Jack Glass (2012) by Adam Roberts

JackGlass1Following the antics of one Adam Roberts on Twitter, and on his blog Sibilant Fricative, has impelled me to purchase a few of his many, numerous, (rushed?) novels. (For the writer hopefuls out there, Twitter inanity does, apparently, work, as a soft marketing technique.) (But only if it involves puns.) Because his latest, well-received novel Bête is not yet available in my realm (argh), I selected Jack Glass as my first Roberts read. This 2012 BSFA Best Novel is described as a (sort of) riff on the (sort of) Jack the Ripper phenomenon, (in space!), while employing Golden Age crime and sci-fi tropes. This sounds right up my galactic alley!

 

Would you like some pastiche with your genre?

First, a warning to the casual SF shopper-rounders: While there is no doubt that a mainstream reader might accidentally wander into this galactic alley, and might enjoy these clever, mind-boggling tales of murder and intrigue (in space!), there is a metafictional undercurrent, bordering on parody, of genre commentary that results in an uneven, un-feel-rightness that readers caught unawares might chalk up to being just a peculiarly plotted book. Classic genre lovers will (hopefully!) know better.

Divided into three parts, with each part weaving a new murder mystery (in space!), and serving up a new flavor of genre with each tale:

  • The first vignette is cold, bloody, and narrow, an impossible to solve “locked room” mystery. The solution: UNBELIEVABLE! But the solution is also: unbelievable.
  • Some compare the second vignette to Heinlein’s juveniles, but I recognize the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys mysteries of my childhood, with two privileged teen sisters meddling in a murder mystery, (and suffering no ill consequences for tampering with a police investigation). It contains the most mundane and logical solution of the three tales. (Albeit due to some complicated relational assumptions on the part of our murderer.)
  • The third tale brings to mind the more recent developments in SF hero tales, in which the solution is convoluted and pseudo-scientific, and the hero comes down with a bad case of the feels.

Readers who do not pick up on the exaggerated pastiche and do not recognize Roberts’ metafictional intent will find the abrupt change in flavors dissatisfying.

You DO Know Jack

His murdersomeness being subtitled, it’s no spoiler that the murderer is the titular Jack Glass, yet the identity of Jack Glass is buried within each tale. Roberts is toying with us, but his naming patterns are easy to decode: Gordius is the fat guy, Diana is the princess, Lwon the top guy. Jack Glass is pretty easy to figure out, even when his identity changes from tale to tale.

However, as obvious as Jack’s false identities might be, his actual personality in each tale is unrecognizable from the previous tale: stoic and cunning, then supportive and protective, and finally, lost and lovelorn. This might confuse readers who do not recognize these transitions as representative of the phases of the SF hero over time, from the infallible Golden Age heroes of more than half a century ago to the feckless postmodern heroes of today, who only want to be normal and loved. Jack Glass is every SF hero.

Logic, Schmogic (or, Roberts is just fucking with us)

But this playfulness is more than symbolic as it becomes apparent by the end of the first tale that Roberts is just out to mock Hard SF. We get constant free fall motion, vivid descriptions of the TRUE behavior of blood spatter in outer space, and the incessant reminders that FTL IS PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. (Stop! It hurts my feelings when you say things like that!)

Like Hard SF, Roberts isn’t going to let us forget physical laws, no matter how much they might muddle up his plot and make his solutions less interesting. And, like Hard SF, he’ll abandon those principles on a whim, because this is really cool and this is how the problem is solved. Roberts constructs his tale within the known physical universe, reminding us constantly that this is within the bounds of the physical universe, and then he breaks his own narrative rules by saying, “Eh, fuck it. Forget all that. FTL is how this happened.”

Roberts is fucking with us and we should know that from the beginning, yet he is very convincing. We want to believe. Yes, he says, it is possible to escape an asteroid prison in this way and, yes, it is possible to shoot someone in this way. The solutions to the first and last tales are ridiculous. Logic says no, but we go along with it anyway because it’s cool. A direct manipulation of the reader’s logic, this is an author’s “Ha ha!” at the fans of Hard SF who gloat about their disinterest in the magicks of other SF, yet willingly suspend disbelief when the solution is wrapped under the guise of rationalism… no matter how implausible it actually is.

Golden Age crime fiction isn’t spared, either, as Jack Glass seeks to convince the reader that all of the possible solutions are IMPOSSIBLE, only to later reveal that one of those solutions is actually possible, and it’s the simplest solution of all! The second tale in Jack Glass reeks of this kind of authorial manipulation, and it’s brilliant because it also fits within the rigid boundaries of Hard SF physical laws, while also being terribly, disappointingly logical. Because gravity. BECAUSE GRAVITY! (After what Jack pulled off escaping the asteroid?)

Blergh!

Roberts puts the astounded “Ack!” and the indignant “(my) Ass!” in Jack Glass.

 

And if you’re wondering what’s gotten into me, with this double-suffixed-ed, hyper-hyphenated, parenthetically-interrupted (more than usual), pseudo-outrage, this is just good-natured mimicry of the many entertaining reviews that Roberts posts at Sibilant Fricative, which is fast becoming one of my favorite SF resources.

 

 

Previous post: 2014 SF Review Blurbs for Yur Nominatin’ Pleasure

Upcoming review: Leigh Brackett’s bleak and bountiful post-apocalyptic tale, The Long Tomorrow (1955)

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16 thoughts on “Jack Glass (2012) by Adam Roberts

  1. thebookgator says:

    I was most likely one of those mainstream readers that wandered into the book, with the utterly predictable result of an unsatisfying read. The thing is, one can be too clever, both if you are Jack Glass and if you are Adam Roberts. I still love the cover, but that’s about all.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Sometimes I think books should come with “meta warnings.” I was caught off guard because I’ve read reviews that call this one of his more straightforward works, but I call bullshit on that. Roberts is known for his parodies and I don’t think he turned it off for this one. It’s too exaggerated and aware of itself to be anything else.

