Inside The Social Bell Jar

Our recorded history, thus far, has witnessed what historians describe as the “Dark Ages,” an era of roughly 500 years that lasted from around 5th century until 1,000 A.D, so named, because Europe, it’s believed, slipped into an intellectual slumber and an artistic funk.

Such an event, we assume, is a one-off; behind us, not to happen ever again. Oddly, however, as we patter along the space-time continuum, they’ll occur only more often—and not because the well of human ingenuity will dry up.

Rather, it’s the searing pace of technological innovation, which will, ironically, spawn a hitherto unfamiliar form of benightedness, the narrator of Charles Stross’ “Glasshouse” is told.


A hard science-fiction that’s a blend of Issac Asimov and William Gibson, it’s set in the far distant future, in a post-Singularity “network civilization” of “interlinked polities” called the Republic of Is.

By then, the Earth has become the “legendary dead Urth.”

Our tech-augmented progeny are not living on planetary surfaces, but in massive artificial habitat modules, afloat in interstellar depths, in orbit around “brown dwarf” stars. Long-range travel takes place via point-to-point wormholes (“T-gates”). Mortality has become a reversible process.

Robin, the seven-billion-second-old protagonist (or 222 years, in terms of terrestrial clocks) is just out of memory surgery.

As he muddles through the haze of fugue, he realizes, there’re inexplicable gaps in his life, when a fellow convalescent, Kay, a “hexapedal” female, talks him into signing up for an experiment that could ease his stress of confusion.

He’s not the only one who can’t remember his past. Sometime in this commonwealth’s wonky timeline, it was infected by a pernicious software strain, designed to wipe out phases of its history.

It attacked swarms of core infrastructure units called assemblers (“A-gates), magical devices that combine a supermarket, a departmental store, a hospital, and a transport—but most consequentially, are resurrection machines, capable of breaking down matter into atomic pulp and reconfiguring it into a new form.

When people sat in one to have their consciousness “backed up,” silently, it redacted their memories, and in so doing, unleashed a symptomless plague of collective forgetfulness that rendered most incapable of even asking the questions, “Who released ‘Curious Yellow’? Why? What existed before the Republic of Is?”

They were presented with a choice of being either immortal (with select thoughts excised), or growing old and dying (yet having their memories preserved).

Most struck a Faustian bargain, submitting to the fiercest kind of censorship that packed the ominousness of the Nazi libricide of 1933 and had the ambit of the Black Death of the 1400s.

A massive data blackout ensued and the darkest of the “Dark Ages” dawned.

The embers of the 200-year war followed. From the splinters of the Republic of Is was born the Invisible Republic.

Built on the aphorism that “knowledge is power,” it set out to restore missing historical data by from its ancient past by creating a simulation of a Euro-American society as it existed between circa 1990 and 2010.

The concept of a facsimile society boomingly echoes the ideas put forward by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, in a paper published in 2003, in the Philosophical Quarterly, in which, he argued that we’re living in a computer-generated universe, created and run by our distant descendants to study the evolution of their biological ancestors.

When Robin—rather a “copy” of him—wakes up inside it, he discovers, he’s been “assigned a new body”—that of a female named Reeve. Our hero has morphed into a heroine.

Stross uses the gender-bending sequence as a context to speculate on the posthuman state of being and the essence of sexual freedom.

Say 600 years from now, one would be able to pick and choose and wear the body of their liking. The verb “wear” suggests that our physical form is analogous to our garments that can be tossed out any time we want.

This segues into the dichotomy between anatomy and identity. We’re not the bodies we wear. It’s who we are on the invisible inside, is who we really are. In the case of Robin, anyone on the outside would see him as a middle class, suburban wife, who works as a city librarian. Clearly, they do not see him.

Well into his latest incarnation, partially erased memories surface as vivid dreams that help him recall his past lives—once, as a military historian; once, as an insensate, murderous tank; once, as an adventurous avian.

In one of these flashbacks, he has a vision of his former self writing a poignant, handwritten letter to his present self, explaining the reasons behind his memory lapses and who he is.

He writes: “You are me and I am you, but you lack certain key memories—most importantly, everything that meant anything to me about two and a half gigaseconds ago.” The revelation makes us wonder if it is our memories alone that make each of us unique.

It’s a crowded plot, with too many imagination-stimulating themes—all running wildly, in tandem, which leaves the deeply immersed reader with not enough cognitive bandwidth to reflect over each. Stross could have spared each more breathing room.

The narrative structure is like the Arctic terrain in summer, breached by ice hummocks, somewhat craggy. In fairness to Stross, it could be argued that it’s only intentional, for his narrator himself has a shaky, unreliable memory.

He borrows heavily from the computing world, often overloading passages with beaucoup jargon and Internet geekspeak.

He’d have done better to get his characters to annotate them in the course of the storyline, without diluting their voices. Alternatively, he might have added a glossary for the benefit of the non-geeks.

Robin realizes, he and the other subjects have entered a “glasshouse” (a British military slang for a prison, from where the novel gets its title).

Stross hits out at the surveillance society that we live in.

The panopticon is run by a trinity of men, with military-academic roots, who have swapped their starched white laboratory coats for immaculate white cassocks. The church has become the all-powerful entity, legislator, administrator, cop, and judge rolled into one.

“Just remember everything is logged … everything,” warns Reeve’s colleague, on the first day of her job. She continues, “Book withdrawals. Possibly even what pages people look at. You notice they’re all hardcovers?” hinting at the possibility that nano tracking devices are embedded into the spines.

Ostensibly, the project’s goal is to reconstruct a lost culture but, it’s a cover for a far grimmer plan.

Acting on the instructions given to him in the oneiric missive, he sets about sleuthing. For a brief moment there, the novel acquires whiffs of a spy thriller.

Toward the end, as the plot gets progressively cloudier, as if the narrator is feeling woozy and wants to exit the pages, it’s hard to tell with Spockian certitude, where the experiment is headed.

There are hints that the social simulation is an incubator, of sorts, where in a Dr. Mengele-esque manner, its creators are attempting to breed a generation of humans to inhabit a “cognitive dictatorship.”

The experiment, it turns out, is an experimental society. Standing on the pulpit, one of its creators delivers a homily.

Dear congregants, we are gathered here today in unity to recognize our place in the universe, our immutable roles in the great cycle of life, which none shall take from us. Let us praise the designers who have given us this day and all the days before us a roll. Praise the designers!

Dear congregants, let us remember that true meaning and happiness in life can be found through complying with the great design. A round peg in a round hole!

Stross takes a dig at intelligent design.

The feyness of it all collapses that Robin discovers they’re inside a Massive Archive Sucker, a sprawling research spacecraft, built for a mission duration of up to a “terasecond” (which translates, roughly into 31,000,000, Earth years), on the assumption that a civilization would fall, at least, once within its working life.

The book hinges on a couple of grand motifs: that we are all trapped, in our bodies, in our society, neither of which is in our control; and that we’re sowing the seeds of the first post-industrial “Dark Ages.”

Stross alerts us to a genuine fear, arising from the explosive rate of growth of digital storage media, wherein, we could soon be facing a situation where there’s the figurative cassette-tape to play, but no cassette player.


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