Jack Glass (2012) – Apply Story to End Confusion
0. The Habitually Unsatisfying Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is arguably one of the cleverest men in contemporary science fiction. A supremely gifted critic as well as a successful genre parodist, Roberts has acquired a reputation for writing novels that specifically set out to ‘mess with’ some aspect of genre history: In Splinter (2007) and Swiftly (2008) Roberts took foundational works of science fiction and updated them using 21st Century genre tropes. In Yellow Blue Tibia (2009) he took careful aim at Soviet futurism and explored the weird overlap between genre fiction and political propaganda. New Model Army (2010) can be seen as looping the cycle back to the beginning by reinventing the libertarian near future thrillers of Charles Stross and Ken MacLeod as a sort of post-cyberpunk collectivist fairy tale, thus connecting contemporary SF back to the literary roots that Roberts unceremoniously dug up in Splinter and Swiftly. I use the word ‘clever’ in quite a specific sense as while there are many different ways in which novels and writers can be clever, the novels of Adam Roberts are clever in a way that is seldom encountered outside of postmodern fiction.
When people describe the work of authors such as Joseph Heller, Robert Pynchon, William Gaddis and Jorge Luis Borges as ‘clever’ they are not usually referring to the intricate plotting, thematic relevance, insightful characterisation or beautiful prose that undoubtedly runs through many of their writings. Theirs is a cleverness of allusion and subversion that presents readers with a steady stream of winks and references designed to delight those who have read widely enough to be in on the joke. Postmodern fiction is seldom about making you cry or changing your life, it aims for the short, mirthless bark of appreciative laughter: Hah! I see what you did there… very clever. Clever tricks for graduate students and wine glasses raised appreciatively across crowded cocktail parties.
Those of us who pay attention to such things have often wondered why Roberts has yet to win a major award in the science fiction field and the sad truth may well be that Roberts comes across as being too clever and calculating for an audience whose choice of reading material is determined by their desire for authentic emotional experiences: Where are the strong characters we can empathise with? Where are the soaring plotlines that have you punching the air in triumph? The answer is that this is not really what postmodern fiction is about and the gap between the aesthetic goals of postmodernism and the aesthetic goals of populist genre fiction goes some way to explaining why a lot of people appear to be finishing Adam Roberts novels feeling challenged, impressed and yet somehow vaguely dissatisfied. This is an essay about what is to be made of this sense of dissatisfaction.
1. A Vulture sits on a Post, feasting on the Corpse of Modernity
The term ‘postmodern condition’ is a fancy way of referring to the fact that all of the religions and ideologies taken for granted by previous generations have now been shown to be either false or downright oppressive. People used to simply assume that their worldview was correct and that their values were immutable facts about the world, now they are forced to recognise that their worldview is but one of the many meta-narratives competing for dominance in a planetary marketplace of ideas. Postmodern fiction attempts to capture this vision of the world by setting out to subvert traditional narrative structures and reveal that, much like the myths of previous generations, genre expectations are nothing more than social conventions reflecting a wider political status quo.
The problem with attempts to produce postmodern genre fiction is that while authors and readers revel in the sense of ‘cleverness’ that comes from wielding postmodern literary techniques, they frequently flinch from the consequences of seeing the world in postmodern terms. According to the critic Mark Fisher, the deconstructive process treats all of human history and culture as a series of potential commodities:
Capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence; which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts.
In other words, in order to borrow ideas from different cultures and texts, one must first detach those ideas from their original cultural contexts. However, when you pull an idea from its cultural context, you are also separating it from the historical and cultural forces that imbued that idea with much of its emotional and symbolic power. For example, if you came across the plaster cast of Trajan’s column in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, your reaction to that object would be very different to the one you might have upon encountering the real column in contemporary Rome or the original column erected in the second century to celebrate the Emperor Trajan’s victory in the Dacian wars. The products of literary deconstruction are like the V&A plaster casts: wrenched from their original contexts, they inspire neither awe nor patriotism but recognition and technical appreciation. In fact, the reason why postmodern fiction prizes cleverness and recognition is that these are the only emotional responses available to us once the deconstructive process has begun.
