Land of the Headless and Splinter by Adam Roberts
Reviewed by Victoria Hoyle
08 October 2007
Earlier this year Adam Roberts was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award with his survivalist space saga, Gradisil (Gollancz, November 2006). He has followed up that success with not one but two novels in the last ten months, Land of the Headless (Gollancz, June 2007) and Splinter (Solaris, September 2007). And he has written both while also holding down a full-time academic post, blogging (at the inestimably literary Valve, as well as elsewhere), and reviewing in his spare time. If he was churning out the SF equivalent of a James Patterson thriller I would still be impressed; but as it is—Splinter being one of the most beautifully written and sensitively themed novels I've read all year—I'm somewhat boggled. I begin to suspect he has some kind of literary superpower.
Land of the Headless is classic Roberts, in the same stylistic and aesthetic vein as Gradisil, and the species of novel for which he has earned the (faintly hyperbolic) title "king of high-concept SF" (from Jon Courtenay Grimwood in The Guardian, as every Roberts cover delights in reminding us). Like all his work, it begins with a simple but extraordinary premise from which plot, character, and theme all emanate. In this specific case: what if a person could lose their head and yet go on living? On the planet of Pluse, where life is circumscribed by literal adherence to a fundamental religious code (a fusion of Sharia law and the values of the Old Testament), it happens all the time. Murder, adultery, and blasphemy, in their various forms and without exception, are crimes punishable by beheading, although it is no longer a procedure that equals death. On the contrary, technological (and "ethical") advances have made it possible for the "headless" to live long, if not happy, lives in their truncated states. Ostracised, vilified, and rejected by their families and friends, they're condemned to a postlife of drudgery, stigma, and shame; en masse they form a slavelike workforce, the essential, unseen underbelly of a "perfect" society.
Jon Cavala, the novel's protagonist, is one such headless. Accused and found guilty of adultery (which may or may not have been a rape), his spine is fitted with an ordinator, a device that will take over the function of his brain, and executed. His world goes completely dark; he loses all the faculties that go along with his head—sight, sound, taste, speech, and smell—and finds himself utterly stranded within himself. In a very real and meaningful sense, he has died to the world. He will never see it as he once did ever again; and, in return, it will choose to see as little of him as possible.
Like many newly headless, he is taken in by a group of religious zealots—the idea being that his punishment will turn him towards penitence and God—and begins to adapt to his new life. He spends his last few credits buying basic sensory equipment, which enable him to see, hear, and speak, and forms a series of protofriendships with other afflicted individuals. He develops a painful, improbable crush on the fanatical Siuzan Deluge, one of his headed helpers. What has happened to him is terrible and, to his mind, entirely unjust, but the situation does not appear entirely hopeless; a return to his old life seems possible, if not probable, and he engages in delusional fantasies about marrying and reentering society. That is, until Siuzan is raped by one of her headless charges and Jon finds himself under suspicion for the crime. The situation is intractable. Siuzan refuses to implicate any of her companions—a second conviction for a headless spells actual death—but in doing so condemns herself as complicit in the sex act. Jon is faced with a terrible choice: confess to a crime he did not commit to save her innocent head? Or allow injustice to prevail and save himself?
Like Gradisil before it, The Land of the Headless is a novel about self-delusion and curtailment, both physical and ideological. In the former, a community of "Uplanders" in homemade space dwellings chooses to cut itself off from the earth and declare its independence, in the mistaken belief that this will increase the personal freedoms of the settlers. Instead, it becomes a self-imposed imprisonment—trapped in their fragile "houses," struggling with the physiological repercussions of living without gravity and the psychological effects of their loneliness, they become the most isolated of prisoners. Although they are ideologically free, they're actually defined by their confinement, and the novel points up the tension between the symbolic and the literal implications of their autonomy, as well as the dichotomy between the transformative power of belief and the devastating contrast of reality. Land of the Headless deals with an analogous form of ostracism—the headless have not declared their independence, but a genus of it has been forced upon them. While they share a planet with the headed, they may as well be living in a different country or different time. Like the pioneers in Gradisil, they are the new citizens of a bleak land.
