• Climate Change Book Review: Splinterlands, by John Feffer

    December 10, 2016 // 16 Comments »

    splinterlands

    Looking Backward: 2000–1887 is a utopian science fiction novel by Edward Bellamy, first published in 1888.

    In it, Julian West falls into a deep sleep, only to awaken 113 years later. As he opens his eyes, it is the year 2000 and, as Bellamy imagined it, the U.S. is a socialist utopia. West wanders through this new land musing on the problems of capitalism, and how a socialist solution was what made turn-of-the-century America into paradise.

    John Feffer’s new novel, Splinterlands, features as its protagonist an American geo-paleontologist named Julian West who “awakens” politically in the near future to an America, and a world, hurtled into dystopia. Whereas Bellany’s book was meant as a prescription for a better future, Feffer’s is a look back from the future to America 2016 framed as a dire warning: there’s still time, but not much. Think of this as a future history of the Trump Era.


    Via the vehicle of his main character, West, using future Virtual Reality technology to visit each of his children, Feffer devotes a chapter per child to exposing a current problem, and projecting that forward to the horrors to come. Just make sure the point is driven home, West begins his journeys by reminding us the “last straw” for America was the destruction of Washington DC by Hurricane Donald, the name no coincidence. “Splinterlands” is the name of the main character’s seminal academic work predicting the chaos of a world breaking apart into smaller and smaller cultural and political units, the opposite of globalization — disintegration.

    West’s first child lives in a future Brussels, which serves as a platform to look into the break-up of Europe into 17th century duchies, all made worse by the presence of terrorist forces called Sleepers, members of a dying-but-never-quite-dead Caliphate. Clever in large part, subtle this ain’t. There are hints that West’s health is failing, and that standard sci-fi trope, a mysterious giant multinational corporation possibly up to no good.

    Child number two lives in western China, and serves as the vehicle to condemn predatory capitalism, specifically the ability and willingness of too many to profit off the suffering of others, a future Gordon Gecko with global reach; and indeed, the child is actually named Gordon. The concept of the One Percent is covered by an efficient statement of how the ultra-rich have seceded from society entirely, living in enclaves of enormous security and luxury while the world burns around them. “I make money precisely where the system moves out of sync,” says Gordon. The son’s statement that harmony is overrated might be 2016’s version of the 1980s’ “greed is good.”

    The final child is found in Botswana, now a pleasant tourist destination due to climate change. He is a “white hat” terrorist, once a warrior against the Caliphate, now on some other secret mission he can’t even reveal to his own father. We learn the over-extension of the American Empire, without economic and political stamina behind it, was a big factor in the disintegration of the world of 2016.

    A final visit by West is to his estranged wife, now living in a semi-utopian commune in Vermont called (again, minus subtlety) Arcadia. The people there are clear-eyed, with a huge arsenal (but only for self-defense), and depend on solar power, barter, organic farming, and consensual decision making. The last bits of the book tie to together multiple story threads in a cascading series of plot reveals.


    Splinterlands, labeled as a novel, comes up a bit weak as a fiction read. Too much of the plot is packed into the (fake) footnotes of some anonymous future editor, and then rushed through in the final chapters. A beach read this is not.

    But I suspect the author had no intention of writing something simply to entertain. He instead is standing on the rooftops, watching the literal floodwaters of Hurricane Donald rise, alongside climate change, globalization, predatory capitalism and all the other horrors of our world. As Edward Bellamy’s 1888 character Julian West was brought to life to show us the future as it should be, 2016’s version of Julian West has come back from the future to warn us our current path can only lead to a dystopia, one we may yet be able to forestall.



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