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The reader will indulge me if I begin this post with the confession that, over the last few years, I had begun to think of Adam Roberts as the Jean-Luc Picard to Christopher Priest’s Captain Kirk: not only has the older man oddly more hair than the younger; in missing out on prizes, in seeing genre less as a mode of literature and more as a kit to retool, and increasingly in the kind of cold affect his novels have demonstrated, Roberts seemed to be evolving into a kind of reiteration of the Chris Priest story. (We await the movie of Swiftly with baited breath.) Imagine my discombobulation, then, when Priest wrote in a review of Roberts’s latest novel, Jack Glass, that Royal Holloway’s Professor of 19th Century Literature “is in general rather odd”.

This is a bit rich in a review which compares the novel’s Iago, who acts as tutor to a scion of one of the few families in an intermediate future who administer the Sol system on behalf of the shadowy Ullanovs, with the comedy mechanoid from Red Dwarf, Kryten. Jack Glass, like all of Roberts’s novels, may be intensely ironised – but Iago resembles in far greater detail Dune‘s Thufir Hawat, the similarly subservient and selfless tutor of Paul Atreides, the likewise obliviously privileged scion etc. etc. This sort of recursiveness is par for the course with Roberts, and when Iago’s true identity is revealed – Jack Glass, the notorious criminal of the title, “the father of lawlessness” [pg. 171], is naturally also a master of disguise – he comes also to resemble Alan Moore’s V, another impossibly mythic agent of revolution and instability, who also takes a blinkered and uncertain young girl under his caped wing etc. etc.

Jack Glass is in this way and many others intensely aware of itself as fiction – not so very different from Priest’s modus operandi, most recently of course in The Islanders – and the reader of this review should rest assured that any spoilers in this review are echoed early on in the novel’s own prologue: “One of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunit. One is a locked-room mystery. [...] In each case the murderer is the same individual – of course, Jack Glass himself.” [pp. 1-2]  In his afterword, Roberts confides that his project was to fuse the Golden Age mystery story with the Golden Age sf saga (finding a screwdriver in the toolkit and seeing how it works as a hammer), and yet his task is made doubly hard by his own decision to rob the reader of the principle pleasure of detective fiction: the anonymity of the criminal. Where a crime novel concerns itself with the who, however, SF might be said to be more interested by the how.

“There are problems that are trivial, and problems that are profoud,” insists Eva Argent, the “MOHsister” of Iago’s charge, Diana, in the second of Jack Glass‘s three parts [pg. 117]. The duelling genres at the centre of the novel, and the world Roberts dresses as the stage for his mysteries, allow Jack Glass to ask at some length how we come to identify which problems are which. Eva and Diana, genetically engineered using Modulated Ova Haptoid technology, are at the top of a viciously stratified society, in which billions of impoverished humans live in barely-habitable bubbles of plastic floating in rough orbit around the sun; the ‘sumpolloi’, as they are known, are subject to the Lex Ullanova, the law codes imposed upon the solar system by the clan which emerged victorious from a period of sustained war. Earth is now the playground of the Ullanovs and the five families who serve them; beneath them are the Gongsi, corporate monopolies which fulfil a variety of functions. There is no state – in the first (and in many ways best) part of the novel, we see prisoners transported by a Gongsi to a barren asteroid, abandoned with the bare essentials of survival, and left with the solitary hope that at the end of eleven years the Gongsi ship will return to collect them and sell the now-habitable asteroid for a profit.

In this future, then, there is a pathological emphasis on the importance of policing and rewarding order and hierarchy: even the convicts understand that “if we keep a lid on our tempers, and keep good order, then we can last the time. [...] But if we give way to anarchy we’ll all be dead in a week. Die like beasts, or survive as men? Is that really a choice?” [pg. 80]  The future of Jack Glass is struggling to contain and provision the teeming billions – the sumpolloi live a life of subsistence, and the Lex Ullanova is so all-powerful, so over-powering, that “it even regulates the bounds of illegality” (the Lex assumes 30% of economic activity is illegal, and so taxes lawful producers at 143% of their gross, rather than 100%) [pg. 283] . We see much of Roberts’s last novel of inequality, By Light Alone, in all this – and where that book ended with a revolution, this one is focused on how the elite might maintain order in such straitened circumstances. The answer, of course, is exploitation: Iago characterises the philosophy of this future as “seeing those trillions as a resource, and not as a congregation of humanity.” [pg. 197]