The loss of the head is both physical and metaphorical. Jon has not only lost his eyes, nose, and mouth, but also his identity. If we were being imaginative, we might go so far as to say his "manhood" has been severed. The story he tells us, in the first person, is of his coming to terms with it, a tale that runs the gamut from pompous moralising to painful self-disgust to pathetic optimism. He was once a poet—feckless, self-indulgent, promiscuous, and thoughtless—and, at first, looks back on his achievements in those days with a carefully guarded pride. It becomes clear however, especially given the evidence of his poetry, that Cavala was never an honestly talented writer. He had, and continues to have, barrowfuls of self-belief but nothing much to show for it. When, later in the novel, it is in his enemy's best interest to massage his ego, they create a sensory delusion for him in which he is a universally acclaimed writer, a household name on far away planets, a story he willingly falls for hook, line, and sinker. It is only after the trials of his headless afterlife, as the true implications of his situation begin to dawn on him, that he realises the arrogance of his mistake:
Most of what this individual said was taken from my own mind . . . and was an echo chamber, as it were, of my own obsessions, my anxieties of vainglories. The object of the exercise was merely to distract me . . . (p. 213)
Beheading causes a psychosomatic as well as physical break in him, and not only between the form of his old and new lives, but also between his postadolescent self-conceit and full adult independence. Only by such a drastic and violent act of severance is he made fully cognizant of his selfhood and of his responsibilities, both to himself and to others.
It seems clear to me that this transition—from that time in your life when you think of yourself as a protoadult, forever twentysomething, to the time when you have properly "grown up"—is much on Roberts's mind. It is also one of the central themes of Splinter, his second and best novel of 2007. In this book, a deliberate homage to and riff on one of Jules Verne's lesser known works, Hector Servadac, Voyages et adventures a travers le monde solaire (1877), he takes a rather similar protagonist—a 38 year old rake, equally self-deluded, who has never completely disavowed the directionless wandering of his student days—and has him experience the same kind of transition through violent dislocation.
Sometime in the early twenty-first century Hector Servadac Jnr. arrives back in the U.S. from France, where he has been working (somewhat halfheartedly, one must feel) on an academic paper on Cézanne. His motive for returning is to visit his father who, in a fit of parental eccentricity and possible senility, has sold their old family home and bought a ranch in the middle of the Californian desert. His reasoning? He is preparing for the end of the world, as presaged in Verne's aforementioned novel, firm in the belief that a space object, of some considerable size, is about to destroy all but the splinter of Earth that he is now living on. Much to his son's surprise (and jealous chagrin), Hector Snr. has attracted a group of enthusiastic followers to him, all eager to survive the imminent apocalypse on his ranch. Amongst them are Dimmi, a nubile Eastern European with whom Hector Jnr. quickly becomes obsessed (the counterpart, I suggest, of Siuzan Deluge), and Janet, a carrier of the HIV virus and another object of his prurient fantasies. All of them claim to have had visions: vivid dreams of the past and the future that seem to confirm Hector Snr.'s apocalyptic augurs. Hector Jnr. is decidedly unconvinced. The very idea of the end of the world is too ridiculous for him to contemplate:
"This end of the fricking world," said Hector, not looking at his father. He couldn't bring himself to say fucking in his father's presence. "It's an extreme thing to believe, isn't it? It's old, Dad. It's bent out of shape, don't you think? Are they all religious, the ones staying?" (p. 14)
He unconsciously mistakes his personal anger at his father, which he is unable to express in any other way, with disdain for his beliefs. If he cannot express his hurt at their failure to connect personally, as father and son, he can at least blame and alienate him for lying about the end of the world. And he clings to this atheistic contempt throughout, refusing to believe as a matter of principle, despite the fact that on his first night at the ranch, it actually happens. The world ends. Or rather, all evidence suggests that it does. Certainty is impossible to come by in the circumstances, and Roberts enjoys the possibility that the end of the world might be subtler than the fire-and-brimstone apocalypse, so much so as to not be obvious to its survivors. In this case, a terrible earthquake is followed by a blanket of thick, damp fog that lies so thickly over the desert that it is impossible to travel, or even to see your hand in front of your face. This, in turn, is succeeded by weeks and weeks of rain, and then by the advent of freakish, indestructible plant growth. Hector Snr.'s "cult" declare that they are now the only survivors of a huge meteor strike, and begin to speculate as to what their survival means—what is the object that has hit the earth? Is it sentient? Is it a god? What does it want? Some retain a scientific objectivity; others fall head over heels into a pattern of fetishistic worship. Hector is the only one who refuses to believe in it, up to and then beyond the point when the situation has been proved by the evidence of his own eyes. His is a fever of defiance, as essentialist in its creed of disbelief as any religion.
