“Jack Glass” by Adam Roberts


One way that I find new books to read is to check out winners/nominees of the Hugo and other awards.   “Jack Glass” was on the list for a few awards; and I was immediately smitten by the beautiful cover!  It tries to be a sci-fi detective novel of sorts – we’re told up front that Jack is the murderer in each case (but he’s not the bad guy; or a least he’s not the worst bad guy), but the trick for the reader to figure out is the how and why.  That’s the idea at least … in practice, it was kind of like “aaannnddd he had a secret death ray all along!”  Kind of hard to deduce magical deus ex machina.

So I felt it was kind of a failure in terms of the whole murder mystery aspect.  But, as a bit of world-building and a haunting version of dystopian future, it was very intriguing.  Humanity numbers in the trillions, only a fraction still on Earth and the rest spread throughout the solar system in millions (billions?) of artificial structures in the asteroid belt and elsewhere.  The Ulanov family wields dictatorial power; their “government” is mainly a gigantic criminal syndicate aimed solely at keeping themselves in power.  But, tyrannical as they are, it keeps the peace.  But most of humanity is miserable, stuck in poverty and constant danger (one-inch thin walls keeping out the vaccuum of space) and without hope.

In the first story, seven prisoners are exiled to an asteroid.  Their sentence is to labor for 11 years excavating and improving the asteroid, whereupon the prison company will come to free them and collect the asteroid for resale – real estate is at a premium!  The seven are granted the barest of necessities and supplies and left to themselves.  As all are criminals of one shade or another, things get ugly quickly.  And very violent.  I was glad that the rest of the book did not continue on as gruesome as the first bit – far-fetched as it sounds, Jack escapes in a spacesuit (of sorts) fashioned from the body of one of his fellow prisoners.  And he was almost the most sympathetic character of the seven….

The rest of the book deals with Jack’s involvement with Diana Argent, genetically engineered heir to the Argent clan, one of a handful of families just a step below the Ulanovs.  The story’s MacGuffin is the secret of FTL, faster than light travel.  Obviously the chance to leave the oppressive Ulanovs and settle the galaxy brings a lot of hope to the unwashed masses; indeed even the idea of FTL, without proof, is feared to be enough to incite a revolution.  It turns out that the secret of FTL comes at a cost (and this is kind of clever): the speed of light is a constant in physics, which makes FTL travel impossible.  The new technology, however, involves changing this physical constant somehow, in some region of space.  But as we know from E = mc^2, if you can change c you can make some very big explosions indeed.  Diana’s sister, Eva, is an astronomer investigating Champagne Supernovae, where the star’s mass seems much too small to generate the magnitude of energy released.  The half-dozen or so observations of these supernovae are deduced to be alien civilizations that figured out FTL, but then somehow destroyed their whole solar system via the super bomb.   (A somewhat foreboding answer to the Fermi Paradox!) So, while FTL would be great relief for the trillions of surplus population, it would be horrible for someone like the Ulanovs, or someone trying to overthrow them, to gain FTL due to its weaponized potential.  Jack, hero of the oppressed, must make sure the secret stays hidden at all costs.

Much more summary and analysis here.


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