Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Adam Roberts' Splinter

Adam Roberts is an English professor, SF writer, and critic. (And poet, and humorist, though he would perhaps rather not have those be mentioned except in a parenthetical.) His SF is often written with a strong self-set formal constraint of some kind; in the case of Splinter, thirds of the book are written in past, present, and future tense. This post is one of a series in which I try to provide readings of his work, each of them, as an exercise, playing off of the formal structure of the book that it addresses in some way.

Splinter was written with a deceptively simple setting, taken from the unendingly stirred soup stock of SF: a catastrophe leaves a few survivors in a changed world. But Roberts complicated the book with any number of agendas and references and interpretations, many of which he supplied in his own critical afterword: it was a homage to Jules Verne's most uncanny novel, Hector Servedac, journeys and adventures around the solar system (an English translation of the title, clearly), in which a comet strikes the Earth and carries part of it off, and which ends with the people on the carried-off planetoid returning to an Earth on which nothing has changed. A smaller piece breaking off a larger suggested to Roberts a book about fathers and sons and the process by which children separate from families and finish becoming adults, sometimes long after they are chronologically adult. And the odd, required-to-be-happy ending suggested ideas about stasis within SF: the way that extreme changes can happen within these works, extraordinary voyages can be taken, yet everything ends up much as it always has been. Because "the default mode for novelistic discourse, the third-person past tense, always already implies the existence of survivors [...] to relate the adventures", Splinter was written in past tense, moving to present, moving to future tense. Did you follow all that?

One of the claims that boastful SF fans sometimes like to make is that SF is "the literature of ideas." Reading the above, you might think that this is the literature of too many ideas. But note what kind of ideas they are; SF ideas are usually supposed to be about speculative science, coupled to a more or less pedestrian writing style. These were speculative ideas about literature, coupled to a more or less pedestrian SF plot. The attraction of Roberts' work, in my opinion, is that so many things are going on within it that it can support strong critical readings. These, for me, are not Roberts' own readings. He spent a good part of his afterword deprecating himself as critic of his own work, saying that he doesn't really know what it's about, although he has his theories. But a strength of his work is not you're not locked into his authorial readings; there's a lot of material there to work with, more than enough to construct your own.

My own reading is that the book worked as a savage and sometimes funny extended satire or metaphor for the history of SF. It was about the anxiety of SF, as a written genre, and its uneasy relationship with literariness -- the concerns of some authors and fans about whether it's ever going to successfully split off and become a new form of literary writing in its own right.

Adam -- I'm going to shift to a familiar, first name reference to him for reasons that soon should become apparent -- certainly assisted in this interpretation by previously writing a Palgrave History of SF, which I was able to read despite its $100 price tag because he sent me a copy. So I write this after a history of correspondence with him, and can say that my idea of what his history of SF would look like corresponds fairly well to what he's actually written. If you can afford it, by the way, you certainly should try it out. Also, and there is no need to afford this because Adam has kindly provided it for free, he has edited and re-translated a new edition of the original Verne book that served as the inspiration for Splinter, which you can read at this link.

SF crystallized its literary status anxiety some time ago, in the 1970s, and it's never really gotten through that period. A more recent representative text of the genre is Lethem's The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction, written in 1998. Reading through this and similar critical pieces, you'll see two moments mentioned over and over. First, the 1973 Nebula award that should supposedly have gone to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow instead of the usual SF potboiler. Presumably this would have indicated that SF awards were now being judged with regard to literary value, strangely enough -- perhaps for the first time ever -- and would have sparked a mass discussion of Barthes among SF fans. The second was Star Wars, which from the point of view of literary SF readers embodied the triple threat of being dumb, visual, and popular. I don't want to get into the merits of this complex of ideas too much, although you can undoubtedly get the general drift of my opinions from the above.

At any rate, back to Adam's book. I'm not going to worry about spoilers; I don't think it's the kind of book where knowing what happens makes an appreciable difference in how much you enjoy it. The plot is simple; Hector Servedac Sr. has had psychic visions of a coming catastrophe, and has called a group of followers together to survive it on his ranch, his son Hector Jr. being the last and most skeptical of these. The catastrophe happens, and Hector Jr. spends most of the rest of the book wondering whether it is real. And that is basically it. I understand calling the book a Voyage Extraordinaire in homage to Verne, but outside flashbacks and Hector Jr.'s initial arrival, there is no traveling in this book. There's only a place where people are stuck. The book is in many ways a classic "cozy catastrophe"; the world ends and Hector Jr. thinks about this in large part as a matter of sexual possibilities. Fog-bound, his largest adventure is a collision with a sofa.

The characters are similarly somewhat skimpy, because they are seen through the eyes of Hector Jr., who is an amazingly feckless, self-absorbed person, interested in women only insofar as they present opportunities for sex, interested in his father in order to bolster his own self-image, interested in other men mostly as rivals for women. So we get little pieces of these character's back-stories as Hector dutifully listens to them while imagining someone naked, but they never come through very clearly. But that's OK, because in this reading, they are mostly symbolic roles, not quite as flat as Dickens' flat characters, but not very round either.

