The narrator of “Splinterlands,” by John Feffer, is Julian West, an academic whose best selling book titled, “Splinterlands” predicted many crises and collapses that have come to fruition in 2050. The world has been ravaged by climate change and various geopolitical collapses. Now, very ill and facing his final days, Julian uses an offer to write about the current state of global affairs as a way to reach out to his estranged children and ex-wife, who are scattered across the globe. With each visit we get a clearer picture of Julian’s past, what led to the dissolution of his family and the state of the world.
Julian is confined to a hospital bed, so he must conduct each visit using virtual reality. His first visit is to his daughter Aurora in Brussels. There the reader is shown the state of Europe after the collapse of the European Union and various violent conflicts. Terrorist cells are a common threat, and his visit ends with a bang. His son Gordon lives in the city of Xinjiang — which is no longer a part of China — and works for the Saudi business interests who have taken hold there. Here the separation between the wealthy and the rest of the world is brought into stark relief. Next, Julian visits his ex-wife Rachel, who has lived on a commune since their divorce. We see how some are trying to make new lives for themselves in this distorted world. Julian’s visit with his youngest son, Benjamin, is the most challenging. Benjamin left home at 17 to fight terrorists and has now committed to fighting a new, unknown enemy. Here the plot becomes more than what it originally appeared.
Julian West is also the name of the main character in “Looking Backward” by Edward Bellamy, an influential work of Utopian fiction published in 1888. In that book, the main character goes into a hypnosis-induced sleep for 113 years and wakes up in the year 2000 to find the United States has been turned into a socialist utopia. Through the character’s tour of this future Bellamy outlines his critique of the 19th century and his prescriptions for improving society.
Feffer gave his character the same name as an ironic contrast to the idealism of Bellamy’s book. Both characters see how the world got to where it is, but in “Splinterlands” the picture is not so sunny. Feffer is Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, so this fictional future is based on research in the real-world. Sometimes the book can feel more like a thought experiment than a novel, but Feffer makes you feel for his well-drawn characters and their unfortunate situations. In fact, he makes you feel for the whole planet.