If you’re having a hard time deciding whether to read 1984 or The Origins of Totalitarianism—or if you’ve already read them both and want something in-between—consider local author John Feffer’s Splinterlands.
A dystopian novel that takes place in the year 2050, Splinterlands follows Julian West, an ailing old man and former academic (a “geo-paleontologist,” to be exact), who goes on a virtual reality tour of the world trying to track down his estranged adult children and ex-wife. He visits his ex-Eurocrat daughter in a post-apocalyptic Brussels (the EU no longer exists), his tech millionaire son in Ningxia, China (a haven for the rich), his other son in Gaborone, Botswana (a surprisingly stable tourist city due to the effects of global warming), and his ex-wife at a secluded hippie commune in Vermont. As he does so, West discovers that global events have played out in a way very similar to his theories in his political theory book Splinterlands, his greatest work as an academic.
The Julian West character is loosely based on the author, who is director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, a local think tank. Just as it’s especially enjoyable to read science fiction written by real scientists, Feffer offers readers a uniquely well-researched and historically robust argument for why the world turns out the way that it does, which makes it all the more relevant—and frightening.
Feffer is an expert on both European and East Asian history and politics, and his futuristic novel is rife with historical references and explanations about why the EU collapsed, why North Korea remained basically the same as always, and what exactly was behind the global economic slowdown of the 2020s. And 2022 ushers in one of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history, aptly named Hurricane Donald, which destroys the city of Washington, D.C., in one fell swoop. Governments collapse and the world’s former capital of diplomacy, Brussels, becomes the major battleground of terrorist cells, which have expanded all over.
In addition to all the political histories and projected theories, Splinterlands also incorporates the use of cleverly conceived new technologies. Virtual reality enables West to travel around the world without leaving his bedroom and includes functions like literally being able to watch his back. Then there are the homeless, who panhandle using QR codes, which passersby can scan to donate money. CRISPR technology—which by 2050 is a massive corporation serving as a fountain of youth for the rich—also features prominently. There’s even a passing reference to a new publishing company called Netflix Books.
But the real brilliance behind Feffer’s novel is its metanarrative nature. Splinterlands includes dozens of footnotes of mysterious origin, which serve to fact-check West’s first-person narrative and often correct his unreliable claims. Or is it the footnotes that are unreliable? (It seems that by 2050, even truth is an outdated concept.) The reader eventually comes to the realization that Feffer’s Splinterlands is actually the same thing as West’s Splinterlands—except with personal stories and family drama added in. In other words, Feffer presents us with an actual theory of a chillingly possible future in the more digestible form of a dystopian novel. As Julian West says numerous times in the book, “homo homini lupus” (“Man is wolf to man”).
John Feffer will discuss Splinterlands at Potter’s House on Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. Free.