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Adam Roberts is the author of a growing number of science fiction novels, short stories, essays and other writings. This site contains not just his blog, but everything you could ever want to know about everything Adam has ever published. And more...

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Splinter

Published By:
Solaris, UK & US [September 2007]
£9.99 TPb / $15.00 TPb
ISBN10:
184416490X
ISBN13:
978-1844164905
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com
Synopsis:

When Hector discovers his father has channelled the family fortune into a bizarre cult who await the imminent destruction of the Earth, he is wracked by feelings of betrayal and doubt. Things change, however, the night an asteroid plummets from space and shatters the planet, leaving Hector and the remnants of the human race struggling for survival on a splinter of the Earth.

And that's when the asteroid starts talking to him...

Splinter is inspired by the classic Jules Verne novel Hector Servadac, and features a lengthy afterword by the author.

Reviews:

[Reviews To Follow]

Adam Says:

In 2004 Eric Brown and Mike Ashley approached me, as they did many SF writers, to contribute to a collection of original stories: The Mammoth Book of Jules Verne Adventures. The brief was for each author to riff on one Verne title, writing perhaps a sequel, or an alternate-version, a pastiche or in some other way to let his/her imagination run. I heard the call but dillied, as I sometimes do. Then, fatally, I dallied. Having dillied and dallied, I was constrained by the pressure of other work to revisit the process in reverse, via dallying to dillying again until the cart was lost and the way home uncertain. By the time I added my name to the project all the more famous Verne titles had been snaffled by writers with names like 'Stephen Baxter' and 'Justina Robson' and even, implausibly, 'James Lovegrove', a name which sounds like a pseudonym but in fact isn't.

Actually this didn't matter. It so happened that I had recently read Hector Servadac, and the more I thought about it the clearer it came to me. It had to be Hector. I thought it over, and sketched out in my mind the pages that now form the opening section of the present novel. The modern-day Hector landing in LAX, rejoining his father. The story came to me, then, as a modern take on one of the most stalwart of SF-storytelling warhorses, the end-of-the-world tale. I wondered about it: a collision striking the world the world and splintering it into planetecules, life continuing upon one of these (How? By what means? To what end? And so on). It was clear enough to me that this was going to be a narrative about the process by which something larger breaks up into something smaller. That it was going to be, in other words, about family, and specifically about that awkward three-way transition from childhood to compromise adulthood to full adult independence. This last state is something which (of course) occurs at different phases in different lives, but which seems to be happening later and later in our era. So: Hector, a late thirtysomething, occupied with those pastimes (university study, travel, relationships) with which young adults keep themselves busy during that awkward transition from being part of a family to becoming their own separate world; all those things that seem simultaneously so grown-up and so time-consuming, but which are actually avoidance strategies, the screens that eventually we set aside to actually begin our adulthood.

There is a mordant Jewish saw that one is never an adult until one's parents are dead. That's too severe a judgment, I think; the truth is messier. For some of us true adulthood comes when, habituated as we all our to thinking of our parents as the carers, we have to come to terms with caring for them. They used to make all the arrangements for us; now it devolves upon us to arrange the care-home, to handle their affairs, to sort them out. Then, I think, we can actually call ourselves adult. For others it is estrangement, or geographical distance, or change of faith, or sheer selfish isolation that can make that break. But for Hector in my novel it has not yet happened. He is, chronologically speaking, a grown-up; but he is not an independent adult.

So I wrote a brief story for Mike and Eric. I updated Verne's premise, and therefore his style, adopting some of the mannerisms of the hommes moyens sensuels American School of Updike and Roth and DeLillo. The relationship between son and father was at the heart of it. For reasons that felt right to me (though I wasn't quiet sure why it felt right) I made the son not just a student but a student of history-of-art. The father, naturally, had to be a stonier, larger (although not physically: that would be too obvious), solider and realer individual; a world with enough heft to endure a quantity of collision and splintering off. The practical day-to-days of the ranch on which they meet were determined by the physical constraints of the circumstance. The world ended. Things carried on. I titled it 'Hector Servadac Jr', submitted it to Eric and Mike, and they accepted it and published it, and that was that.

But it wouldn't leave me alone. I kept thinking of it, pondering it, wondering how the story continued and soon enough I came to the realisation that it had set hooks in my mind that wouldn't come out without a deal of tearing and wrenching. At the time it made itself present to me predominantly as a series of practical problems that needed addressing. I couldn't let it go. It needed to be written through. So I sat down and wrote more, over a number of months, picking up from where I had ended the short story. Soon I had written a short novel. When I looked at it again, it needed to be longer, and accordingly I rewrote it longer. I discovered that, amongst many other things, I had written the first section in the past, the second in the present and the third in the future tense. That also felt right, although at the time I was not certain why. (I have a better idea now, I think). It seems, on the surface, a simple tale; but of all the novels I have written it is the one to which I have found my mind reverting most often. Now, why might that be, I wonder?

