Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer

Posted on: March 17, 2014

Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer

Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.

Adam Roberts has explained that his most recent novel, Jack Glass, which won him the 2013 BSFA Best SF Novel award, was created out of a desire to marry Golden Age science fiction and Golden Age detective fiction. Set in a future where space travel is common, allowing humans to have moved away from Earth, the world of Jack Glass is controlled by certain ruling families who are part of a political hierarchy. While different ethnicities and races as we know them don’t seem to matter as much anymore, there remains a great deal of social inequality. ‘Sumpolloi’, the poor, live in slums in floating bubbles, often forcibly evacuated and shoved into others’ spaces, while the rich, of course, live the high life quite literally, spending most of their time far above the Earth, where they live controlled and intellectually evolved lives. The knowledge that no one has achieved yet, however, is the ability to travel faster than light — apparently.

Jack Glass is about an impossible escape, an impossible murder and an impossible gun. As Roberts writes, “one of these mysteries is a prison story. One is a regular whodunnit. One is a locked-room mystery.” They combine to make what is a strange, complicated novel, which is also a love story with a strange, cold protagonist, the generally unappealing and perplexing Jack Glass himself, who is a part of “the greatest mystery of our time”.

In ‘In the Box’, the first part of the novel, we find seven prisoners dumped on an uninhabited asteroid in deep space. There, in a sort of space age chain gang, they are to dig into the rock before their air runs out in order to find water and grow their food to survive the 11-year-long sentence. A hierarchy is fast established, as if in a playground, with the violent bullies at the top of the pecking order and the fat, clumsy guy at the bottom. One up from the fat, clumsy guy is double amputee Jac, who is the quietest of the lot at first, always trying not to engage with the bullies while collecting small pieces of glass from within the asteroid. Quietest, and then of course, as it turns out, the most systematically calculating and frightening. There is an eventual escape, of course, and the methods involved in it are not for the faint hearted.

The second part of the book, ‘The FTL Murders’, begins when two young genetically engineered heiresses of incredible intellectual abilities are sent to Earth to become accustomed to gravity, along with their tutor Iago. In an entirely secure house, filled with people who are barely able to walk in gravity and are drugged to love their employers Diana and Eva, a strange murder takes place. Many questions arise, and not all of them are about the murder itself. Are the young women being tested to see which of the two will be the one to lead their clan? Or is there a larger, political game being played here? How is Jack involved in all of this?

The larger game does indeed come in play in the third part of Jack Glass. In ‘The Impossible Gun’, Jack and his student Diana are hiding in a sealed, secret habitat from Jack’s arch enemy, when someone is shot with a gun that should not exist. This last part of the book brings together the mysteries planted earlier — does faster than light travel exist? If so, who holds the secrets? What have the ruling clan, the Ulanovs, really been after and from whom? Why has Jack Glass done everything he has done? We’ve been told from the very start that this is a book about a murderer, and that Jack Glass is that man, so what remains to be understood is his motivation and his method.

Jack Glass himself is a strange, distant and somewhat cold character. This isn’t just a matter of an unlikeable protagonist, but also of one who defies complete understanding and empathy, simply because so much about him is unknown. It is almost as if at each major reveal about him he appears to be a different person.

Roberts is an interesting writer, regardless of whether Jack Glass is to the particular taste of all readers or not. Prolific and diverse in his writing style, he has published a dozen novels, half a dozen parody novels and SF-related non-fiction, all in the last decade or so. Roberts is also an academic and a professor of 19th century literature at the University of London and has set himself the task of writing a short story in every popular sub-genre and premise of science fiction.

Part one of Jack Glass begins with a quotation from a Liz Phair song. Based on these few details alone, it is clear that Roberts is probably cleverer than many readers, and that may well make his writing inaccessible to some.