Splinter

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Rich Puchalsky1 describes a science fictional trope that he calls “Demiurgic Guilt”. It’s common for science fiction to portray extremes of violence, often including genocide, in order to create a bit of excitement for the reader. The exploitative nature of this transaction leaves more sensitive writers feeling guilty, and this guilt, Puchalsky suggests, is likely to come to the surface in other parts of the narrative:

Why do Iain Banks’ Culture novels, which are after all set in a utopia, tend to have such guilt-ridden protagonists? Why is there never a novel about a typical Culture genius, going about his/her life, creating art and having fun, with drama mostly confined to interpersonal relationships, and adventures that do not involve megadeath body counts? Because that would be a “soap opera”, as I believe but can not cite that Banks once said.2

Space opera has to have cosmic-scale violence, but liberal space opera apparently needs a guilty protagonist: “this guiltiness is in part the guiltiness of the author thinking ‘Am I really writing yet another book that depends on this kind of drama?’”

Whether this theory is really psychologically true, I don’t know, but since the author is dead it doesn’t matter: demiurgic guilt can still be a fruitful way of reading a text.

In Adam Roberts’ Splinter (2007), the displaced guilt takes a rather different form, namely denial.

The novel features a cataclysm which shatters the Earth into splinters, one of which, miraculously, carries away a small ranch in the American desert and a handful of survivors. The rest of the planet is presumed destroyed and everyone else is dead.

With his friends dead, his colleagues dead, his lovers dead, the reaction of the protagonist is to deny it. As the evidence for the cataclysm mounts up, Hector stubbornly rationalizes it away: it’s just an earthquake, it’s an unusual pattern of weather, it’s a hoax, it’s a hallucination. At the same time, the narrative does its best to assist in the denial: instead of a science-fictional examination of the catastrophe, the story heads off into the middlebrow psychological territory of “the American school of Updike and Roth and DeLillo” (as Roberts describes it in the afterword), with an examination of episodes from the narrator’s childhood, his relationship and breakup with his girlfriend, his relationship with his parents, his sexual fantasies, and so on: anything to distract from the stark situation of Splinter, in which seven billion people are dead, and the handful of survivors are likely to join them sooner or later.

It makes for an unsettling read. (I also hadn’t noticed until Roberts pointed it out that a creepy millennial cult remains just as creepy even if it is right about the millennium.)

However, Roberts’ lack of physical and geometric intuition, combined with his compulsion to explain (like his character Frenkel in Yellow Blue Tibia), made this an unnecessarily baffling read at times. Here’s how one of the characters describes the rotation of the splinter:

“Sunset took over an hour; it went on and on… longer than any usual fall sunset at these latitudes. But the sunrise took only ten minutes. So the fragment must be spinning west–east, and the land east of us must be sheared quite sharply, a cut-away, where the land west of us must curve much more gently.”

It should be mentioned that the characters are enveloped in fog, so they can’t actually see the sunrise or sunset:3 my best effort to interpret this is that when the speaker says “sunrise took only ten minutes” he is describing the length of the twilight, from first light to maximum light. But even so, I can’t interpret this passage in a way that makes any sense. The physical description seems to imply that the splinter has a cross-section shaped something like this:

The difference between morning twilight and evening twilight is supposed to be more than fifty minutes, out of a five hour rotation period, which corresponds to a motion of the sun through the sky of more than sixty degrees. But when you look at the effect of this geometry on the length of twilight, it makes little or no difference, and the difference, if any, is the wrong way round, making the evening twilight shorter (since the lower horizon on the curved side can only make sunset later).

So are there any ways to explain the extended evening twilight? Well, one possibility is that the setting sun passes behind a steep-sided mountain to the west, while the horizon to the east is flat. But the mountain needs to subtend around sixty degrees of angle, which means it has to twice as high as its distance from the observer, so if ten kilometres away it has to be twenty kilometres high.

Another possibility is that the splinter rotates with high obliquity, meaning that the sun rises and sets at a shallow angle, but a jagged horizon to the east cuts off the light quickly. However, the very shallow angle needed to explain the big difference would surely be obvious even through the fog.

However, neither of these explanations seems to correspond to the explanation given in the text.

And here’s how that same character describes a change in the day–night cycle:

“The nights are getting longer. It’s not by much, a few minutes at the moment, but it is significant. I think it’s shifting. I think it’s moving up toward us. Remember that it contains a hefty proportion of the mass of this new world. So for that reason, the rotation becomes iregular. Imagine a wheel, with the spoke4 in the dead centre, and a dot marked on the rim. In that case, the dot will pass round the wheel regularly, half its time in the top half, half its time in the bottom. But imagine the axle is not in the centre of the wheel, but an inch below that, and the dot is placed at that point on the rim closest to the axle-point. So then when the wheel turns the dot spends proportionately more time in the top half than in the bottom. For our purposes, the top half is the shadow side, and the bottom half the sun.”

In fact, the location of the axle makes no difference to the proportion of time a point on the rim of a wheel spends in the top half (above the axle), and similarly the location of the centre of mass of a spinning planetoid makes no difference to the amount of time a point on the surface spends in sunlight. (In the diagram below, the path taken by the point on the rim/surface is shown by the dashed line.)

So does this matter, especially in a book one of whose themes is the explaining away, or denial, of undesirable phenomena? I’m laying it on a bit thick now I’m writing this review, but I do read like this—because I want to be able to visualize what is happening—and I did stop and think hard about these problems when I came across them in the text. Although it may seem like straining at gnats after swallowing the camel of the miraculous survival of the splinter, small mistakes like these really can get in the way of believing in a narrative. There’s no attempt in the novel to explain the survival of the splinter in realistic terms, so it can just be accepted as a premise, whereas the description of the day–night cycle attempts to use physical reasoning, so is vulnerable to mistakes in that reasoning.

Certainly there are ways in which you could explain away—or deny—these problems: the descriptions are given by a character in the book, so perhaps they are just his misunderstandings. But then why introduce the descriptions at all? The character in question has almost no function in the narrative other than to deliver this kind of explanation.

Better not to have attempted the explanation in the first place. Late on in the story, Hector is reduced to considering really very implausible rationalizations for the events he is seeing. Eventually, “some hallucinogenic agent” is the best he can come up with. “As an Art History major, he will think, it’s not his business to be any more exact than that.” Wise words that science fiction writers might bear in mind.


  1.  Puchalsky reviews Splinter here.

  2.  For example, in this 2008 interview with io9:

    The vast, vast majority of the Culture’s day to day and indeed century to century business is totally, boringly peaceful; I concentrate on the violent, grisly bits because that’s where the most vivid stories are. If I was adept at and interested in writing novels about a set of intense, poetically-drawn characters having anguished, convoluted relationships with each other I could write a kind of Hamstead or campus novel in space, or at least on a Culture Orbital or something, but it’d be boring - for me and the people who’ve liked the novels I’ve written so far. More like soap opera than space opera.

    (The date means that this can’t be the citation that Puchalsky failed to find in 2006. It is probably a common topic in interviews with Banks.)

  3.  The characters might be able to estimate the position of the sun through the fog by observing the polarization of sunlight. But there’s no suggestion in the text that they attempt this.

  4.  Sic; presumably ‘axle’ is meant.