Barry Longyear’s Sea of Glass is one of those rare gems that you tear through, then habitually re-read, until the spine is more creases than cover and you know it inside out. Despite this, you are still unable to quantify precisely why you love it so much.
Published in 1987, and set in a dystopian future that is now the present day, the subjects of overpopulation and the consumption of natural resources are now old and familiar. Despite the age of the book and its themes, the narrative is as fresh today as it was in its infancy. Told from the perspective of Thomas Windom, first as a seven year old, then as an extremely troubled teen, the novel offers a peculiar perspective on the inner workings of a body and mind subjected to far too much, for too young.
On his seventh birthday, Thomas opens the window in his stuffy attic room and, for the first time in his life, sees Sky – a concept he had previously struggled to grasp, yet knew existed. Spotted by a neighbour, and reported to the dreaded ‘men in black’, Thomas is taken to an orphanage for illegal children while his parents are executed. As a ‘redbird’ at the orphanage, Thomas is immediately flung into a world of violence, oddly mixed with the sexual tensions surrounding any group of pre-teens and adolescents living in very close quarters. In his struggles against the ‘blackshit’, Thomas comes to learn more about the world and understand that, due to massive overpopulation, the planet’s inhabitants have essentially split into two, one half dedicated to preventing the destruction of mankind, by strictly limiting population growth, the other allowing nature to take its course. Running in the background is the ominous presence of MAC III, a supercomputer which, by a series of complicated projections and predictions regarding future events, influences the course of developments in an attempt to postpone the inevitable War between the two factions, which MAC III is certain will occur, when the opposing side run out of resources.
Longyear, however, has taken what could have been a simple, albeit engaging plot, and given it endless depth through considerations of psychology, morality, religion, determinism, and fate. Add to this truncated prose that mirror very well the workings of a fractured mind and he has created a narrative that is as timeless as the question at the heart of the novel itself: why?