Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –
MINOR SPOILER ALERT
Golden Age science fiction (the era of Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein when space-exploration sci-fi first began to capture a larger audience) with Golden Age detective fiction (the era of the classic Miss-Marple-type misdirection whodunit).
He has done an able job of it. His novel is a series of relatively fast-moving brain-teasers, and the puzzling circumstances surrounding each of the murders are clever and creative. He has also created a credible science fiction environment in which humanity has colonized several planets, moons, and asteroids. And, for the most part, the storytelling keeps you turning the pages.
Roberts breaks the story up into three parts, each one centered on a different murder, with each murder involving the notorious, elusive criminal Jack Glass in some way. The first part of the book is definitely the most gripping (and also the most gory).
In the universe of Jack Glass, our solar system is run by a set of hereditary oligarchs, the Ulanovs, who rule with a firm hand. In their criminal justice system, if you commit any crime short of than murder, your penalty is to be taken out to the asteroid belt and sealed into a hollowed-out asteroid with an air scrubber, a drill, and some food spores. They come back to get you in eleven years and if you survive until then, you’re free. If you don’t, well—you don’t.
In the first part of the book, Jack Glass, the notorious, legless criminal who, some say, has killed thousands (or possibly millions) of people, is captured for a lesser crime and thrown into an asteroid with six other convicts. The story follows them as they scrabble for life during the first couple years of their term, drilling for ice, growing food, and establishing a somewhat tenuous and ruthless hierarchy.
It is a horrific situation, especially for Jack, as one of the lower men on the totem pole. He’s clearly the smartest of the prisoners, and he has flashes of anger when the others behave idiotically and cruelly towards him and each other. But, for the most part, he is able to hold himself in, maintaining incredible control, realizing his life depends on patience.
The story gets progressively harder to take emotionally, even as the men are able to achieve some stability in their physical comfort. But, finally, Jack is able to escape in a brilliant (if gruesome, twisted, and murder-filled) getaway.
Many years then pass between Jack’s asteroid escape and the second part of the book, which is the weakest section of the novel.
In the Ulanov’s solar system, many specialized functions are done by noble houses of elites bred specifically for their jobs: transport, commerce, science, and so on. The Ulanovs need these noble houses, but are also wary of them, since they are all potential rivals for power.
The story slows to a crawl as we follow 16-year-old Diana, one of the daughters and heirs of the one of these houses: Clan Argent, the Transport House. Diana has been bred for creative problem-solving, so when one of her servants is murdered while she’s vacationing on Earth, the police defer to her to solve the murder. But she is a typical bratty, privileged 16-year-old—breathless, impatient, haughty, inconsiderate, self-centered, and full of aristocratic prejudice and cruelty. It’s difficult to find the motivation to keep reading through most of part two when Diana is the one you have to follow.
If you keep plugging, the story finally does start to pick up a bit when someone bombs the compound where Diana is staying and she has to flee. Diana and her servant Sapho are bundled into a shuttlecraft and rescued—by none other than the notorious, unassuming criminal Jack Glass.
Diana doesn’t realize it, but rumors have been swirling around the solar system that her clan has the secret to faster-than-light propulsion. The three escapees theorize that the other clans—or possibly the Ulanovs themselves—are trying to kidnap her in an attempt to get the FTL technology.
During their escape, cut off from her ever-present technology, realizing people are trying to kill her and that she has no more control over her surroundings, Diana finally starts to grow up. She feels ashamed of how she acted, and starts to take more responsibility for herself and others. This starts to make it a lot easier to read again, and somewhat more appealing again as a story…
…Just in time for part three of the novel (the second-best part), which lopes along relatively easily (albeit not as excitingly as part one) to the end of the book. This part starts with Jack, Diana, and Sapho caught up in the circumstances of yet another murder: this time, the murder of celebrated police detective Bar-le-Duc.
The third part starts with Jack, Diana, and Sapho fleeing from Earth to Jack’s secret bubble house in the “Sump,” the haphazard settlements beyond the moon where the poor subsist on spore-based food and recycled air. The Sump is also a hive of rebellion against the Ulanovs, which is why Jack has his house there; it is at this point that we discover that he is actually a highly principled anti-imperial activist who cares deeply about the entire human race.
And, it turns out, his rescue of Diana was not a coincidence at all. Jack knows that the physics of any FTL drive—including the one that Diana’s house theoretically has—by definition put it at risk of being made into an enormous bomb that could wipe out the solar system and thus the whole human race. Jack is willing to protect Diana with his life to prevent anyone from getting hold of it.
Thus they plan to hide in Jack’s house to prevent anyone from getting at Diana. Celebrated police detective Bar-le-Duc catches up with them, but, before he can bring them in, he is shot from inside the house, but by no one who was in the house at the time. And it is all caught on video by a robot.
They are thus faced with yet another mystery to solve, in a race against time before they are caught by authorities and accused of Bar-le-Duc’s murder. And, while they’re at it, they have to figure out who is behind Diana’s attempted assassination/kidnaping, if the FTL device really exists, and if they can prevent it from ever being used.
All three murders are “locked-room” mysteries, and all three are pretty clever. On the whole, Jack Glass is a good blend of classic sci-fi and detective fiction, as the author intended. Jack is charismatic and a good character to follow; a touch sinister but with strong, valiant political ideals. (Although, as I say, Diana leaves something to be desired.) The plot does step along apace, for the most part. (Although, as I say, the first section is definitely the most riveting and might have made for an excellent novella all by itself.) And one fun thing is that Roberts certainly is not hesitant about describing gore in incredibly creative ways—particularly the behavior of blood in zero gee (or in one gee, from the point of view of someone who has lived their whole life in space, which is a mind-warping way to look at it).