by Adam Roberts
The premise is engaging: a man visits his father and the weird cult the father founded predicting the end of the world. During the visit, the world ends. However the pace is too slow with this, and the ultimate setup of events feels too arbitrary. Roberts tackles complex subject matters on sexuality, power, community and identity, but the way this plays out on the character and plot level isn't entirely satisfying. By the end of the book the context for everything becomes clearer, as it emrges to be a direct reinterpretation and retelling of the main plot from an obscure and atypical Verne novel. It’s heavy-duty meta-fiction, basically, retelling elements from a lesser known Verne in modern context, bringing in analogy of the family and separation of it through an apocalyptic story, and varying literary forms (the most obvious of which is telling the three sections of the novel in past, present and future tense consistently). To a large extent it's rather unique from what I've read of science fiction, and the main project of ambiguity is something I can applaud.
Where the story weakens itself is by having a thoroughly dislikeable protagonist. Some of his flaws have clear purpose, but the absence of compensating virtues to make him appealing undermine the main narrative of the book. The whole point of the book turns out to have been a familial metaphor, focused on the character progression of an adult through the cycle of dependency, confusion and renewal that link to an analogy of development. The whole fragmentation and surrealist detail of the world’s destruction and then non-destruction turn out to be elements in that larger theme, linking the process of religion, science fictional tropes and the end of the world to a direct portrayal of an individual lifecycle. In that end it makes sense to have the starting point of the person in question be rather flawed, but in this story Roberts overdoes it. The protagonist isn’t really immoral, but is made so petty, resentful and sneeringly lustful that it’s difficult to feel invested in his emotional challenge and transition across the story. Just at the points where the theme becomes most direct it also breaks down as an engaging story. And, because of the surrealism and highly meta-nature of the story, the plot isn’t really strong enough to stand on its own, rather deliberately it all comes back to the core characterization.
In this respect, Roberts' recent Yellow Blue Tibia was a lot more effective, having a main character with severe problems but also one that was ironic, engaging, creative and far less pathetic, making him more fun to spend time with. And that point, it was much more interesting to go through the absurdist details of the unfolding world, and the sheer incredibility of the plot worked with the story rather than against it. With the Snow I saw a real tension between Roberts as an effective writer and Roberts as a meta-commentator. On reflection and a bit of distance that work seems a lot more worthwile to me. The same element is true with Splinter--in fact I believe all of Roberts’ books seem of higher quality looked at a bit after the fact--but to a lesser extent. Judging on the basic qualities of narrative-building and as effective, discrete science fiction, I have to judge Splinter as somewhat of a failure. An ambitious, worthwhile, overall enjoyable and interesting failure, but still not enough to really count as major science fiction.
Worse than: The Snow by Adam Roberts
Better than: VALIS by Philip K. Dick