As with Jon Cavala, Hector's brand of self-delusion is a mixture of both personal outrage (at family; at society) and philosophical incredulity. Both conflate their individual struggles—against headlessness; against the end of the world—with what they perceive as the fight against the ludicrous belief systems of their contemporaries. Jon Cavala actively obscures the nature of his own crime, which we come to suspect was indeed a form of rape, with the much larger crime that the state has committed against him. In an argument with Siuzan he emphasises the barbarity of religion above that of his own fault:
"I speak of the general, not of my particular. I ask, is this the way to organise our society? This code, this penal code; it is from a medieval past, from a time when life was brutal. But life is no longer brutal. We are a space-faring, technologically advanced civilisation. We have a sophisticated and liberal culture. No other inhabited worlds still abide by so barbaric a practise. . . . For crimes that other worlds view as pastimes! As hobbies."
For the first time her expression cooled. "Murder and blasphemy cannot be described as hobbies!"
"I was not beheaded for either."
"Nor" she said, "are there civilised worlds where rape is a pastime." This deflated me and took the conviction from my statements. (p. 10)
For Hector, disbelieving in the end of the world becomes the same as defending the integrity and rightness of his old life, just as exhorting society to a higher moral standard saves Jon Cavala from confronting his own nature. And, like Cavala, Hector holds on to his former self even in the face of its destruction, only reconciling himself to what has happened to him in the final pages of the book. For both men it takes a dreadful and extreme separation between past and present to force personal change. The literal splintering of worlds is necessary to overcome their inertia and take them forward:
He was a tight little bundle of fragments before he was a fetus, and he's a tight little bundle of fragments again now. But that's ok, that's the way of things, we become habituated to living on the sizeable splinters of our parental worlds, floating away into space, sometimes very far from the original location. (p. 208)
Yet despite such similarities in character and theme, The Land of the Headless and Splinter are very different books. So much so that a reader unfamiliar with Roberts, coming to them blind, would very probably never guess they were by the same man. They are like two sides of the same coin, piquant exercises in very different types of storytelling.
I have said that The Land of the Headless is a stylistic cousin of Gradisil, perhaps even its natural heir. Both grow out of an aesthetic of barrenness—of emotion, sensation, and setting—and prioritise a kind of inhumanness that, in the end, reveals itself to be entirely and pathetically human. They are both rooted in singularly unforgiving worlds and Roberts's prose mirrors this preoccupation. His characters and his writing often seem cold and distant, sometimes beautiful but always functional, perhaps even military. It is the prose equivalent of the forced march, and sympathy is hard come by in the presence of such thoroughly dislikeable (if entirely compelling) individuals and hard circumstances. Initially, I found it hard to enjoy Roberts's writing as a result—it is always more difficult to appreciate that which you cannot love—but further acquaintance has reconciled me. It strikes me (and I paraphrase Austen) that knowing him better, I better understand his disposition and preferences as an author. He uses style as a function of theme and narrative, and he is thoroughly conscious when doing so.