Stories parse people through events, not theories via thought-experiments, or even sense-of-wonder via generic convention. Even extreme events (let's say, the world ending) serve mostly to intensify the way people go about ordinary things. I always loved those lines from the old REM song 'Belong' (it's on Out of Time):

Her world collapsed around her
She got up from the table and silenced the radio.

Is her world collapsing in a personal, emotional sense? (Her husband has left her, say?) Or has she heard something catastrophic on the radio, that her world literally on the point of collapsing? (nuclear war, asteroid collision, neo-birdflu?) In either case her reaction is deeply human. You do the next thing that comes to hand. You don't, by and large, sit in the corner and wail or rend your hair or even tell sad stories of the death of kings. You make the supper.

So, yes, Hector turned out to be a story about families, or to be more accurate it is a novel about a particular pared-down family dynamic. Now it so happens that women have loomed so very large in my life (and continue so to do) that my fiction almost always orients itself around female characters, or more precisely around male apperceptions of female characters. But I have a father, whom I love; and I am a father, to a child I love. This was a story that enabled me to write about father-child relations. And this I did.

Love is a difficult thing to write about, not because it manifests itself in the world in impossible ways (I mean, impossible to apprehend, impossible to reproduce in the novelistic idiom—although there may be something in this) but because love by its nature inflects so large a quantity of desires that its representation gets pulled out of shape by desire itself. Love in fiction becomes the textual expression of how we desire love to be. In simple form it becomes wish-fulfilment erotic-romantic fantasy, where you get the guy, and he's a splendid fellow; or you get the girl and she's a doll. But more complex forms do not escape the black-hole-tugging ellipses of desire mapped onto lived-experience; even tales of the woe in marriage, of desperate affairs or exploitative relations tend to represent sex as mind-blowing, love as life-consuming. This is the shape of our desire for desire.

If you need to find a way of representing that in fiction, then that very desire needs to be thinned by the addition of the writer's turpentine. So I brought my own ideas to a representation of the way love is shaped—determined and limited—by family. But (and it's a facile thing to say, but no less true for that) family is a nexus in which desire bites at its own tail.

You start life as a member of a family. You end it, as every creature that breathes ends it, alone. Life, in the largest sense, is the transition from the former to the latter state. That's no easy trajectory to follow. So you die alone, just you and the Prime Objectivity: but you start in a state of compromised (or if you prefer, buttressed) multiple subjectivity. In other words, the major trauma in most lives is not the prospect of one's own death, but the wrench when we separate ourselves out from the group-units into which we have been born. For some of us this wrench is impossible, and we carry on living in the pockets of parents until we are ourselves so old as to be embarrassed at our inertia. For most, though, there's a long-drawn-out period where we experiment with independent living—when, for example, we have a flat of our own in one city, but still talk unselfconsciously about 'going home for Christmas' to another city—that is capped by an event, or a series of events, that shift us over to another mode of living. This event might be a Saul-Bellowesque death of parents; or the begetting of children of our own; or some other breach. But it's a major (I'm tempted to say the major) breach in the longer term emotional life of most of us.

Why is so little literature concerned with this important subject? I've no idea. Such examples as occur to me are few enough. Brian Aldiss's neglected but superb Forgotten Life (1988) is a mainstream novel that addresses precisely this subject. But what else is there? Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, perhaps? There are certainly novels of characters stuck in the stasis of being unable to move beyond a parent (Saul Bellow's brilliant little Seize the Day is one such; on a much bigger scale Proust's Recherche is another). And then again, as if psychopathologically attempting to cut the Gordian knot, literature is disproportionately stuffed with tales of orphans, David Copperfields and Harry Potters who start life already severed from the comforting-stifling familial embrace. But that's an artificial sort of strategy, I think. Or (for setting a story in and after the literal end of the world is also an artificial strategy) it's a less-legitimate artificial strategy than some. It's too clean-cut, too abrupt. Life isn't really like that. Life, is like the Prelude's sixth book: it's like Wordsworth marching out happily to cross the alps, getting lost, having to backtrack, looking forward to the moment when he'd be crossing the Alps! (like Hannibal!)—only to stop to ask a local directions and to find out that he'd crossed over hours before without noticing. This isn't to say that life is about anticlimax, for although sometimes it is about anticlimax, sometimes it isn't. But it is to assert that events we anticipate as sharply defined and defining almost always turn out to be fuzzy-edged, diffusely defined, enveloping. A fog rather than a lightning strike.

Isn't that what life is like?

Don't you think?

That's what I wanted to do with Hector. The metaphor does not work in the straightforward way that perhaps you think it does: I mean, it is not that Old Hector is the Old Earth, and that some single event cracks him apart and leaves Young Hector to float off on his own life. It's not that. It's the trope that the world might end and that we might not even be sure it has happened. We surely wouldn't be wholly oblivious (this is the end of the world we're talking about, after all!) But we might not be wholly certain, either. There would be a lengthy transition period during which we would become increasingly convinced that something substantial had changed in our lives.

