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