It's been about a month since I raced through Jack Glass in the space of 24 hours, and the reason it's taken me this long to review it is that I simply haven't been able to figure out how to write about it.
That has nothing to do with the writing of Adam Roberts, which is exquisite throughout - smart, witty and addictive - nor the brilliance of Jack Glass, which is a fascinating, compelling and challenging tale of personality, politics and socio-economics. I have enjoyed no novel more during 2012.
Rather it is the frame of reference that has me stumped. I don't read much science fiction - and therefore find myself struggling to write about it. It's always struck me that the canvas for sci-fi writers is so broad - given the opportunity to bend and stretch both and time and space to their will - that it offers limitless possibilities. But this opportunity is also the central challenge. And perhaps if not for the writer, then certainly for this reader.
And so it's the control of the story and the landscape that is critical for me, and the writer's ability to create a world I can understand and relate to. That's the same with just about every book I read, of course, but sci-fi has always been somewhat harder to contemplate for this reason.
It helps then that Roberts' narrator reveals some more familiar territory in an enticing prologue, that the story is "three, connected murder mysteries" and that in each case the murderer is "of course", Jack Glass himself.
Even so an opening chapter that has some sort of inter-galactic security service entombing seven prisoners on an asteroid could have been a challenge. But within three pages I was utterly hooked, as the seven individuals, their predicament and their quest for survival are revealed as Roberts begins spinning an extraordinary tale in which he skilfuly builds the what and the why around the already-revealed "who" of his murder mystery.
The murderous story of Jack Glass moves from this Escape from Alcatraz-esque beginning back to the oppressive gravity of earth where the second of the three murders - a classic, country house, locked room mystery - opens the central narrative of the story. This is the power struggle among the handful of wealthy families who control the earth and its resources and the revolutionary struggle to unseat them.
The final chapter takes us into earth's orbitary slums as this political battle accelerates.
Over the course of the journey Roberts uses his beautifully crafted characters and their cleverly imagined world to examine the concepts of crime and punishment, power and subjugation. As he does so he stretches the mystery out masterfully, taking the book's most urgent questions deep into its final passages and even beyond. (This despite revealing the murderer on page one).
As I read back over this review, I'm not sure it makes a shred of sense, or that I've made the case for reading Jack Glass. So let's be clear: this book is an absolute winner. It's original, provocative and superbly written. It works as crime fiction, as science fiction, as literary fiction - and eviscerates the distinctions between the three. It also has a great cover.
Jack Glass certainly has won me over to Roberts, and I look forward to reading more. I may not, if that's OK, review too much of it.