"'Ockham's razor,' scoffed Iago. 'The most ridiculous use of metaphysical steel in the history of thought.'"
'Jack Glass' is a melding of golden age detective fiction and golden age SF, which allows Adam Roberts to play with the classic tropes of both genres. Each of the three sections, as Roberts informs the reader in the prologue, is a locked room mystery, a prison story and a whodunnit, and the murderer is always Jack Glass. The mystery lies in the how and the why, which Roberts shrewdly identifies as being more important and more interesting questions. The book is also a deeper exploration into the reasons and motivations of the murderer; 'Jack Glass' asks if there are ever extenuating circumstances in which murder can be justified, and how much the reader can feel sympathy and empathy for a character who is a sociopathic murderer. Roberts also draws parallels between the sociopathy of the murderer and that of late period capitalism. The far future society depicted in 'Jack Glass' is rigidly hierarchical, in which the great number of the general populace are regarded as a cheap, expendable resource, and Roberts compares and contrasts the systematic inhumanity with Jack Glass' horrific crimes and his view of other people as tools, despite the idealism central to his character. This is a fantastically ambitious book, both in what it sets out to achieve, and its tightly structured mysteries, yet it is consistently compelling and enjoyable.
The first section of the book, 'In The Box', sees Jack Glass and six other prisoners marooned on an asteroid for crimes against the Ulanovs, the dynasty that rules the solar system. As part of their sentence they have 11 years in which to make the asteroid habitable with the limited tools left to them, at which case they will be picked up and the asteroid sold off as valuable real estate, or die in the process. The asteroid itself provides the locked room, as no one can get in or out of it, and the prisoners provide a cast with a suitably varied and suspicious backgrounds to all act as potential suspects for a murder. But the box in the title refers also to another locked room, the part of Jack Glass' brain where he keeps his murderous instincts shut up so that he can function normally in society. What makes Jack Glass, the Notorious Killer, special amongst a group of thugs, especially when, as Roberts slyly reveals over the course of the narrative, almost all of the prisoners are guilty of murder, but have avoided the Ulanovs' death sentence due to various extenuating circumstances? Murder is generally regarded as taboo for obvious reasons, but given certain extreme circumstances one's mileage might vary, and Roberts explores this thorny moral area through these characters. None of the prisoners view themselves as murderers, and all are quick to point out their extenuating circumstances, despite the fact that none of these make them particularly sympathetic. Jack Glass is initially the most sympathetic character here; his missing legs make him an easy target for bullying, yet despite this he is not particularly resentful towards his fellow prisoners. He frequently tries to keep the peace and stands up for and comforts Gordio, the prisoner at the very bottom of the pecking order. This makes the horrific way that he murders all the prisoners, and the way he uses Gordio's body to make his escape, all the more shocking. Yet shouldn't all murder be shocking? Ultimately we are still looking at the extinguishing of another person's life against their will, however gruesome the method or however the killer justifies themselves, why should the moral line crossed be different? Perhaps the issue is clouded by an economic system that values people as a commodity. As one of the prisoners Mo, an economics student who was arrested for people trafficking, puts it:
"Robots are expensive now, but they were vastly more so then. People. though, are cheap, and getting cheaper. They keep breeding, and that means they're always becoming relatively less valuable. We're always the cheapest option. We're always the cheapest option. We're losing absolute value with every generation."
Ultimately Mo's view of people as an expendable economic resource comes directly from the system he was raised in, which in its own way is just as sociopathic as Jack Glass' use of Gordio's corpse to escape the asteroid.