Many works of postmodern genre fiction ring false as while their authors are quite content to cultivate an air of rebellious innovation by subverting a few tropes here and there, the deconstructive process generally stops well before the author reaches either the traditional narrative structures associated with genre literature or the feelings created in the reader by those structures. For example, even though Charles Stross’s Laundry novels subvert tropes from both the fantasy and espionage genres, none of these subversions ever threaten the core of what are ultimately stories about a highly trained spy who uses magic to battle sinister forces and supernatural conspiracies. Similarly, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series began as a series of parodies but over time the wave of satire retreated back down the beach to reveal a traditional secondary fantasy world containing wizards, witches and heroes who crack wise about fantasy tropes that have long-since fallen out of fashion. Encouraged to view postmodernism as a garnish rather than an actual meal, genre readers are often perplexed when confronted with works that actually commit themselves to the full emotional and spiritual consequences of what it means to live in a postmodern era.
Adam Roberts’ novel Jack Glass is a piece of postmodern science fiction that does not so much flinch from the postmodern condition as lay it down on the couch and get it to talk about its mother. The big idea behind the novel is a high-concept collision between the golden age science fiction story and the golden age detective stories of Dorothy L. Sayers. Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham. However, look beyond the clever-clever trope wrangling and the usual tilting at out-dated genre conventions and you will find a novel that dares to ask why it is that the children of postmodernity seek solace in conventional narrative forms.
2. Structure, Dear Boy, Structure
Despite their cosmetic differences, the golden ages of detective and science fiction stand united in their absolute commitment to the idea of a universe that is both rational and comprehensible. This commitment is as evident in the square jaws of Heinlein’s capable men and the scientific verisimilitude of Asimov’s futures as it is in Ronald Knox’s confident assertion that a detective story
must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.
Despite the author’s claims that the novel arose from “a desire to collide together some of the conventions of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction and ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction”, Jack Glass displays neither the source material’s faith in cosmic rationality, nor its willingness to gratify the reader’s curiosity. In truth, this is a novel that apes the conventions of golden age genre literature whilst simultaneously exposing both their artificiality and profound dishonesty.
The novel is set in a mid-range future where a series of wars have lead to the abolition of democracy in favour of a simplified dynastic system of government. The simplicity of the book’s setting is of vital thematic importance as the novel is a demonstration that nothing is ever as simple as it first appears. Roberts presents this argument by progressively increasing both the scope and complexity of his story across a series of three vignettes.
We open on a group of prisoners who have been marooned inside an asteroid with a set of rudimentary tools and the instruction to either make the rock fit for human habitation or expire in the process. The simplicity of these instructions results in a simple set of character motivations: dig, build and survive. It is only once the prisoners gain access to supplies of air, food and water that the boundaries of the story expand to the point of allowing for personality clashes and political scheming. So restricted are the lives of the characters that when one of the characters begins collecting fragments of glass, the others mock him for his ability to think outside of their rocky little box.
We then move to a secure settlement on Earth where one of the solar system’s ruling dynasties has sent its future leaders in the hope that a little gravity will build up their willowy zero-G bodies. However, this trip to the bottom of a gravity-well also proves deceptively simple as the two teenaged dauphines and their elderly tutor soon find themselves confronted with an impossible murder: How can one of their servants have been killed when the only people present at the scene were servants rendered weak by zero-G upbringings and docile by high-level corporate psychopharmacology? As in the opening vignette, Roberts presents us with the image of a simple and self-contained world only to then bury that image under a mudslide of complexity: Was a serial killer responsible for the murder? Was the murder linked to the rumours that someone somewhere has developed faster-than-light travel? Were the teenaged investigators placed on the planet as part of some elaborate dynastic test? Was the murder the first shot in an impending system-wide civil war? Initially these questions seem not only absurd but also completely beyond the scope of the novel. However, the more the story unfolds, the less implausible these possibilities become. As Sherlock Holmes once put it:
Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.
This distinction between the outright impossible and the merely improbable is central to both golden age SF and the golden age Whodunits. In the case of golden age SF, the distinction between the impossible and the improbable is grounded in contemporary understandings of scientific thought while the golden age detective novel used genre conventions to rule out magic and ‘Chinamen’ whilst restricting the use of tricksy devices such as identical twins and secret passages. The reason for this important distinction is that both literary traditions rely upon self-imposed constraints as a means of generating affect.
The aim of golden age science fiction is to generate a sense of wonder. The sense of wonder created by artefacts such as Arthur C. Clarke’s monolith depends in part upon the assumption that the big dumb object in question is consistent with the laws of nature. After all, it is one thing to describe a miraculous fictional artefact but quite another to describe a miraculous fictional artefact that humanity might someday construct for itself. Without the constraints of physical law, anything could have happened in a golden age science fiction story and, as Paul Kincaid recently pointed out as part of his critique of current science fiction:
If anything can happen, then nothing matters.
