January 2009
Trade Paper: 9781934501078
304 pages | $15.95

In the future, we will forget who are...

Taking the fall for his younger brother, Richard Candle went from being cyber cop to condemned criminal. After four years of UnMinding-, his mind suppressed, his body enslaved-he's released to discover his brother has slipped back into the underworld of the V-Rat, the virtual reality addict.

Meanwhile, Candle's harried by the murderous Grist, the head of the world's biggest multinational. But his real enemy is something else: a conscious program, the Multisemblant, a meld of copied personalities, the dark side of five powerful people, with its own brutal agenda.

Human society is sinking ever deeper a mire of escapism-but Richard Candle, looking for his missing brother, fights his way through the real world of underground stock markets, flying guns, the trash-walled labyrinth of Rooftown and the fringe of the fringe....


LOCUS (July 2009) Review by Paul Witcover
John Shirley's Black Glass is billed as "The Lost Cyberpunk Novel." It was begun "in the early days of cyberpunk" as a collaboration between Shirley and William Gibson, but both writers moved on to other things before doing much more than sketching out the plot and characters. Many years later, Shirley recalled the book and mentioned it to Gibson, who gave his blessing to turn the abandoned joint project into a solo act. The result is a fun, fast, irreverent novel of action, ideas, and rock and roll that imagines an environmentally degraded near future in which corporations run an America whose government has been essentially privatized and technological advances in surveillance, AI, and digital representation have almost completely erased the line between original and copy: more and more, people rely on their "semblants" to give them the ability to virtually be in a number of locations simultaneously, or to stand in for them altogether. Now an uscrupulous businessman, Grist, plans to merge semblants stolen from his rivals into a "multisemblant," believing the resulting personality will give him an edge in the cutthroat corporate world. In doing so, he opens a Pandora's box, as the multisemblant, which christens itself Destiny, turns out to have ideas of its own. The cyberpunk pedigree of this plot is obvious, but the book reminded me even more of Philip K. Dick novels like A Scanner Darkly, in which questions of reality and identity are paramount, and technology functions as a lens thrugh which these questions are viewed.

Shirley's main character, Richard Candle, an ex-cop just released from prison after taking the rap for his brother, Danny, a VR-addict and rock musician, is a very Dickian character--a well-meaning loser intent on his own problems who is nonetheless swept up in larger conspiracies. Here it's because Grist, who engineered Candle's imprisonment, retains an irrational hatred of the man and continues to persecute him even after his discharge and "ReMinding"--in the prisons of Shirley's future, convicts have their consciousnesses switched off, becoming mindless automatons for the duration of their sentences; when they are released, it's as if they've woken up from a dreamless sleep, yet years have passed...four years, in Candle's case.

None of which is to imply that the novel feels dated. It's very much of the moment; in fact, the future of Black Glass feels all too close. The parts that are the most dated are those in which Shirley obviously tried to provide a more contemporary gloss. For example, the private security firm of Blackwater is mentioned at one point, yet that firm recently changed its name to Xe. Such are the perils of protofitting the past.

More successfully, Shirley has introduced a number of slang words that have a truly authentic ring: "hode" and "wanx" were my favorites, the former a mashup of "ho" and "dude," the latter deriving from "wanker"; I've been tempted to use them in conversation a number of times since finishing the book. Shirley was clearly enjoying himself here, perhaps getting back in touch with his younger self, and the vitality and inventiveness he brings to the book is evident on every page, not only in the language but in oddball characters like the diminutive Shortstack, a little person with implants that endow him with superhuman strength, and Spanx, a drug-addled musician whose brain is aswarm with nanites designed to continuously fire his synapses. Black Glass is much more than the literary relic or curiosity its tagline suggests.

The Agony Column
I really enjoyed Black Glass. Shirley effectively conjures the feel of classic cyberpunk for a generation whose grandfathers called themselves cyberpunks--or at least walked around with dog-eared copies of Gibson's Neuromancer and clung to the rare run of Shirley's Eclipse series with a near-religious fervor. Shirley does a very smart thing with Black Glass. He harkens back not to the cyberpunk era, but rather to those books that inspired cyberpunk; the gritty, unpleasant mysteries of Caine and Thompson. All he has to do is set his mystery in California some 25 years on, stir in some tropes from Heatseeker and take aim at all the crap that's going down in the here-and-now, just like any good science fiction writer. He shows us today reflected in the Black Glass of tomorrow. It's funhouse horror to a certain degree. I mean, I find myself horrified with the prospects of what the future has to offer. We'll get more "more of everything" and somehow a lot less life. Shirley's often bleakly funny, countering the mordant humor with guarded optimism.

Alternate Worlds
This is an engaging somewhat cautionary cyber future thriller in which Big Business runs the United States any way they want. The story line is action-packed from the moment Rick regains his mind and never slows down as he searches for his brother, deals with his attraction to Zilia and tries to protect Shortstack and his cronies from Grist's killers. However it is the unique Multisemblant that steals the show as the copied conscience of five of the top of the Fortune 33 personalities seems almost God-like with the ability to go almost anywhere in cyberspace. Black Glass is a terrific science fiction tale.