Books that subvert expectations completely are always great and gloriously good reads.
Case in point is Gallow Glass by S. J. Mordern, a novel which gives every impression from the whimsically comical cover and tagline to being a humourous romp through the galaxy; but flip the book over and you realise very quickly that judging a book by its cover can be a risky proposition indeed.
What you get in a novel that races across the vast distances of space and time, and deep into the complex depths of the human condition, is a grand and moving tale of loss and redemption, of searches for identity and purpose against a backdrop of late 21st century Earth’s descent into climate change hell.
Gallow Glass is brilliantly, engagingly clever, and while it does get a little bogged down in some of the technical speak, overall it holds fast to its overall aim of exploring what a future climate-ravaged Earth might look like and how the great societal shifts caused by this, can affect a whole host of people on a very intimate, existential level.
The novel centres on Jaap aka Jack Van Der Veeden, the son of multi-billionaire transhumanist parents who, like all of the 1% rich elite, have chosen to hide within their fortress homes and keep the decaying horror of Earth at a financially-fuelled arm’s length.
They could engage and change things for the better if they wanted to but they choose instead to use every means at their disposal to live forever effectively in obscenely luxurious wealth and to let the world die around them.
“And that was it. He was in space. He’d travelled seven times that distance in the last day, and yet it was only the last hundred kilometres that was significant. The shadows on the screen moved, and barely filtered sunlight scoured the cockpit as the plane rotated about its axis. Weight returned for a handful of seconds, then it dissipated again. He was ready for it this time, and his querulous stomach held its peace.” (P. 37)
Jack, however, cannot stomach a life like that.
It’s not that he’s some inspiring do-gooder and truth be told, there are many times when he is reasonably selfish, but he is at heart a good person, and while his initial motivation is simply to run away from home – easier said than done in a world of Orwellian-level surveillance, constant bodyguards and sealed-off homes -he soon realises there’s a great deal more going on than simply rescuing his own life.
Quite how much is going on is beautifully built up by Morden through quotes from articles and scientific papers that start each chapter, ranging from anti-climate change at the start through to the stark reality of the climate emergency which in 2070s Earth is having a real material effect on where people can live and whether they’ll survive at all.
In 2072, climate change is no longer even a little bit theoretical, and as the equator becomes unlivable and extinctions happy everywhere, and death is more of a reality than any kind of meaningful and sustainable life, more and more people are fleeing to the Moon to eke out an existence or are joining the kinds of crews that Jack eventually joins as an astrogator (the navigator of a spaceship).
To be fair, Jack, who is running short of money now cut off as he is from his parents vast and unfathomably great wealth, has little choice to take the gig, which sends a raw crews on the good ship Coloma out into the far reaches of space to rendezvous with an asteroid, the mineral wealth of which is in the multi trillions and then some.
It’s a huge payday, and the motley crew want their slice of it, conscious that that kind of money comes with life-changing possibilities, and that if the mining can be carried out successfully, a whole lot of things could change for the better.
But life is rarely that simple, and once out in space, Jack realises very quickly that a great many people will do a greta many terrible or morally suspect things if it means getting their hands on the kind of money that can change lives or the destinies of entire nations.
There’s a lot at stake, from a planetary scale right down to individual lives, and Morden’s great talent in Gallow Glass is keeping the focus of this novel’s immersively expansive story at an intimately human level.
The truth of the matter is that while nations and planets rise and fall and the rich keep getting richer, that people have a lot more going on in their small slice of existence than anyone else ever suspects.
It’s a huge learning curve for the previously cosseted son of billionaires, and as Jack matures in his understanding of how the world and people work, and the immense complexities within, Gallow Glass comes alive with a rich and rewarding exploration of what it means for people to have everything riding on one particular event.
“The inevitable, initially tentative scuffle turned quickly into something more serious, but Jack held onto Runi, and he didn’t intervene and he didn’t look. He was a coward and a fool and he hated what he’d become and the steps he’d taken to get there, and still he wanted it to just be over. So he shut his ears and his eyes to the fight and buried Runi’s face in his shoulder. The pilot needed his navigator as much as the navigator needed his pilot.” (P. 241)
And there are events, big and small, aplenty in Gallow Glass.
To allude to what they are would be a spoiler step too far, but suffice to say, a huge amount is on the online as the novel, which unfolds at a relatively relaxed pace given the import of many of its narrative twists and turns, and yet the focus of the novel stays resolutely on very human issues of identity, belonging, self-determination, freedom and the need to be your own person even in the face of a world dedicated to pushing you into an often economically-deprived box.
What makes Gallow Glass such a compelling read is that it paints a brilliantly expansive picture of the world in the 2070s and all the issues and problems they face while never once lose sight of the raw humanity at the heart of its story.
This is space opera with a societal and humanitarian conscience, and it works supremely well, threading Jack’s emotional resonant journey from heir to one of the masses scrabbling to get by through a massive story that gives it context and purpose and meaning.
Gallow Glass brings together big picture humanity with its smaller scale but no less vitally important individual lives counterparts in ways that are affecting, real, honest and which give this original and thoughtful take on life in the future a relevancy to the present day where many of the same issues remain to be resolved.