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Splinter
Adam Roberts
Solaris Books, 240 pages

Splinter
Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is in the English Department of Royal Holloway, one of the 8 larger colleges of the University of London. He received his MA from Aberdeen University and his PhD from Cambridge University. Salt was his first science fiction novel.

Adam Roberts Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Splinter
SF Site Review: Gradisil
SF Site Review: The Snow
SF Site Review: The Sellamillion
SF Site Review: The Soddit
SF Site Review: Swiftly
SF Site Review: Stone and Polystom
SF Site Review: Jupiter Magnified
SF Site Review: Stone
SF Site Review: The New Critical Idiom: Science Fiction
SF Site Review: Park Polar
SF Site Review: On
SF Site Review: Salt

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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As a teenager, or perhaps earlier, I encountered the works of Jules Verne. I read all his most familiar books -- Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island, From the Earth to the Moon, Round the Moon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Five Weeks in a Balloon, Around the World in Eighty Days. I liked them all. My local library had a couple less familiar works. One was an historical novel, Michael Strogoff, which I adored then, reread many times, and which remains, in memory, my favorite Jules Verne novel. The other was a two volume set: To the Sun and Off on a Comet. I read this story with enjoyment, but also with some frustration. It was so absurd! It concerns a small group of people, led by a Frenchman, Hector Servadac, who happen to be on a small patch of land in Algeria which is struck by a comet. Somehow, this patch of land remains intact as it is swept off the Earth, complete with atmosphere (and gravity too!), and the plucky group manages to survive a journey around the sun of EXACTLY two years. The two year period is so exact that they are returned to the Earth at the same point in its orbit, so exact that their tiny plot of land impacts (softly) just about where they left, in Algeria. The end result is that all their adventures, and this surely catastrophic cometary impact and reimpact on Earth, have no particularly noticeable effect. Everything returns, more or less, to normal. This seemed to me at the time to be an unfortunate failing of much older science fiction -- which I attributed to a misplaced desire for plausibility of narrative -- somehow, it seemed to me, authors of that time felt that however strange the events they portrayed, if the status quo ante prevailed at the end, readers would accept their work.

What does all this have to do with Adam Roberts's new novel, anyway? Well, despite my relative confidence that I was one of very few people to have read such an obscure Verne novel as To the Sun/Off on a Comet, some other people had read it. (Either in the original French, Hector Servadac, voyages et adventures travers le monde solaire, or in the more usual English version, one volume called Off on a Comet.) One of those people is Adam Roberts. (And Roberts's reaction to the plot of Off on a Comet was not dissimilar, he testifies, to mine.) Also, a few years ago, when Roberts was invited to contribute to a book of stories inspired by Verne, he wrote a piece called "Hector Servadac, Jr.", about a descendant of Hector Servadac who believes that his predecessor's tale was a sort of prophecy of a comet impact to come. (Well, something like a comet impact.) Even after publishing this story, Roberts felt there was more he needed to do with the idea. And now he has done it -- for Splinter is an expanded version of that earlier story.

The story is told in three sections. Rather cutely (though I must say the conceit works pretty well) they are in past tense, present tense, and future tense. The protagonist comes home from France to California to visit his father, with whom he has not been on good terms. Hector Jr. is an art historian. His father is a rich man, and his mother died some decades earlier. He finds that his father has holed up at his ranch in rural California. He is convinced that he is in contact with an intelligent space being, in the form of an asteroid of sorts that is going to collide with the Earth and send part of it on a journey around the Sun. Just like in the Verne novel. Hector Sr. has gathered a small group of, well, call them cultists, prepared to survive this impact and reestablish the human race. And when is the impact scheduled? This very night!

The rest of the novel, then, follows events at the ranch as something that seems very much like what Hector's father predicted actually occurs. Or maybe. There is an earthquake, after which the ranch seems isolated, fogged in, and surrounded by gravitational anomalies best explained by a massive object being buried beneath it. But Hector remains quite stubbornly skeptical. He is more concerned with his lust for one of the women at the ranch, whom he decides is sleeping with his father. He is also of course concerned with his strained relationship with his father. And he's pretty worried when he starts to get visions that at least to an extent resemble the visions his father claims to be having. Finally, in the third section, things get very weird indeed, with a movement towards an SFnally transcendent resolution.

It's an odd, original novel. At one level it is at least a brave try at making the absurd events depicted in Verne's novel almost plausible. But more seriously, it is a character study. Hector Jr. is clearly a man who has not escaped his father's shadow. His relationships with women are adolescent. Even his career seems based on essentially sophomoric attitudes toward art. As Roberts suggests in his afterword, he (as with all of us) needs to resolve his relationship with his father to truly grow up. That Hector needs to survive the end of the world to grow up is, I suppose, a rather science-fictional result.

This is rather an impressive novel, but not quite one I could love. It's well-imagined, and well-written. The main character is thoroughly believable. Only, he's not terribly interesting, and not terribly nice, without being in any sense evil. All of this makes sense, and this works quite well in working out the novel's themes. Yet it held me at a distance from the book -- and left me respecting Roberts's achievement, but no more.

Copyright © 2007 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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