The elder Hector is Verne, not Verne the author but Verne the body of work, the straightforward, how-do-things-work, not very emotionally accessible patriarch. The time of Verne and Wells wasn't really when SF started -- depending on who you ask, that was with Shelley's Frankenstein. Kepler's Somnium, or the ancient Greeks -- but it was when people began to become conscious of SF as a distinct genre, and it has asserted a gravitational influence on all works following. The American Golden Age SF era is Tom, the nerdy science guy who's thrilled that the end of the world has arrived as predicted and whose first action afterwards is to get a gun. (Against whom? Ravening hordes? Like they'd shoot other survivors? His gun is silly, but very American-SFnal, and he ironically gets shot later.) Hector Jr. is people who feel that SF should be literary, but still admit to deep down being thrilled by pulp, and who are wondering how to reconcile their high-art aspirations with that. Or rather, since I'm typing people as eras, he's the British New Wave, which can stand for all succeeding literary attempts. Hector Jr. is an academic studying the arts, but there are scenes in which he admits to himself that he forced himself to prefer high culture because it's high-status; his relationship with it is at best uneasy. (There's a lot of Europe-vs-America in Splinter. Hector Sr. has a flashback to his honeymoon in Europe; almost the first thing Hector Jr. says is "the very air in Europe, it tends to stain." But this piece is long enough already without examining that.)

They are women in this book, too, but seen through Hector Jr's eyes, they can only function as Muse figures. Primary among them is Vera, nicknamed Dimmi. She starts the book as Tom's girlfriend, but calmly informs Hector Jr. that as they are among the few survivors of humanity, she's going to have a child by him eventually. (This is one of the all-time favorites fantasies of adolescent SF, by the way, the catastrophe after which, in order to save genetic variation or something, all the surviving men have to sleep with all of the surviving women. It's required, you see -- by science! It was so prevalent that Joanna Russ had to write an entire book, We Who Are About To. . ., to shoot it down.) But she refuses all his hints that she might sleep with him now, and by the middle of the book, Hector Jr. has found out that she's also sleeping with his father -- that his father is, in cult-leader style, sleeping with just about everyone. This sends Hector Jr. into paraoxysms of jealousy, of course. When is all that vitality going to get passed down to him? It's a perfect metaphor for the literary SF writer, looking back at classic SF and seeing its crudity of style, but also seeing its pulp vigor. In a tragicomic scene, Hector Jr. gets further with potential muse #2, an HIV-positive woman named Janet. But when she leaves to get a condom to protect him during oral sex, he thinks that she's not coming back, and when she returns he's already done himself. The contrasts between Dimmi's promise that she'll have his child and between Janet's in-three-different-ways-infertile sex couldn't be more profound, but Hector Jr. can't succeed even at that.

There is an element of hostile parody to Hector Jr., of course, but he's not quite completely bad. He's a delayed adolescent, someone who has made it to the point in middle age that people usually look at as the last time to decide to have children, and he casually dropped his serious relationship -- the woman who his father thought he'd bring with him to the ranch -- because he thought he could do better. His fantasies don't even involve relationships; he's still stuck on sex. He keeps thinking that he damaged his relationship with his father by giving away a large sum of money that his father gave him, though his father never mentions it. Giving away money without being a saint means giving up possibility, giving up what you can build on.

On the other hand, giving up the money that would have set him up for life is clearly what Hector Jr. did so he could try to be his own person. The problem of the book is that he never quite succeeds. He hangs around the ranch, being skeptical about his father's theories but never ceasing to take the mysterious pills that he thinks may contain some kind of hallucinogen, making abortive attempts to leave that never quite come off. The rest of the people at the ranch have thoroughly drunk the cool-aid -- by the end, they are an almost frankly religious cult based around visions of the future conferred by the alien being that has crashed into the Earth, a good metaphor for SF's attachment to "ideas" -- and Hector Jr. hasn't, but they're still his society. He's not with them, but he's of them. No matter what the literary ambitions of an SF writer, as long as they call themselves an SF writer, they still have to deal with Star Wars.

What will happen in the last part of Splinter? Hector Sr will start to die, and begin channeling Tom, who will have been shot. But most importantly, the events in the book will become an instantly recognizable (to me, anyways) melange of, say, Bruce Sterling and Greg Bear, those kind of writers. The nanoclasm, in which all matter is taken over by mysterious organic processes that can make anything out of anything. Invasive processes that download consciousness. Posthumans forming a new relationship to mortality. The postmodern sprouting of buildings next to each other, growing out of the ground without plan. Hector's future tense will be our SF present, more or less.

And finally, Hector's dad will try to set him up with a woman, growing her out of the ground for him to make up for all the real women who he couldn't make things work with. She will be "The Muse herself" -- a direct quote. And this future being will be fake. She will babble, her tongue will be partly made of something like felt, and when he'll kiss her, she'll taste weird, like smuts -- a fungal plant disease. Sure, the nano-plant-tech will perhaps be working busily on upgrading her to version 2.0, but the idea of him finally becoming an adult and having children with this simulacrum just doesn't work. The people who he spent time with? He will have forgotten their names; the plot will have been lost.