The golden age of detective fiction is similarly reliant upon self-imposed constraints in so far as its primary source of literary affect is its capacity to intrigue and challenge the reader with an enticing puzzle. By making it clear that the solution to the whodunit lies within a range of reasonable possibilities, the author places the solution to the murder within the intellectual grasp of the reader. The more improbable the solution to the murder, the more of a challenge the novel presents and the greater the challenge posed by the novel, the greater the reader’s satisfaction upon correctly determining the killer’s identity. A detective novel that fails to limit its range of possible solutions is a novel that will neither arouse its audience’s curiosity nor gratify its audience by revealing the correct answer. The worst sin a golden age detective fiction author can commit is to wrong-foot his audience with a solution that is both unpredictable and unforeseeable even in hindsight, this would not so much gratify the audience as leave them feeling resentful and mildly humiliated.
Jack Glass subverts golden age genre literature by systematically undermining any attempt to draw a line between the improbable and the impossible. In the first section, we are told that it is impossible to escape from an asteroid prison and yet the story soon comes to revolve around a successful escape attempt. In the second section, we are told that it would have been impossible for any of the servants to commit a murder and yet the novel soon reveals not only how but also why one servant decided to murder another. Having presented us with two impossible things before breakfast, Roberts then completes the set with a murder that defies not only the laws of physics but also everything we know about the primary characters and their motivations.
By relentlessly expanding the scope and complexity of his setting in such a way as to drive his narrative through a series of familiar story types (e.g. the prison story, the classic whodunit and the locked-room mystery) Roberts continually pulls the rug from under the readers’ feet to create a universe that paradoxically becomes more alien and confusing the more we learn about it.
3. The Human Factor
While many works of postmodern genre fiction limit themselves to sneering at a couple of unfashionable tropes, Jack Glass leaves most of its traditional tropes in place and targets the narrative structures sustaining those tropes. This move allows Roberts to reach beyond the surface of genre and examine the reasons why people feel attracted to genre stories in the first place. Roberts achieves this greater degree of insight by creating a conceptual link between the readers’ expectations and those of the characters, meaning that each time he expands the scope of his story and changes the rules of the game, both the readers and characters are forced to re-orient themselves and seek out new sets of expectations.
The novel’s exploration of the postmodern condition rests primarily on the magnificently ambiguous figure of Jack Glass himself. At first, Glass comes across as the quintessential prison story protagonist whose humanity and resourcefulness elevate him above the stupid and brutal men with whom he is incarcerated. We then learn that the steel in Glass’s personality comes from the fact that he is a romantic revolutionary who will stop at nothing to free humanity from the chains of dynastic oppression. Finally, we are told that while Glass is a romantic revolutionary, he is also a heard-headed realist and someone willing to abandon all of their principles for the one they love. As you can probably imagine, this series of grand reveals works quite nicely to begin with as Glass is presented as being just mysterious and cunning enough to be a brilliant schemer who knows exactly what he is doing. However, the more Glass re-invents himself, the more obvious the tensions between the various identities become and the more obvious it is that each of these assumed identities exists solely for the purpose of making him appear sympathetic:
When marooned inside an asteroid with animalistic men, Glass assumes the role of a reasonable and humane individual right up until the moment when the situation demands that he be neither humane for reasonable.
When called upon to teach the children of the upper classes, Glass becomes the mole undermining the system from within right up until the moment when it transpires that he’s actually working to keep the system in place.
When everyone begins to betray one another in order to gain access to a dangerous new technology, Glass is the principled realist who would rather see the technology destroyed than have it further destabilise the political system. Needless to say, this identity also falls by the wayside when the moment comes for him to reveal that all of his actions were motivated by love.
Each time Roberts expands the scope of the narrative and changes the rules of the game, Glass adopts a new identity designed to take all the information we have about Glass and ‘spin’ it in such a way as to make his actions appear morally defensible. Glass is able to maintain the illusion of heroism by modelling each of his identities on an easily recognisable genre archetype. The problem is that, the more we learn about Glass and the world he inhabits, the harder it becomes for him to find a genre archetype that fits with everything we know about him and his world. In effect, Roberts keeps expanding his world until it outgrows the ideological certainties of the genre formulae that inspired it. Once the ideology of genre shatters, Glass’s assumed role as genre archetype becomes manifestly absurd and the literary spell is broken.
The novel ends with Glass making one last attempt at re-invention by presenting himself as a lovesick fool compelled to do unspeakable and irrational things in order to protect the woman he loves. Coming so soon after a series of re-inventions, this final attempt to ground Glass’s actions in a set of realistic human emotions rings completely false as we have by now seen this type of behaviour far too many times to be taken in by it. Roberts exploits this sense of implausibility to absolutely devastating effect by ending the novel on a socially awkward note as a sinister old man makes goo-goo eyes at a decidedly unimpressed teenager:
‘After what you told me on Doctor Zinovieff’s ship? I’m very fond of you.’