The ethical questions which revolve around this set-up are signified in the generic conventions of crime and science fiction, and personified in Diana and Eva: the former has been bred to understand and analyse human behaviour (her favourite reading is, of course, the country house mystery, and she prizes “the moral knowledge that life is lived individually” [pg. 239]), the latter to analyse data and phenemonology (not yet in her 20s, she has six PhDs and is working on a seventh, on Champagne Supernovae). When a servant is murdered in their Terran mansion – a surprising aberration since all the staff are drugged to assure supine loyalty – Eva dismisses Diana’s enthusiasm for cracking the case: “Even if you limited yourself to the population of the island (though, since the whole Argent group had only just landed, and had not yet interacted with any island natives, the murderer was massively unlikely to be found outside the group – but for the sake of argument), we were talking about 19 out of 102,530, which was the 99.998+th percentile. Eva had never reached such levels of near-certainty in any of her PhDs!” [pg. 124]   That is, it doesn’t matter who murdered the servant, because the solution is so statistically insignificant – simply convict all the suspects and you’re still ahead by the numbers.

This is very much the logic behind the system Jack Glass rails against: “It’s a system where raw materials are costly, and energy is costly, and the only thing that isn’t costly is human life.” [pp. 61-62]  The Gongsi are simply concerned with “extracting the maximum productivity” out of the prisoners [pg. 28]; the Lex is concerned only with preventing insurrection, rather than improving the lives of the sumpolloi; and, as John Clute has observed in his review of the novel, even Jack Glass is a husbandman, for whom “killing is enclosure” [pg. 248] – he, too, treats human life as subordinate to his own rebel’s goals. With an eye to contemporary predicaments, Roberts makes explicit this complicity: “Of course it is not comfortable to think that human beings, who breathe and feel and hope as we do, are a resource we exploit,” Iago admits in an exchange with Diana. “It is a very terrible thing. But the alternative is: to live a hermit life.” [pg. 242]

This is the same ambivalence which forms part of the appeal of crime fiction – Diana rejects the idea that she has a morbid fascination with death, but Iago challenges her to name a single mystery she enjoyed which did not involve one. In the Jack’s world, everyone is exploiting someone else – and the conceptual breakthrough which might transform the system that makes this inevitable is held at bay not just by the Ullanovs but by Glass himself. The whole solar system is abuzz with rumours of the discovery of a Faster Than Light drive, but the consequences of such a technology put their apparent benefits in the balance. It would have been easy to make Jack Glass a dystopian warning, set in an obviously evil future without cross-current or complication. In the event, it is something more important – and Glass’s supposed guilt, for the murders we both do and don’t see, becomes a more difficult thing, less open to Holmesian deduction or moralising.

An argument of this sophistication, on the other hand, is a difficult thing to weave into a generic labradoodle of a novel, and at times Roberts falls back on dialogue more than he has done in some of his other novels. The writing is never less than engaging, however, and Jack Glass is a page-turner in a way that, for instance, New Model Army (perhaps still his best work) wasn’t: Niall Alexander is right to argue that this narrative momentum is, for a mystery novel in which there is a no mystery (save for the identity of the narrator), a significant achievement. In addition, there are also some lovely images – Diana’s party arriving on Earth, unused to gravity “like newly-born calves” [pg. 104] – and some fine asides at the expense of both genres – “since [the evidence] suggests the murderer is a person of great physical strength, the murderer will actually be a very weak individual,” eureekas Diana [pg. 109]. There are, admittedly, rather too many expository conversations – “My understanding, Miss,” Iago opines before telling the reader something important; “So. Would it make sense … ” responds Diana in an attempt at showing her working [pg. 147] – but this can be seen as a means merely of apeing the hokey characteristics of ‘real’ detective fiction. In the final furlong of the novel, this wry generic aptness might go too far – there are a few unsatisfied groans to be had in the resolution of character arcs and motivations – but it may nevertheless be a failure central to Roberts’s project.