Having read Adam's Palgrave history of SF, I can see where this conclusion comes from -- he thinks that SF has passed from a primarily written to a primarily visual medium. That has to be depressing for a writer, or for a reader.

So, in a sense, the book enacts the Vernean Voyage Extraordinaire of SF. There has been a lot of motion, a lot of thrills -- heroic individuals! strange intelligences! science-catastrophe! the book hits many of the standard tropes -- but it's ended up pretty much where it started.

All in all, a good, thought-provoking book.


  1. Interesting post. I find Adam Roberts to be too sterile for my liking, partially because of the sort of literary games you describe here. He had something simular going on in his latest novel, Swiftly and it didn't quite work out for me.

    Minor quibble: you're thinking of "When it Changed" rather than Picnic in Paradise for the Joanna Russ story.

  2. Thanks, Martin. You're right that I remembered the wrong Joanna Russ book title -- the one I was thinking of wasn't "When It Changed," though, it was "We Who Are About To . . .". I've corrected it above.

    I think that he has something similar going on in just about all of his novels -- at least, those that I've read. I wouldn't call it sterility, although I know what you mean; the ideas tend to leave less room for characterization. But from my point of view, the books are like recently-built houses with piles of lumber left over. They may clutter the lawn, but any kid knows that it's more fun to play in a construction site.

  3. I hesitate to comment here, for a number of reasons: but this is so perceptive, and (its addressing my limitations as a writer notwithstanding) generous that it'd be churlish not to. My only cavil with this reading of the book as a selfreflexive exercise in the textual logic of SF itself--that's right, I think--is the implied notion that I'm doing something special in writing it that way. By which I mean: it seems to me that most SF is doing the same thing. In part this is a kind of anxiety of influence; all the good ideas have been used up, and new writing is reduced to minor variations on Time Travel, Alien Invasion etc. The most I'd say is that I'm more upfront about it.

    But otherwise this seems to me a realy perceptive reading. Maybe Splinter is a book constrained by the sorts of character limitations of the nouveau roman New Wave thing ... New Wave was, after all, the nearest we had in SF to a Modernism, and a halfhearted and rather limited version of Modernism at that. So maybe the tenses of the text are not actually past present and future (future tense might be thought important for SF, I suppose; but insofar as SF notionally parses 'a future' it is almost always a remastered version of the present or the past) but the inaccessible past, the nearer past and the present. Shifted one notch along, like 'IBM' shifted one letter along to make 'HAL'

    As for sterility, well, who knows. If by sterility, Martin, you mean a kind of literary infertility, then it will be self-correcting and my writing will just die out. Even if it's the sterility of The Mule in the Foundation stories, that temporarily shakes things up for the dead hand of historical inevitability, it's not much to worry about. I'll confess I am interested in the purchase of that metaphor as a way of talking about writing. Sterile as opposed to, what? Fertile. And fertile in the sense that it breeds a lot of imitators? I'm not sure I crave that sort of fertility: better the sterility of Nabokov than the fertility of Anne Rice.

  4. Actually, I erred in using "sterile" when I meant "clinical" or "detached". Your novels remind me of that first line from War of the Worlds about vast, cool, unsympathetic intelligences looking at their test subjects from vast distances. Even when the character's interior thoughts are displayed it feels as if you're on the outside looking in rather than are within the skin of the character.

    You may be right that others write "selfreflexive exercise[s] in the textual logic of SF itself" as well, but you seem to do it on a much more conscious level, more calculated level. Take Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light series for example, which played a similar game by creating a world in which all the mid-twentieth century myths of UFOs and Greys were recreated within a properly hard science fiction story. The way MacLeod did it this was all a natural part of the story, but in your case you seem to deliberately invite the reader to see the game as you play it.

    What's more, especially in your earliest two novels I read Salt and On you seem to create two great science fiction settings and then to deliberately ignore the posssibilities of them, which is in direct opposition to what science fiction is: a literature of ideas. It's almost a sin to have such great settings or ideas and not explore the ramifications of them when it's clear that you could've. You haven't used up good ideas, you've thrown them away unopened...

  5. I see what you mean: clinical, detached. By which lights I'd say 'sterile' isn't really an error on your part: part of the same semantic field.

    You and I may have to agree to disagree about what we take SF to be. I don't really see it as a literature of ideas; more a literature of metaphors (in the broadest, Ricoeurian, systematic sense of the word).

    The 'ideas' in SF can be, and often are, banal -- or plain wrong -- without that fact diminishing the greatness of the particular work. The already mentioned Foundation is a case in point: its ideas alternate between dull, ordinary and (the rank positivism of Asimov's absolute-predictability-of-the-future schtick) wrongheaded, but that doesn't stop it working brilliantly as SF.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Adam. Whatever the feelings that some authors have that they shouldn't get involved in brangles with critics -- or even relatively positive discussions -- it's still interesting to have an author participate in these things. I like the IBM to HAL comparison.

    Since sterility has been presented as a metaphor, it can be answered by the work itself. Janet is sterile in many different ways, as above; Vera/Dimmi is fertile. But Janet seems to be really a more interesting person. Her confrontation with her mortality makes her more reflective, less interested in power than Dimmi is.