Choose virtual reality. Choose robotic nuns. Choose void-spawned assassins. Choose drug-fuelled immortality. Choose the book that has them all, and more besides. This week, I’m reviewing Glow, the debut novel from Tim Jordan, published by Angry Robot. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
Humanity has stalled. The world-shaking event known as the Nova-Insanity has caused the GFC – manufacturers of the life extending nanotech drug Simmorta – to sequester themselves inside their orbital platform. Once connected to Earth via space elevator, they now live isolated and in constant fear of infiltration by the powers that be on Earth, as well as by a deadly foe of their own making. Meanwhile, Coriolis City, the manufactured island port for the space elevator, has become a hive of gang activity and criminality, where the memory altering drug known as Glow ravages the increasingly addicted populace. The void spawned assassin known as Jett searches for answers across this decaying landscape, while the mysterious addict known simply as Rex struggles to piece his shattered memories back together and understand his past.
In stark contrast to its cosy sounding title, there’s a distinctly grungy feeling to Glow. This isn’t a shimmering, shiny white plastic vision of the future where everything looks like it just rolled off the Apple manufacturing line. No, this is a world of partially collapsed buildings inhabited by increasingly desperate members of society, with acres of the surrounding land scarred into vitrified glass by the devastation of the Nova-Insanity. Things are little better high above Earth, where filthy orbital platforms are occupied by paranoid corporate business leaders like Ellayna, who clutches at her last vestiges of power while jumping at shadows. There’s tons of atmosphere and style here, all with a liberal handful of grime rubbed across it.
Tim Jordan does such a wonderful job of setting the scene thanks to the level of detail he provides; indeed, the Nova-Insanity itself could be a book all of its own. When the plans for a microscopic solid-state fusion reactor were released for free to everyone with a 3D printer, the catastrophic consequences of hackers realising they could be rigged to function as devastating weapons of mass destruction brought humanity to the brink of annihilation. The inextricable links between the setting and this succinctly delivered piece of backstory – as well as its impact on humanity’s wary approach to technology in the event’s wake – is a masterfully conceived piece of storytelling. It also ensures that anyone who stands against the technologically advanced voidian known as Jett doesn’t stand much of a chance.
Jett is a singularly deadly entity, a biotech being made of fullerene fibres and topped with a leering skull. Able to survive an onslaught capable of destroying a small army, he is sent to Earth by his voidian mentor and fellow adversary of the GFC, Ursurper Gale. Like a cross between Venom and the T-1000, Jett closes on his prey through a variety of means, be they grisly interrogation tactics or all-out, blistering assault, morphing between forms for infiltration, deception or unmitigated carnage in the blink of an eye. His adaptability and combat proficiency keep him far more than one step ahead of most assailants, as he literally rips apart those who get in his way, often before they even realise what’s happening. Amongst the existential probing and the corporate wrangling taking place elsewhere, Jett’s scenes are entertainingly action-packed segments of hyperviolence.
That’s not to say, of course, that these other elements of the story are dull – far from it. Rex, with his addiction and seemingly inexplicable resistance to the ravages of Glow, is a veritable treasure trove of mysteries and intrigues. His head is full of the memories and personalities of past addicts, carried along with his gruesomely recycled drug of choice. He’s picked up early on by the Sisterhood of Salvitor, a group of robotic nuns who believe in the coming of an entity known as the Future-Lord, and are eager to nurse the recovering addict back to health. It’s through Rex that some of the deeper philosophical dives take place, with a recurring theme of the fallibility of memory and the consequent ramifications akin to the likes of A Scanner Darkly. He frequently questions his reality, his sense of self and his own mind; at times, it can be a lot to wrap your head around, but clarity comes with hindsight as the storylines converge and weave together in a way that’s both satisfying and highly climactic.
Glow is an immensely entertaining and hugely ambitious debut, a tale of technology running riot – quite literally, in some cases – that’s packed with interesting ideas and themes, not to mention visceral action perpetrated by morally grey characters. Tim Jordan has aimed high here, and it’s paid off spectacularly. One to watch.