China Miéville has infamously pledged to write a novel in every genre. He has since half-disowned his promise, but Roberts has taken up the baton and is going one better – it is increasingly his aim, it would seem, to write a single novel which encompasses every genre. If this is an odd goal, and if Chris Priest is ‘coming around’ to the idea that oddness may be a factor in Roberts’s favour, some of us saw the light rather earlier. Indeed, the serious purpose of Jack Glass’s puckishness is not so much odd as adventurous – not so much peculiar as potent. Roberts himself may or may not, without a tantrum as entertaining as Priest’s, have given up hope of being named a recipient of the Clarke Award; but there must surely still be a judge out there who will make it so.

Popular belief has it the old SF Masterworks covers were better. Popular belief is wrong.

The more books you read, the harder good reading becomes. Not because you grow bored, but because there is a danger of becoming complacent. The regular reader, the reviewer and perhaps most of all the critic must constantly guard against employing the same old filters to brand new books. Many books yield relatively easily to the regular reader; the temptation will always be to take the path of least resistance, employing the tools and methods you’ve used before to good effect. The self-conscious effort required not to do so may be doomed to failure, but it’s the first duty of the reader. Few books are so discombobulating that they don’t encourage one methodology or another.

Of the stories of Gene Wolfe, on the other hand, that eminent critic and uber-regular reader, John Clute, once wrote: “They make me feel as though I’ve read or wrestled with a story way outside my grasp, that I’ve somehow been translated to the innards, and that once inside find myself clinging to the inside walls of a building by Escher built of Braille.” This is very much how I feel having read for the first time Wolfe’s linked trio of novellas, collected under the title The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I was inspired by Martin over at Everything Is Nice, who identified a similar gap in his reading. “I was reminded of Sacsayhuamán,” he wrote of the novel, “its interlocking parts constructed so seamlessly that it shouldn’t be possible.”

This, too, is just right. The three novellas – ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, ‘”A Story” by John V Marsch’, and ‘V.R.T.’ – reflect and refract each other constantly. But the links are far from apparent – they must not just be teased but crow-barred out, ferreted and foraged for. I confess to pausing in my reading to trawl the web for secondary material, and in this I felt a little like the adventure gamer who sits at the screen with a walkthrough close to hand; but The Fifth Head of Cerberus demands re-reads, and, in the absence of those, what limited materials I found undoubtedly enhanced my appreciation of this tricksy work. At the same time, I’m not sure I trust the urge, most clearly exhibited in what I’ve seen by Robert Borski, to read The Fifth Head of Cerberus as a puzzle to be solved: where are the abos, who is John Marsch, what is Maitre? In his introduction to the new SF Masterworks edition, Adam Roberts (for it is he) resists this reading, and that is to his credit. The novel seems much stranger and more oblique than all that.

Wolfe’s prose style ranges, as Niall tweeted to me last night, “from dry to austere”, and this surprised me: everything I’d heard about the book, and my very experience of reading it, would have led me to expect elaborately, deliberately, rich language. Wolfe’s inspirations – Proust, Dante, the Bible – are indulgent in their use of language; The Fifth Head of Cerberus achieves a similar air of parable or poem without anything like the same technique. This is one of the many ways in which Wolfe defies the usual strategies of reading: though his novel has the feel of deeply symbolic myth, it is so matter-of-fact, so baldly itself, that it cannot properly be read as allegory or fable. There is something disconcerting in this, an uncertainty of understanding which is of course fitting for what can be read as a thoroughly ambivalent coming-of-age novel. The way the text shifts depending on your angle is a function of its refusal to be reduced to single readings and singular meanings: it is a novel full of duality, in which John Marsch is both human anthropologist and clandestine abo; this is its weird strength, the source of its impertience towards the usual methods.

I’m no fan of Seamus Heaney, but a line from his ‘Personal Helicon’ comes to mind: “I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” In the opening novella, Maitre, and all those clones before him, seek to achieve self-knowledge (and self-perfection) by endless repetition of themselves. What Wolfe achieves in his writing is a cacophonous echo chamber, in which allusion and elision repeatedly rebound around the reader. The darkness echos, then, loud and clear; but the meaning, the novel’s knowledge of itself, is one of eternally shifting shape.


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