The second part of the book, 'The FTL Murders', echoes the classic Agatha Christie set up, with a servant being murdered in the servants' quarters of the Argent family stately home. Here Roberts makes up for the entirely male cast of the previous prison story by focusing on Diana and Eva Argent, the heirs to the prestigious Argent family's fortune as data collectors and analysers for the Ulanovs. Roberts clearly has a lot of fun writing Diana and Eva's vaguely Mitford sisters-esque voices, and his portrayal of them as pampered, privileged individuals serves to contrast the desperate lives the servants were plucked from on overpopulated, violent orbital bubbles subsisting on algae. In this case the locked room is the servants' quarters, but Roberts also explores how the Argent sisters' pampered existence in a tightly guarded and heavily watched house is also a kind of prison and locked room, that isolates them from the experiences and existence of the vast majority of people in the solar system. Jack Glass, in this instance disguised as Diana and Eva's loyal and long-suffering tutor Iago, has arranged the murder as a birthday present for Diana, partly because she loves solving murder mysteries, but also in order to shock her into an empathy and understanding of the worth of other people's lives. Ironically Jack Glass' coldly calculated murder disrupts Diana's sheltered existence enough for her to develop into a more sympathetic and empathetic character. Roberts again expertly manipulates the reader's sympathy; after Jack Glass' brutal murders in the previous section it would be hard for the reader to feel sympathy for the character again, but Iago is introduced as a separate and sympathetic character, both more grounded and wiser than both of the girls he looks after and genuinely caring for them. The reader already sympathises with Iago before the reveal of who he is. The book again asks us why we feel grades of sympathy for victims. In this case, the murder victim turns out to be a rapist, and Jack Glass, rather than violently eviscerating him, simply provides Sapho, the rapist's victim, with the means and opportunity to dispatch him. The reader is forced to confront why they might be more comfortable with this than with the previous murders. Diana's fondness for solving murder mysteries adds a layer of meta-commentary to Iago and Diana's arguments about Jack Glass' actions; when Jack Glass points out that part of the appeal of murder mysteries over mere crime stories is their very morbidity, he is addressing the reader as much as Diana. And in 'The FTL Murders', we begin to get an idea of the stakes of the novel. There is another locked room in the novel: the speed of light, which restricts space travel to the solar system and allows the Ulanovs to exert their rule over the entire human race. There are rumours going round that an engineer called McAuley discovered the secret to FTL travel, and that the Argents, being masters of information, must somehow have this secret on them. Everyone is interested in FTL because it would completely disrupt the power structure of the Ulanovs, giving the people the power to escape the rigid power hierarchy the Ulanovs enforce. However Jack Glass understands that any FTL drive would, by increasing the c in the equation E = mc2, produce an incredible amount of energy, allowing the technology to be misused as a species-killing bomb. Jack Glass claims he is acting to prevent the death of the solar system and the entire human race, which justifies his acts of violence. Again it is up to the reader how much they agree with this.
The third section of the book, 'The Impossible Gun', has Jack Glass' orbital bubble home as the locked room, and in this case the murder victim is Bar-le-duc, the legendary police officer and the Sherlock Holmes to Jack Glass' Moriarty, who is mysteriously vapourised by a supremely powerful gun moments after arresting Jack Glass in return for Diana's guaranteed safety. This section sees Roberts playing with the SFnal concepts he has built up so far, with the FTL drive acting as the impossible murder weapon, its distortion of relativity meaning that its discharge occurs before Jack Glass fires it, thus setting up the mystery. This section also allows Roberts to explore the world he has created in more depth; while the first two parts of the book were limited by their concepts to specific places, here we get to see the orbital bubbles in which the vast majority of the poor live, breaking just as much of the law as they can get away with in order to sustain themselves without drawing the attention of the police. This shows the contrast between the high technology luxury enjoyed by powerful families like the Argents and the subsistence level that everyone else is reduced to living at. The novel points up the unfairness and absurdity of this situation, even as it acts as a satirical extension of the gap between the haves and have-nots in our world at the present. This section of the book also explores Diana's growth of character, which is wonderfully handled. Over the course of the book she matures from the bratty, spoilt heiress she is when first introduced to a more sympathetic character in charge of her own agency. Dealing with the collapse of her house and the betrayal of her sister, as well as seeing how the rest of the solar system lives and having to take part in their world, forces her to mature, to the extent that she is able to confidently brush off Jack Glass' advances at the end of the book. It is here where Roberts' manipulation of the reader's sympathy really pays off. Jack Glass has become a much more sympathetic character, but by the end of the book, whilst she acknowledges everything he's done for her, Diana is smart enough to walk away from him. For all that we understand Jack Glass' reasons and motivations for what he does, Roberts never quite lets us or Diana forget the sociopath hiding inside him.