Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass (2012) carries the subtitle ‘A Golden Age Story’, which, for me at least, problematised the book before I’d even started reading it. Other than writing that was published between two dates (nominally 1938 – 1946, though debate rages on…), I’ve never been able to figure what unifying factor exactly constitutes ‘Golden Age’ Science Fiction. Having been published in 2012, Jack Glass’ subtitle implies that there’s some quality inherent in Golden Age-ness that’s independent from the date of composition, though the novel itself doesn’t really offer any suggestions as to what this quality might be.
Jack Glass certainly isn’t a planet-hoping space adventure of the pulp variety (though there are nods to this), nor does it pit some moral paradigm of hero against an unequivocally evil villain, and it’s not particularly Hard SF; all of which have, at one point or another, been put forward as Golden Age genre markers. This is further complicated by some of Roberts’ stylistic choices: the prose is characterised by rampant and strange neologisms, there’s a very un-Golden Age focus on the politics of this far-future solar system, and the whole thing is filtered through the modernist device of an unreliable narrator. Oh Adam Roberts, you tricksy game-player you.
But maybe I’m looking at this ‘Golden Age’ subtitle through the wrong lens. As well as being a Science Fiction story, Jack Glass is also a murder mystery novel (it’s actually three locked room/murder mysteries brought together under one, over-arching story), so perhaps the intended referent of this subtitle isn’t just Golden Age SF, but Golden Age detective fiction, too. The locked room mystery is certainly a staple of classic Crime Fic.
However, considering Jack Glass as a Golden Age Detective novel is, it turns out, even more problematic than reading it in terms of Golden Age Science Fiction. But I guess all of this red-herring, self-problematising and game-playing trickery is characteristic of Roberts’ style. For example: we’re told on the very first page that the killer is the titular Jack himself, which immediately positions the novel as a how- rather than who-dunit. Similarly, several of Roland Knox’s famous so-called ‘Ten Commandments’ of the detective genre are flamboyantly broken by Roberts in the course of the three stories: the solution to one of the murders relies on some long-winded explanation of a technological MacGuffin, while the narrator (or ‘Watson’ figure, if you must) conceals their true identity as a physical participant in the narrative until the very end of the book. Most damaging, though, is the fact that Jack Glass himself is privy to information that he pretends he isn’t privy to (until he absolutely has to reveal it, that is), which bathetically undermines the denouement of at least one of the stories, as well as some of the tension the book is attempting to generate.
The first of the three stories is, by some margin, my favourite: an SF-nal take on the impossible prison break, which sees Jack (here ‘Jac’) and several other crims imprisoned inside a tiny asteroid, given two drills so that they can hollow-out some living space for themselves, and enough supplies to last their sentence (if they cooperate, that is). Jack’s inevitable escape from this apparently inescapable prison is brilliantly inventive and utterly unpredictable, but it’s the politics of the prisoners’ relationships that really makes this story shine. The traditional dichotomy of alpha and beta prisoners (with all of the rape and subjugation this entails) is manipulated by Jack to his own advantage, as he weaves lies, misdirects and false friendships into his plan for escape. In contrast to the book’s light-hearted and playful prologue, this first story is nauseatingly violent and dark; seemingly the least Adam Roberts thing that Adam Roberts has ever written. Tempering this brutal content, however, is the character of Jack himself: a spritely self-interested manipulator whose appalling behaviours make for weirdly addictive reading: a challenge to the worryingly popular critical notion that all protagonists should be ‘likeable’.
The second and third stories shift focus to Diana Argent, a fifteen-year-old heiress to one of the solar system’s ruling families, and a freakishly gifted solver of mysteries (albeit simulated VR mysteries). There’s even some suggestion that Diana has been born and bred in an Iain-Banks’-Player of Games kinda way to be the galaxy’s greatest detective. Her character’s development is refreshingly deep; the novel tracks a convincing journey from precocious and over-confident spoiled rich girl, to a morally interested, politicised and self-aware young woman (Jack Glass is similar to Roberts’ previous novel By Light Alone in this regard).
Diana initially approaches the murders she’s investigating as a sort of game, akin to the simulated adventures she grew up playing. But as the body count rises, and her own safety is threatened, her wide-eyed glee at the prospect of solving a ‘real’ murder mystery is replaced by fear and a cogent self-analysis. There’s a nice moment when she admits that “An invented whodunit has the same relation to real life as a chess puzzle has to an actual game of chess”.
But man does this complicate things further. As readers, of course, we’re aware that Jack Glass is exactly the type of “invented whodunit” that Roberts was just questioning the value of. The two most conspicuous aspects of Jack Glass are the provocative subtitle (‘A Golden Age Story’), and the book’s constant pairing of murder mysteries and games. When this is coupled with the novel’s predominant imagery – that of break out and escape – perhaps it wouldn’t be too twee to suggest that the sort of game Adam Roberts is really playing is an implied questioning of the genre boundaries of “Golden Age” SF and Detective fiction. The book’s subtitle is more likely an invitation to question and investigate the tenets of golden age-ness (reader become detective..?), than it is a definite statement about the book’s genre. As, as we have already seen, the very moniker ‘Golden Age’ is riddled with problems of definition.
Superficially, then, Jack Glass is a Science Fictional murder mystery – and an excellent one at that – , but on a subtextual level, the book definitely had me scratching my head over issues of genre identity, and science fiction’s unhelpful structuralist habit of pigeon-holing books into neat genre categories. The three mysteries make for fantastic page-turning reading, and the characters (notably Diana Argent) are impressively well-developed. But at the same time, Jack Glass’ un-crime fiction stylistic ticks (lotsa neologisms, an unreliable narrator, revealing the murderer on the first page etc.) had me wondering what it was that Adam Roberts really wants to reader to investigate.