An Extract:

1

Hector flew in. It's OK, he caught breakfast on the plane. He doesn't need anything to eat, he's good. But there was a wait at the hire car desk, and this brought speckles of sweat to his face and torso. His flesh, having been starved of Californian sunshine, and infiltrated by French food for more than a year, had assumed something of the color and consistency of mozzarella. He tried this line, self-deprecating and he hoped witty, on the woman seated next to him on his connecting flight. He smiled, sticking his lower jaw out and showing his teeth. His teeth, he admitted to her, had become Europeanized during this last year. That red wine, that ink-dark little coffee in the dainty little cups, those gitanes, the very air in Europe, it tends to stain. Stains the dentine. There are reasons, you see, why everybody in Europe has such crappy teeth. But what can you do? And you know what? he asked the woman in the seat next to him. Avignon has more Italian restaurants than French. I hadn't expected that. And Montpellier has more American restaurants than anything else.

'You mean,' the woman asked, 'McDonalds?'

But Hector could tell she wasn't really interested.

'Some,' he said. 'But, you know, Steak Houses. Of course, it's a big university town, Montpellier. Students love to eat American, fast food, steaks. That's the reason I was there, actually, doing some work at the university.'

But she wasn't interested, she wouldn't be drawn, and when she started talking herself it became apparent that she was married, that she had a kid, and that Hector was on a hiding to nothing. He smiled and nodded as she talked, but not sticking his jaw right out, not the big beaming fuck-me grin, just a polite smile, and a polite nod, and behind his eyes he was thinking, you could at least wear a fucking ring on your finger, you could at least give me some heads-up.

At the airport he had to queue at the hire car desk. He told himself that a year in France had accustomed him to queuing; but as he stood there, looking through the glass walls of the terminal at the wide Californian view, the perfect blue of the Californian sky, the cars with their broad paneled paintwork glistening in the sunshine as if wet, some of his American impatience started to return. He fidgeted. He started sweating a little. Anger started warming inside him, although of course he kept it in check. At the head of the queue he was told that there would be a twenty-minute wait before he could be given the keys to his hire car. At least twenty minutes, we're sorry sir.

'Why?'

'There's been an unforeseen eventuality, sir,' said the clerk. 'I do apologies, sir. We can offer you a coupon for a complimentary breakfast in Home Cookin whilst you wait, sir.'

'No, that's OK,' said Hector. 'As for breakfast, I'm good.'

2

When he finally got his car, when he finally drove out, he got lost on his route to the ranch.

The car's air-con was either too cold, or else not cooling enough. He kept fiddling with it. He made a pit stop, picking up a couple of cans and something to smoke, and then drove on out, drove east into the desert. The signs of human habitation became poorer, sketchier; the gaps between buildings opened up, and soon he was leaving the major roads and driving lonely tarmac under the cyanide blue of a perfect Californian day. He fiddled continually with the radio tuner as he drove. None of the stations seemed capable of playing two good tunes one after the other. One good song, one shit song, that seemed to be the playlist of every music station within broadcast range.

He got lost. It was probably deliberate, on an unconscious level. He told himself this with some self-satisfaction at his powers of auto-psychoanalysis; getting lost was his own passive-aggressive response to his father's passive-aggressive actions, his own subconscious way of saying 'how am I supposed to find your fucking ranch? It's in the middle of nowhere.' To sell a perfectly good house, and buy a stretch of desert miles from anywhere – how could that be construed as anything but passive aggression on his father's part? Hector circled so completely, still, even at thirty-eight, in the symbolic orbital of his father, or rather circled the space his father occupied in his own cognitive map of the universe, that he could only understand this action (selling a house, buying a ranch) in relation to himself. What other explanation could t here be? Dad was free to buy and sell what he liked, of course, he was free to dispose of his home, which only happened to be the house in which Hector had grown up, the house in which his mother had died – of course he could do that, if he wanted to. He could buy some waterless ranch miles from anyway, if he wanted to. He could join some cult, or whatever it was, and spend all his money on subterranean whatever cables, if he wanted to. But why would he want to? Except to mess with Hector's head? And the lady on the radio was singing the song that told him, Hector, that he – made – her – feel, that he made her feel, like a nat-ur-al woman.

Hector sang along. But the next song was some Nashville crap, and he fiddled with the tuner again.

He stopped in a small town, in which there didn't seem to be a single building more than one storey high. He asked in the drugstore for directions, but the guy serving there couldn't help him. He stood on the main street for long minutes, in the heat, looking vaguely about, thinking maybe a cop could help him, but he couldn't see a cop.

Above him the sky was very blue, a dark lacquered blue upon which a handful of high feathery clouds looked like scuffs. And there, tiny as a bug, was a plane, drawing two tiny scratches after it, crawling over the sky. Just visible was its boomerang wingspan, its missile fuselage. It looked like a Christmas ornament.

He bought a map at the gas station and spread it on the passenger seat. He'd parked in the sun, and the material of the seats was hot as if it had just that minute been ironed.

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