In Jack Glass (The Story of a Murderer), Adam Roberts sabotages the golden age of science fiction and detective fiction. Genre conventions are used and abused as the novel slowly morphs into parody. There is a distinct postmodern style, which I often enjoy; but, after an interesting set up, I was disappointed with the novel’s unsatisfactory resolution. Jack Glass won the BSFA Award (2012) and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (2013) for best novel.
Throughout the novel, the word impossible is used as an ingredient for postmodern deconstruction; the impossible is merely very difficult. While reading, I was reminded of a line in The Princess Bride when a character (Vezzini) keeps using the word inconceivable, and another character (Inigo Montoya) responds by saying: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The book is divided into three sections, with (at least) one murder in each section. The novel’s intriguing introduction makes it clear that Jack Glass is the murderer in each section, but the why and how are the unknowns that provide the mystery elements. Each successive section increases the scope of the novel, both in terms of setting, and plot convolutions.
The first section is quite brutal and grisly. It takes place on a prison asteroid (escape is impossible); there are seven criminals on the asteroid and one is, of course, Jack Glass. The prisoners are left alone on the asteroid and they are supplied with some rudimentary equipment to help them carve out a livable habitat. It is a cruel sentence, and the chance of survival is low, but the authorities will return for them in eleven years; either the criminals will be dead, or they will have made a habitable asteroid that can be sold for a profit (the prisoners would be free, but they would receive no money).
The second section takes place on Earth, where two rich, genetically modified sisters — Diana (almost sixteen) and Eva (twenty-one) — have come from space to stay at a family manor; they have a retinue of servants, bodyguards, and a tutor. Jack Glass is in disguise, but his true identity soon becomes obvious to the reader. The Earth’s gravity makes simple movements awkward (for those used to the low gravity of space), a servant is murdered (Jack Glass’ part in the murder is specious), and there is much more going on than it first appears; among other things, there is a hint that a connection exists between supernovas and faster than light travel (of course, FTL travel is impossible). There is a great deal of unscrupulous political maneuvering between powerful clans. The plot thickens.
The final murder — a seemingly impossible event — takes place at Jack’s home in space.
In each section, Jack Glass is reinvented and each modification in his character causes the reader to redefine the novel’s conventions. A step-by-step stripping of Jack’s masked personas takes place; I suppose this is an attempt to evoke sympathy in the reader, but his raison d’être eventually succumbs to caricature (perhaps this is intended as another shot with the postmodern deconstruction ray-gun).
Jack Glass is well-written — some of the writing is excellent — but the novel is too smartassed for its own good. It is an enjoyable read, but lacks the depth required to sufficiently oil the postmodern gears that Roberts is so eager to grind.
I’ve read two novels by Adam Roberts (the other being Yellow Blue Tibia) and I think he has the potential for an exceptional book, so I’ll keep working through his oeuvre (although I may become impatient if all of his novels begin with great promise and end with inefficacy). He has written a new novel — Bête — that will be published later this year.