Glasshouse, by Charles Stross

(Originally written for Math Graduate Board Newsletter)

It's the 27th century, but Robin has chosen to wake up from his memory excision in an orthohuman body. You could say he's old-fashioned that way. After all, when death just means reversion to your last backup, it isn't hard to tell the assembler to put you in just about any kind of body you can imagine. Sticking with an orthohuman body isn't just a choice, it's a statement.

But when Robin is recruited to participate in a sociological study recreating the pre-Acceleration dark ages (20th/21st centuries), "orthohuman" gets a little too realistic. There are no assemblers to rearrange her atoms in case of injury or illness, the NPCs there to aid in her transportation drive taxis instead of pointing her to the nearest T-gate, and experimenters have gone to the extreme of making the participants fertile (Robin has been female orthohuman before, but she is not happy with the weakness of her new body, and fertility is just a kick in the stomach). And then there's the society in which she's imprisoned; Were morals really so irrational, customs so arbitrary, life so uncomfortable? But she's got more to worry about when she begins to remember what, through memory excision, she tried so hard to forget...

In Glasshouse, Charles Stross foresees a future in which a mind can be backed up, printed into the physical world in any body and in as many copies as desired. The driving question behind Stross' book, then, is the question of identity. If "you" are not your body, what are "you"? This classic philosophical question gains both complications and insights in Stross' future, in which one's consciousness can be not only split or merged, but also tampered with. If someone reaches in and swaps a few memories, or tweaks a few personality dials, what's left?

Stross manages, as well, to pack in allegories of and commentary on no less than religion, gender roles, death, war, government surveillance, and more, all in what is certainly a page-turner. The best science fiction not only provides a specific vision of the future, it offers sharp critique of the present, and is, if not quite self-fulfilling prophecy, at least a cog in the engine of progress. Glasshouse fits the bill as well as anything.

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