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  2. You had me at “Golden Age mystery + Golden Age SF + way meta.” Sounds intriguing. Great review!

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  3. romeorites says:

    I have a postcard with the cover on that I want to put in a small frame. This is one I want to read but will get to it, when I get to it. If that makes sense.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      It does make sense. We all have a tbr and we all have a TBR.

      And how on earth did you wind up with a Jack Glass postcard? Is that a thing? Marginally-known, critically-acclaimed SF book postcards? Gosh, I’ll never know the bounds of SF’s quirkiness.

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      • romeorites says:

        Ages ago I entered a comp to win a book by James Barclay on Stephen Deas’ site. Within the book there was a few Gollancz postcards. They’re quite smart looking things and nice collectible things too. But yes ,quirky.

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  4. Any book that needs a “meta warning” is probably a book I want to read. This didn’t sound interesting to me at first (though I do recall oogling Bete, but hadn’t remembered the author’s name), but when you put it that way…

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  5. Rabindranauth says:

    Your review combined with some others I’ve read on which Roberts’ meta was lost reminds me of an argument I read online a while back.

    An artist can paint a very racist picture and claim it’s anti-racist, but if the painting doesn’t exhibit this in a way where the majority of viewers can tell this was his intention without being told, when does he cross the line between being racist or anti-racist?

    Authors experimenting with meta-plots like this have to thread that line very carefully. I’ve seen quite a handful of reviews for this after joining a group read and promptly ditching said group read, and absolutely none of the readers who took part picked up anything like what you’ve laid out here. Guess I need to go looking for more reviews!

    Also, I agree on Twitter. Except in my case, an author I didnt know made a legendary dick joke, and his book actually turned out pretty good, hah.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yes, BUT, the dude has a PhD in Literature, so I think it’s fair to assume that he knows a thing or two about literary technique. Combine that with his penchant for parodies and it’s hard to overlook the possibility that this is more than just a playful pastiche.

      On top of that, his own style of criticism tends to seek something more within the narrative. It seems he would likely practice what he preaches. He often expresses disappointment with empty narratives on his own blog.

      As for readership, I think he is aware that his readers will always be a small group who appreciate what he does. (I think that may be why his output is so furious).

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      • Rabindranauth says:

        Ah. Well in light of that I would buy into your take on the book. Unfortunately, it doesnt sound like one I can fully appreciate. Guess that means I need to read even more classic SF!

        Yea, there are authors happy to find a niche audience. I definitely need to try one of his books soon, though. I read a short story of his a few months ago and it fried my brain.

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  6. Jesse says:

    What were those things called? Magic eye? You know, the if-you-look-a-certain-way-at-this-seemingly-innocuous-diamond-pattern-you-will-see-something-really-cool.? I gotta say, I didn’t see too much meta in Jack Glass. Your review piqued the thought – and I’m still mulling it over – but I remain unconvinced. It seems I just don’t have the magic eye.

    What I did see was Robert’s acknowledgment to his dear, sweet mother, which ran something like: for you mom and your love of mystery novels. And indeed, the book is comprised of three, very classic mystery setups. I’m with you on the evolution of the pulp hero thing, but is it meta? Didn’t Chandler and Hammet male leads also end up lovelorn? I’m with you on the poking fun at hard sf thing. But is it meta, or just attempting to emulate the style of a time? The answer is unclear. And I suppose pastiche is technically meta. But again, emulation or commentary? Is Jack Glass a work of fiction that interacts with its own fiction? Given the fact the overwhelming majority of the book is obvious homage to mystery/pulp sf, I remain unconvinced the answer is yes. Then again, I could never do those damn magic eye things…

    For meta that interacts with speculative fiction in all sorts of interesting ways, from pulp to literary, try Paul Di Filippo’s Lost Pages. Franz Kafka as a super hero, Jack Kerouac and Neil Young taking on Dr. Bloodmoney, President Heinlein, PKD as a hardware saleman – no magic eye needed. 😉

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  7. fromcouchtomoon says:

    I was wondering what you would think of this! And you know as well as I do that I have more of a blurry eye than a magic eye…

    But, do you really see this as an unambiguous homage? I admit, it’s been a long, LONG time since my mystery/crime novel phase, and my reading memory is bad, but I saw little of the impressions I have from that particular subgenre. I read this with my sci-fi eyes, and my sci-fi eyes found this too kooky and inconsistent to not be self-aware. Too many little flags raised (the FTL thing, the press-on logic, the incongruous iterations of Jack) pinged my radar.

    Yes, pulp fiction is pretty kooky and inconsistent in its own right, and not much has to be exaggerated to highlight that fact, but this seemed less like an author saying, “OMG, I love this stuff!” and more like an author saying, “This is bloody ridiculous. Even the narrator knows this is ridiculous.”

    But then you bring up that dedication page… and I just can’t argue with that. (Although, what a strange presentation when considering the loving dedication.) (See, that makes me think that his playful arguments with his mother about her terrible reading choices were the impetus for this book.) (Ugh, now I’m just making stuff up, must stop.)

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  8. […] the spirit of the BSFA, I followed that post with a review of 2012 BSFA winner Jack Glass by Adam Roberts. Like some of Roberts’ reviews at his own blog, my review is silly and has a bad […]

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  9. […] to do a dueling banjos review post and I said, “Jack Glass or no.” And then, you know, asteroidprison-bloodglobules-skinsuit-vacuum. I was hooked. Then Bete was released soon after, but only in the UK, so I resorted to drumming my […]

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