Splinterlands

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The world of 2050 is a frightening, unstable place. The European Union has collapsed, having “hit a wall of Euroskepticism, fiscal austerity and xenophobia”. The United States is beset by environmental disasters, with Washington having been destroyed by Hurricane Donald in 2022.

A great uprising has fragmented China, and Russia has disintegrated along ethnic lines. Nationalism and terrorism are rife and the few centres of “order” are authoritarian safe havens where capital and the super-rich can carry on as before.

The central character and narrator of this story is the academic and author Julian West. He had been the author, in 2020, of the seminal work Splinterlands, which correctly predicted many subsequent disasters. West has been largely forgotten in the chaos but he hopes that revisiting the work may help to reverse some of the damage. In parallel with this, West hopes to mend his relationship with his wife and three children, from whom he is largely estranged.

West sets off on a quest, using virtual reality technology, to contact these four people who had meant so much to him. Through them, we are told the story of what has happened to the world and given an idea of the ways that people react to the changes. Some have accommodated to the new situation and even see it as an opportunity to enrich themselves. A minority carry the fight to the new ruling order while others still drop out and try to set up communities beyond its control.

This novel obviously connects with a number of themes for contemporary readers. One that recurs is the rise of reactionary movements and ideologies in the first part of the 21st century. This is referred to as the “nationalist international”, a concept which is starting to find influence today. Global warming is shown to have wreaked untold damage, ironically hitting the citadels of the “sceptics” hardest of all.

Agricultural disasters have followed, with most of the world’s population surviving on synthetic food manufactured from seaweed. Financial speculation and profligacy is said to have continued unabated, with all of the above factors exacerbated by a massive crash in 2023. Corporations still operate with impunity nonetheless, West’s rewrite of Splinterlands is sponsored by the ubiquitous CRISPR international, which is shown to have its own motives for becoming involved.

This is a lot of ground for a story that is told in 150 pages. The themes are largely pessimistic, with isolated, individual, acts of resistance and little sense that things could have been different. The parallel story of West’s family puts a very human face on a grim future. Read it but remember that there is always another path.