‘That’s a degree towards love,’ he pointed out.
‘Perhaps it is! I suppose it is. We do have a… bond, I suppose, you could say.
The awkward tone and unflinching psychological realism of this ending stands in stark contrast with the genre pomp that runs throughout the rest of the novel. This is the moment in which the myths surrounding Jack Glass finally dissolve revealing someone who is just as lost and confused as any of the book’s readers.
The twinge of regret and dissatisfaction felt by readers at the end of Jack Glass is reflected in the character’s complete sense of existential abandonment. Both Jack and the people reading his story yearn for the moment when the old genre conventions re-assert themselves and transform him into a hero but that moment never comes. It never comes because neither our world nor the world of Jack Glass are subject to the old meta-narratives and story conventions that make golden age genre such a comforting place to be.
We feel for Jack Glass as we have all been in the position he finds himself in at the end of the novel: we have all attempted to live our lives according to some tiny dramatic arc only to be confounded by the universe’s pig-headed refusal to provide us with either appropriate incidental music or a helpful laughter track. It is this gulf between reality and story that contains the postmodern condition. We are Jack’s sense of complete existential abandonment.
4. If Escapism is a Form of Spritual Junk Food then Golden Age Science Fiction is a Chicken Cottage Spicy Crunchy Mountain Burger.
Much like the work of Michael Haneke, Jack Glass is best approached as a work that uses the language of genre to comment upon the audience’s relationship to genre. As such, the novel is not only a clever deconstruction of familiar genre storytelling techniques but also an uncompromising demonstration of the psychological pitfalls involved in using traditional narrative structures as a template when making decisions about one’s life. Jack Glass presents old genre certainties as a form of spiritual junk food crammed into hungry mouths while more nutritious meals go stale on their plates.
Jack winds up utterly lost because he decided to rest his identity upon a series of short-term myths selected purely for their exculpatory potential. This migration from one psychologically comfortable lie to another mirrors that of the golden age genre fan who escapes the puzzling complexities of real life by immersing themselves in a series of simple, self-contained narrative worlds. Much like Jack, the reader feels utterly at home amidst the genre conventions as long as the story lasts but the second the story comes to an end, they are forced to hunt again for another short-term source of psychological certainty.
What is it about human psychology that makes us want Jack to redeem himself by saving the day? Why do we need one of the sisters to return and help solve the mystery? Why did we want the protagonists to make FTL freely available to all? The answer is that we are drawn to stories built around simple dramatic arcs because the realities of our day-to-day lives rarely fit into neat little dramatic packages with clear beginnings, engaging middles and emotionally satisfying ends. We need the butler to have done it for the sake of revenge because the alternative is that someone had too much to drink and wound up destroying their lives by doing something horrible. We need to lose ourselves in worlds beset by problems that can be decisively solved using a calculator and a laser gun because real-world problems tend to be messy and unpleasant things that diminish with time but never quite go away.
It is telling that, rather than exploring what Jack’s life might be like without the protection offered by literary templates, Roberts immediately hands the narration of the novel over to one of Glass’s companions who makes it clear that her job is to tell the story of Jack Glass:
I wept a little at her departure, and so did she, and only Jack did not, though I think he wished he could. But I have made my choice, now, which is to stay by his side. To listen to his account of his time, and his varied experiences. To tell his story.
To tell his story to you.
The passage’s strange sentence structures, weird punctuation and odd repetitions suggest both a lack of formal education and an ambition to become a great storyteller in order to do justice to both Jack and the reader. It is as though, having burned through a series of genre archetypes only to stand hermeneutically naked on the edge of space, Jack Glass is now more than ready to be sucked back up into a new world of stories. The almost inexistent gap between the end of one narrative and the beginning of another highlights the extent to which humans daisy chain their emotional investments in narrative; Having finished one film or novel, we move to another. Having played out one particular stage of our lives, we move on and re-invent ourselves.
The twinge of dissatisfaction felt at the end of Jack Glass is born of both irritation at the novel’s refusal to satisfy our spiritual demands and recognition that, like Glass himself, we are compelled to both consume and create stories in an effort to keep the harshness of the world at bay. We are sharks moving from kill to kill. We are junkies forever hustling for our next narrative fix. We are lost, we are found, we are heroes, we are villains and yet we are nothing at all. This is what is means to be alive. This is what it means to be postmodern.