Personal identity, liberty, gender and power: An Appreciation of Charles Stross’ Glasshouse, the 2007 Prometheus Award winner for Best Novel

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and to make clear what libertarian futurists saw in each of our past winners that made them deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy, we’re continuing in 2020 to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for Charles Stross’ Glasshouse, the 2007 Prometheus Award winner for Best Novel:

Charles Stross’ 2006 novel explores themes of ubiquitous State surveillance and the struggle of individuals to survive in the face of severe pressure to conform.

Set in a distant future and taking place in the same universe as Stross’ novel Accelerando, though at a much later point in its history, Glasshouse revolves around un-rehabilitated war criminals using every tool at their disposal to build a society that they can control absolutely.

At the center of the story, set in the 27th century when interstellar travel is by teleport gate, is Robin, an ex-spy who wakes up in a clinic with most memories missing. Soon, he realizes that he’s a demobilized soldier from a civil war that’s ended, and that someone is trying to kill him because of something that his earlier self knew.

Pursued by a dangerous enemy and desperate to find somewhere to hide, the post-human Robin volunteers to participate in the Glasshouse, an experimental simulation of a pre-accelerated culture in which participants are assigned anonymized identities.

In this future, people look back at our own pre-singularity century as a primitive time and part of the Dark Ages. Even so, the simulation requires participants to re-enact life in the 21stcentury.

Yet, drastic changes to his identity within the Glasshouse – his backed-up personality wakes up as female Reeve, facing the challenges of womanhood and married life in a nuclear family amid social pressures and disturbing patterns – threaten Robin/Reeve’s freedom from meddling by the experimenters and make him/her vulnerable to his/her own unbalanced mind.

Full of imaginative technology and social extrapolation, this Hugo-nominated novel raises questions about gender roles, social conformity, sexuality, how governments use power to control, and threats to personal freedom in a complex future without scarcity where identity itself is mutable and unreliable.

Especially thought-provoking, to libertarian futurists concerned about sustaining a peaceful and just civilization with universal respect for individual rights is Stross’ exploration of the theme of personal identity, which suggests the need for an unambiguous definition of who has a given personal identity as a basis for a functioning legal system.

Note: Charles Stross also was a Best Novel finalist for Saturn’s Children(in 2009) and was nominated for the Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Iron Sunrise (2005), Accelerando (2006), The Revolution Business (2010) and Annihilation Score (2016).

Charles Stross (Creative Commons license)

Stross’ first novel Singularity Sky (2003), a 2011 Prometheus Hall of Fame nominee, achieved a rare distinction within the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history: Although not discovered and read by LFS members until after the nominating deadline, a members’ write-in campaign after the five finalists were selected proved so popular that Stross’ novel came in a close second for the 2004 award.

For historical interest, read Michael Grossberg’s 2004 article in the printed Prometheus quarterly (Spring-Summer 2004, Volume 22, Number 2) describing Stross’ Singularity Sky as a write-in possibility under the existing award rules, , and suggesting ways the Prometheus Award nominations procedure might be improved – including several suggestions that were later adopted.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciation of Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny, co-winners of the 2008 Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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