Splinter is entirely different in personality. Which is not to say that Hecter Servadac Jnr. is a more likeable or sympathetic protagonist. On the contrary, although his very modernness, his contemporary parlance, brings him closer to the reader, he is still disagreeable. No, what makes Splinter different is that Roberts writes much warmer, more rhythmic prose; not less mindful, since his writing is always heavily controlled, but more fertile. Lush, even. Whereas the style of Headless communicates crippling repression and the terrible absence of sensation in its spareness, so Splinter conveys the fecund landscape and frustrated eroticism of the end of the world through its sensual immediacy. For example, Hector's physicality is very close to the narrative's surface, sometimes sickeningly so, and he spends much of his time in a state of heightened sexual arousal. Like a textbook Freudian case, he subconsciously confuses Thanatos and Eros: his death drive, which represents his understandable urge to return to a state of calm and undisturbed existence, and his sex drive. This often causes him to express and characterise his most complex emotions in sexual terms and acts. It also inspires some of Roberts's most beautiful and sensitive writing, as when Hector turns to masturbation after an encounter with Janet ends in abrupt frustration:
A complex of emotions squeezes through him, a queer peristalsis. Was she just toying with him? How could she set him up like that, and just walk away? He feels the beginning of humiliated, and a growing anger, and yes he is still horny. But at the same time he feels anxious, and he feels insecurity growing in him, and the fretful thought that perhaps it was something about him has driven her away, that he is too dirty (washing is not something he is able to do every day), or his potato white skin is too hideous, or he is otherwise disgusting. But that cannot be right. His own desperate urging desire carried him past all that, he must have it. He must. There's no maybe here. So he grasps himself. . . . He suppresses a shout as he comes. He shuts his eyes as if he is sneezing, and—
Outward it flows. (p. 100)
Here Roberts is at his most organic, using the stop-start nature of human thought—the way it flows, then dams, and then bursts through again—to conjure the rhythm of the sex act. He makes it seem simple, and keeps it subtle too, staying clear of vulgarity and the temptation to shock and spice with taboo words. Instead, he emphasises Hector's self-disgust and his vulnerability; and because he is all id and no superego, masturbating in the kitchen with his trousers around his ankles, it makes him seem childlike. It makes him seem innocent. Compare it with the feelings expressed by Jon Cavala, in a very similar context, and the difference in the style and spirit of the novels is soon clear:
My breathing was shallow. My male organ had become aroused. This disgusted me, of course. I disgusted myself. . . . I was furious with myself, simultaneously revolted and angry and yet excited. . . . Eventually I fell asleep, but in the night a revolting thing happened. . . . What happened was this: there was an emission of fluid from my male organ, and I awoke to discover this seminal phlegm cold and crusted to my belly and thigh. (p. 30)
Cavala is by far the more restrained of the two men, although he is expressing the exact same urge that Hector feels and succumbs to. And yet, his coldness and his choice of terminology—the faux objectivity of "male organ"—complicate his self-disgust and make him appear guilty, which in turn makes him seem dangerous. Dangerous because he consciously denies his mind's part in what his penis does, and dangerous because that, in turn, suggests an abdication of physical responsibility that can (and appears to have) lead to ill-advised sexual acts. Ironically, it is his fervent denial that makes the reader draw back; it makes him somehow dirty.
These excerpts tell us a great deal about the comparative nature of sexual morality on Earth and on Pluse—the one, permissive, the other, oppressive—while, at the same time, demonstrating Roberts's breadth of expression.
It would be easy, having read only certain of his novels, to condemn Roberts as a frosty and frigid writer, but this is hardly possible in light of Splinter, in which he is all fluidity and fire. In some ways, the style of Headless (and of Gradisil too) make more sense in comparison to it—it becomes easier to see one style as a conscious affectation when held up next to its corollary. Splinter will always be my favourite of the two novels, closer to the kind of expressive prose that I love: rich and intertextual, vibrant and gorgeous. I also think that it is subtler and deeper as a result, a much more satisfying exploration of faith and selfhood. But reading Headless in tandem, I see that it has its own kind of brilliance—reflected glory, perhaps, but glory nevertheless.
Which has led me to wonder how Roberts can be a successful novelist in such differing styles, on the one hand cerebral and controlled in Headless and, on the other, emotional and fertile in Splinter? I have sat thinking about this for a long while and, yes, I think it all boils back down to high concept. The ubiquitous "what if" is Roberts's narrative touchstone, the essential foundation to which all of his fiction, whatever its style, returns again and again. It is not possible to claim this as his innovation, since all speculative fiction is predicated to some extent on the theoretical, but (it seems to me) that Roberts uses it in a fundamentally different way to many of his contemporaries. In many SF novels (in most novels, even) the "what if" is a secondary cause, mutually dependent on character and plot to create theme and momentum. I could give any number of examples, but M. John Harrison's Nova Swing springs immediately to mind. But in Roberts's novels the "what if" functions as the first cause, the key to the whole world of his fiction—it is the primary life giver, the ignition. Metaphorically and, in Splinter, I think literally, it is akin to God, the beginning and the end of everything. I can only think of a handful of other novelists for whom this is true. (Ursula K. Le Guin is one of them. The Left Hand of Darkness is the obvious example—what if there was no such thing as biological sex? But much of her shorter fiction is relevant too.) Thus, I think it is what we might call the narrative theology of Roberts's work that makes it so exciting, no matter the dressing. It is his complicated pursuit of simple ideas that makes him one of our genre's most accomplished writers.