Jack Glass is Adam Roberts’s best book by a long shot, though in hindsight it has some serious flaws. I think of Roberts (whom I’ve followed since his first book) as a genius premise-generator and so-so storyteller with a particular weakness with endings. The good news about Jack Glass is that (as usual) it is based on some sweet ideas and (not as usual) it is a terrific yarn. The bad news is that, yet again, it has a really disappointing ending — though here the problem isn’t execution so much as incompletion.
The book is divided into three parts that tell two stories. The first story is a prison breakout with the craziest prison and the freakiest breakout I’ve ever read. An asteroid reconstruction company purchases prisoners and then deposits them with minimal supplies and some mining equipment on some godforsaken rock in the middle of nowhere — for eleven years. The idea is that the company will send a ship back after that time, to discover one of two things: either the prisoners have out of horrid necessity carved out a habitable space, in which case the company frees the prisoners and sells the now-liveable asteroid at a healthy profit; or the prisoners are dead, in which case the company writes off the loss and (I would guess) claims a nice tax deduction.
This is a darkly hilarious premise, but somewhat unfortunately Roberts plays it straight. A legless prisoner named Jac [sic] is thrown into one of these asteroids with ten other reprobates, and what ensues could come straight from one of those prison exploitation films complete with brutal maulings, psychological torture, and degrading rapes. The story follows no particular arc except to show how Jac endures while others, rather horribly, do not, but as nasty as the story gets it’s told with a certain panache. More importantly, by the end Roberts gets around to hinting at bigger mysteries just before a spectacular explosion of violence transitions to the second story.
Now before I get to that second story I want to make clear that while I did enjoy this prison tale it basically has nothing to do with the rest of the book, and it leaves unanswered a huge huge question, which is — SPOILER ALERT — how the hell does Jac, moving at sublight speeds in a samizdat spacesuit, get anywhere near civilization?
The second story is in the Golden Age genre of far-future science fiction, and concerns the young daughters of a wealthy and powerful family vacationing on Earth when suddenly a murder takes place. At first the daughters (who are genetic geniuses) treat the murder as nothing more than a pleasant diversion, but the investigation spirals into a deadly political struggle and a thrilling escape.
This story is very good except that it focuses on the wrong thing and ends too abruptly. The conceit of the entire book is that it presents several “mysteries,” and in the second story Roberts does nothing more than answer those mysteries (mostly having to do with how various people died). But it turns out that what’s really interesting about the story is the broader political struggle, both between the families that rule the solar system and between the rulers and the proletariat. These tensions are brought to a boil by the added complication of rumored faster-than-light technology — which must be a fantasy, according to the laws of physics, and yet which is enough as a mere idea to trigger devastating machinations.
I would have loved a book that really wrestled with this political story. But Jack Glass is content to be a mere clever puzzle box of a novel — hinting at all of this delicious conflict but doing little more with it beyond providing a background for its mysteries.